The Gospel of Positive Thinking

If there is a secular religion in contemporary America, it is arguably the Gospel of Positive Thinking. Adherents of this particular sect seek to maintain a positive attitude at all times, and in all things, and in all place. Their canon of sacred texts is an extensive one, comprised of dozens of pop psychology books making the case that positive thinking is the answer to whatever problems you may encounter in your life–the most recent entry being the bestseller, The Secret, which argues that through the “law of attraction,” positive thinking will bring positive things into your life.

Ideas like these, at least in my experience, have very much left their mark on the culture of the LDS church. However, I have some serious reservations about the Gospel of Positive Thinking. For one thing, I think it undermines the call to bear one another’s burdens, to mourn with those that mourn. How can we possibly follow this injunction if there is no space in our community for people to talk about burdens, or mourning? I am particularly concerned by the logical implication of The Secret that if people suffer negative events in their lives, it must be their own fault for not thinking positively enough. That take on things is admittedly an extreme version of this approach. Yet even if people who experience various misfortunes are not outright blamed for bringing these misfortunes on themselves, the Gospel of Positive Thinking all too often gets used as a kind of club to bash those who commit what it views as the unpardonable sins: expressing doubt, or fear, or anger, or despair. I can only imagine what a Positive Thinking guru would have said to Job.

I also sometimes wonder at what point positive thinking morphs into flat-out denial. John Gravois of Slate has a great response to The Secret in which he extols the value of negative thinking, citing the research of Karen Cerolo, whose book Never Saw it Coming warns of the dangers of excessive positive thinking. We are in fact overly optimistic, she argues, and therefore fail to take important precautions and plan realistically for the future.

I have to admit that I’ve been guilty of this. When I first applied to PhD programs several years ago, I was fairly positive about my chances of getting in–enough so that I only applied to quite competitive schools, and only to a few of them. After the applications were sent away, the anxiety began to set in. However, when I mentioned to people that I was uncertain that I would get in anywhere, I was told on more than one occasion that I needed to “stop being so negative.” As it turned out, I didn’t in fact get accepted to any school that year. My problem wasn’t that I was too negative–it was that I hadn’t been negative enough, especially at the beginning of the process.

In a religious context, I am quite uneasy with the equation I occasionally hear between positive thinking and faith. I don’t think faith has anything to do with “staying positive.” The Gospel of Positive Thinking preaches the insidious notion that we can find a way to avoid the tragic, that life doesn’t have to involve genuine risk or pain. By contrast, I think developing faith involves learning to accept the ambiguities of mortality, and seeking to maintain trust in God even as life continues to remain tumultuous. I would even say that there are times and situations when letting go of our positive thinking, of any notion that we through the sheer willpower of our belief can make the world what we want it to be, is in fact a of radical act of faith.

Ultimately, my biggest objection to the Gospel of Positive Thinking is a theological one. Underlying its doctrine is an assumption that suffering is, in the final analysis, illusory–one can literally think it right out of existence. One does not have to experience it. But this directly contradicts the most central message of Christianity. For if this is the case, why was the atonement necessary? Why did Christ have to suffer all things? Why didn’t he just think positive thoughts, and then encourage us to follow his example? Who needs grace, really, if you have the Power of Positive Thinking?


  1. The Secret in particular makes me uneasy (my mom was being all excited to read it the other day). It just seems like rubbish. New Age Puritanism, perhaps.

    I’m also curious why unfounded hoping is labeled “positive thinking” and being realistic is frequently called “negative thinking.”

    Also, have you read Bonds that Make Us Free? I’m curious what you think of it, if so. I liked a lot of it and think it will be helpful to me, but there were some parts that felt a little too squishy yay-positive-thoughts for me.

  2. This reminded me of a conversation I had recently with a friend who has struggled with depression. She realized that somehow along the way she had internalized an entitlement to be happy. That sense of entitlement added an additional layer to her suffering.

    How can we truly appreciate all the complexity and beauty of life if we expect only the “good” or “positive” emotions and deny the darker emotions? Some of the most beautiful music and art that I have seen has been borne of suffering, not from denying it but from fully experiencing it and letting it transform the soul.

  3. Amy,


    Not only that – God Himself isn’t always cheerful, as Enoch witnesses, much to his apparent surprise. In fact, His emotions run a human gamut. We see Him being anguished, angry … we even read that He is jealous. But where our emotions and experiences are often distortions, often destructive, His are always perfect, always (I dislike this word) appropriate. I think it is called Eternal _Life_, not Eternal _Cheerfulness_ for good reason. I think “Joy” transcends mere happy and sad moods, and constitutes a lively acceptance of life experience, and underlying connection and beautiful vision and experience of all that happens – it embraces the possible reality of tragedy.* Something that Satan was incapable of doing right from the start. The opposite is to be dead: divided from one’s body, bound and incapable of free experience of what is going on around you -the end of the wicked. (One of the big Romantic lies, think of Mr. Hyde and that Star Trek episode with the evil and good Kirk, is that our life force is contained in the wicked part of our nature. In fact, wickedness may be fun, but the fruits of it are death.) Being fully alive doesn’t mean walking through fields of daisies for all eternity. The difference between us and God isn’t in His relative cheerfulness, but in His personal power to _live_, He is the LIFE, along with the Way and the Truth, and His desire is that we develop, through Him, similar capacities.

    Anyway, this is what I think at the current moment.

    * I sometimes cringe just a little bit when we are assured, about this or that, that everything will come out all right in the end. Sometimes, things do not come out all right in the end. Everyone doesn’t succeed, some people fall. Sometimes our plans fall apart, and sometimes people refuse to be healed. I’m often told that someday my wife will join the church. Maybe she will, I certainly hope and pray for it. But, maybe she won’t. That is her choice, not mine and not even God’s. That will be tragic for me – but until I accpet that she is the one who will choose it, and that by choosing I myself chose potential heartache, I am not really standing in relation to reality – as she points out, I am not really loving her but rather a wish. That is meant to be very far from defeatist – it is meaning to engage reality on real grounds.

    I do not mean to sound pessimistic in all this. Rather, I mean to be supremely optimistic. I think that life is worthwhile and beautiful to the nth degree. And that if there were no opposition (lierally: opposites), it would be as through there were no existance at all. When you obliterate suffering, you also obliterate the end of suffering (which Isak Dinesen called one of the three great pleasures. The other two being: feeling within yourself an excess of strength, and feeling that you are what you are meant to be) – ask a Buddhist. The obliteration of opposition is Nirvana – but that isn’t life as we would describe it or desire it. It means, literally, blowing out the flame. But we beleive in a God with body, parts and passions.


  4. Yay – Lynette’s back. For weeks I’ve been thinking positive thoughts, cosmically urging you to quit doing research or bee keeping, or whatever it is that has kept you silent, and worked!

  5. “there were some parts that felt a little too squishy yay-positive-thoughts for me.”

    brozy, may I respectfully suggest that you misunderstood the text. The book isn’t about positive thinking per se, much less “squishy yay” positive thinking. I’d be interested to know what aspect lead you to believe that though.

    Lynnette, you folks always post on the most interesting subjects! I’ve much to say on this matter, too much in fact. So let me instead just leave a scene from one of my favorite movies, Me and You and Everyone We Know.

    Richard: So those are comfortable?
    Christine: I guess so, I mean they kind of rub my ankles, but all shoes do that, I have low ankles.
    Richard: You think you deserve that pain, but you don’t.
    Christine: I don’t think I deserve it.
    Richard: Well not consciously, maybe.
    Christine: My ankles are just low.
    Richard: People think foot pain is a fact of life, but life is actually better than that.

  6. This is a very interesting post since I’ve had a friend who’s been trying to get me to see The Secret (it’s a movie too, I believe?) She has all kinds of great things to say about it, but I can see the points made here that positive thinking can be dangerous.
    I suppose, though, that we’re talking about extremes, here. Perhaps too much positive or negative thinking is bad. I think I could do with more positive thinking in my life, as many downtrodden housewives with small children could.
    Thanks for the post, and I will refer my husband to it when he says I’m being “negative,” I’ll say, “but don’t you know the dangers of too much positive thinking?”

  7. I like the way you frame this as “the gospel of positive thinking.” Jeffrey Holland touhed on it in his “The Tongue of Angels” talk last conference. One of my favorite lines from it is:

    please accept one of Elder Holland’s maxims for living, no misfortune is so bad that whining about it won’t make it worse.

    I like the positive approach. It gives me something very unattainable to shoot for. It is the same type of thing you saw with Celestine Prohesy and The Way of the Peaceful Warrior several years ago. I think it’s a great, but I am with everyone else here that it can be overdone.

    Just the other day I overheard my kids watching some PBS cartoon about a little boy who whines and disobeys his parents and does pretty much anything he wants — I think his name is “Ka-yoo” ( I looked it up — it is spelled “Caillou” — must be French, figgurs)– his cartoon mom only said his name (albeit ever-so gently) about a million times in the five minutes I was watching.

    Don’t climb on the bookshelf, Caillou.
    Don’t climb too high, Caillou.
    Don’t take the books off that top shelf Caillou.
    Don’t throw them so hard at mommy, Caillou.
    Oh, silly Caillou!

    It struck me that this cartoon is not really for kids — it is for parents as a way to proselyte “positive parenting.” It wants us to empathise with our kids, encourage their inquisitive little minds, don’t set obstructive boundaries. That’s all great to a certain extent, but I thought Caillou needed a firm spanking and a time-out. Anyway, that’s my two bits.

  8. Thanks Lynette for the post. I encapsulates much of the problem I have with this thinking in the Church. Sorry for the following long rant, but this is a topic that really gets my dander up (and not in a positive way).

    I am particularly concerned by the logical implication of The Secret that if people suffer negative events in their lives, it must be their own fault for not thinking positively enough.

    I have a younger sister who has been very ill for a number of years and has been in and out of hospitals for some time. She has had to put all of her plans for college and life on hold. It has not been easy for her. She has actually gotten this message from a number of people, including some family members. In our context it comes out as “If you just had enough faith,” as it faith were some sort of substance you could just tank up on to overcome all opposition. This notion troubles me because I don’t see it as something that reflects reality or our doctrines. Perhaps faith is what has allowed her to go on when it would have been far easier to die than to face her illness another day, not what would get her out of her illness. While I don’t want to argue that suffering is noble, there are times in life when “positive thinking” won’t change the fact that you’re up to your neck is sewage and it’s rising fast.

    I do know that my sister has no brook with “positive thinking” gurus because of the real harm that has been done to her by people who openly or covertly blame her for her illness because they think that positive thinking would overcome it. My sister knows that there is no assurance that she will ever get better and that she may live a life in pain, never able to do what she wants. Pretending otherwise or shutting out thoughts about that possibility won’t help her. Instead she makes plans to do what she can and tries to make those plans realistic ones. But she also braces herself for the good chance that these plans, like so many others she has had, will not turn out because she will be back in the hospital for another surgery, another test, another coma.

    Even doctors, to some extent, have internalized the notion that attitude drives disease. It took my sister about three years to be diagnosed as doctor after doctor wrote off her symptoms and told her that she “just” had migraines (and if she stopped focusing on her pain and symptoms she’d be fine), just needed a better attitude, wasn’t really sick, etc. This version of the “positive thinking” meme was outright destructive for her because it kept doctors from engaging with the disease she does (and did) have in favor of telling her that she just had to “get on with life” (as if a smile would take care of everthing). (Not to mention that every doctor who fed her this drivel still got to charge her $150 for the privilege.)

    If you can’t tell, I have real problems with positive thinking ideals. Yes, it’s good to have a positive attitude, but please temper it with some realism: sometimes life flips you over, runs sandpaper over your butt, and then drips lemon juice all over it. You have to deal with the negative and realize that no matter how positive you think about it, the substance of your circumstances may not change. I think this realization is more optimistic than telling people to be cheerful or not so negative because it lets people engage with their circumstances and work to improve them in the hope that they will improve but with the realism not be crushed when things aren’t all roses.


    By the way, I agree with Glenn’s assessment of Caillou. That show drives me batty because it represents the “everything my child does is so precious, even his poopy don’t stinky” school of rearing children. (Sorry if anyone here loves the show, but I know that technique would make my children absolutely insufferable, even more than they sometimes are.)

  9. Glenn and Fenevad,

    I completely agree with you both about Caillou. Don’t you love how the grandmotherly-sounding narrator tells you what’s in Caillou’s head because it would be unrealistic for him to be so verbal? “Caillou didn’t know that pouring Kool-aid in the vents on the microwave would harm it,” the narrator tells us helpfully. I would like to hear a little more of the narrator saying, “Caillou never knew that his backside could hurt so much.”

  10. No guarantees that what follows will be coherent.

    First, an incident I thought was funny. After the mish I took some German lit classes at BYU. I bought a used textbook and recognized one of my senior companion’s handwriting all over the margins. On the chapter summarizing Schopenhauer’s philosophy and contributions, he had written “This guy is a real neg!”

    I thought the PMA (positive mental attitude) approach in my mission was not only ridiculous but also harmful. And one of the ways it was harmful was that I waited so long afterwards to consider if maybe there was something to it. I have concluded that there is.

    I am quite uneasy with the equation I occasionally hear between positive thinking and faith.

    Me too, Lynnette, but doesn’t it get a little more complicated when we add in the virtue of hope? A hopeful person doesn’t ignore pain or tragedy, but does manage to get through it better that someone who is without hope. Hope is both positive and forward-looking. It anticipates redemption and is closely connected to grace.

    I’ve seen marriages fail because the parties involved acquired the habit of criticism and eventually could not see the good in one another. I’ve talked about this with a guy I know who does marriage therapy for a living, and he says it is very common. Even though there may have been many happy times in the marriage, by the time it gets to divorce court, the man and woman literally cannot remember them because they are focused so intently on the unhappy times.

    Your point about being overly optimistic is a good one. I’ve read case studies of successful business partnerships which posit that most successful enterprises have a partner who sees nothing but blue skies and clear sailing combined with a partner who sees only the potential disasters. If they can stand to work with each other, the combination seems to work well.

    But there’ve been times in my life where I was too hseitant, too pessimistic. I have limited myself in some ways, and it is frustrating to learn only later that I should have acted with a little more boldness.

    At any rate, I insist that everybody around me wears rose-colored glasses, at least when considering my shortcomings. We all get along a lot better when they just overlook a lot. 🙂

  11. Oh, and since Lisa is quoting The Princess Bride, let me add one of my favorite lines, from from an exchange between Inigo Montoya and Micacle Max:

    Miracle Max: He probably owes you money huh? I’ll ask him.
    Inigo Montoya: He’s dead. He can’t talk.
    Miracle Max: Whoo-hoo-hoo, look who knows so much. It just so happens that your friend here is only MOSTLY dead. There’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive.

    And this one is pretty good, too:

    Buttercup: We’ll never survive.
    Westley: Nonsense. You’re only saying that because no one ever has.

  12. Mark IV said,

    Me too, Lynnette, but doesn’t it get a little more complicated when we add in the virtue of hope? A hopeful person doesn’t ignore pain or tragedy, but does manage to get through it better that someone who is without hope. Hope is both positive and forward-looking. It anticipates redemption and is closely connected to grace.

    Mark, I think you’ve actually very nicely articulated what I see as the huge difference between mere positive thinking and true hope. Positive thinking like the Secret variety is based on the arrogant and demonstrably false principle that we can control reality by the sheer power of our wills. Positive thinking shrinks from the confrontation with, and submission to, the hard, painful, bitter circumstances of mortality, either by denying that they exist at all or by denying that there are some pains–like death–that we simply cannot escape. This denial seems to me to be based in a fear of and aversion to reality.

    Hope is actually diametrically opposed to positive thinking in that hope doesn’t fear the hard truths of reality. Hope can look at, accept, endure, submit to all the tragedy of mortality because it hinges on something infinitely greater than our own puny wills: the atonement of Christ. Positive thinking is cowardly; it shrinks before the hard realities of this life. Positive thinking wants to hang wistfully around the barred gate back to the Garden of Eden and pretend we can still hang out there instead of getting on with the messy business of living. But hope is unafraid of suffering. Hope can look the hard realities of this life straight in the eye even when they break our hearts, even when everything won’t be all right, as Thomas said, because it arises from faith, from trust in God.

    God is the source of hope. Infantile wish-fulfillment is the source of positive thinking.

  13. Mark and Eve, thanks for the thoughts on hope vs positive thinking. The connection between faith, hope, and optimism has been alluding me, but you’ve made some good points. I shall mull over them.

    As for Calliou, the show is great. I don’t know if it’s because I’m a woman or what, but I appreciate the parenting lesson I learn on that show: patience. I also think the Grandmother verbalizing Calliou’s emotions is supposed to teach us to understand a child’s emotions because they don’t process their emotions in the same way as adults. Definately a child development class in a cartoon. Brilliant.
    (However, if you met my 4 yr old, you may think he needs a good spanking as well, who knows.)

  14. My favorite criticism of the book is from Jana Reiss. She points out that Anne Frank was incredibly positive, and still managed to “attract” the Nazi’s to her door.

    I also like the fact that Jana articulates more powerfully to what also bothered me about the book: it’s very selfish and focused only on the power of one’s self and getting what you want.
    I was reading a parenting book that called toddlerhood the “age of the all-powerful self”. And it’s true–my three-year-old thinks she can do anything she wants and will anything into existence. Thankfully maturity usually involves moving beyond such self-centered thinking to a more balanced view of life.

  15. In the vein of Mark IV’s comments (great story about Schopenhauer, BTW!), I would mention one missionary companion I had who certainly seemed to embody the virtue of positive thinking:

    When I first transferred in to be his companion I asked him the usual questions. Who are we teaching? Are any of them progressing to baptism? Etc. He told me that we had a teaching pool of about 30 solid investigators and a baptismal pool of 12, numbers that would have been absolutely phenomenal in Hungary at that time. As we went around he told me about how excited everyone was about the gospel and how he had “faith” that they would come to Christ.

    As we went around over the next week though, I found that we had no people who had even the remotest idea of baptism. At most a few had the usual dismissive “if I find out it’s true, I might join” attitude, but some of those who my companion had put in our baptismal pool quite clearly had no intention of doing anything and the only reason we were still seeing them is because they were too polite to just tell us where to go. In the end I think we had one semi-serious investigator out of the whole bunch, so his assessment of the situation was off by about a factor of 40.

    He constantly told me he had faith that all these people would join the Church and that if I had faith too we would see miracles (I’d sooner have expected to say to that mountain, depart hence, and see it work than to see most of those people join anything). The real problem with this attitude is that it kept us shackled to all these dead-end leads instead of finding those who really would have liked to join the Church. In the end I had almost no success in the five months I was in the area!

    Despite the length of this post, I’ll just close with one experience there that drove the difference in attitudes home to me: One day this companion and I went to see one of his “goldens.” We’d been in the guy’s flat for less than 30 seconds when he revealed himself to be an honery and argumentative git who had no desire for us to be there. For the next forty minutes my companion tried to bear testimony to him before he told us he didn’t think we should come back while I just had fun with the situation (I think I could have gotten along with the fellow just fine). We walked out and my companion was in tears and I was laughing. Because dear companion thought it was just a matter of faith, everything bad that happened was a rejection of his faithfulness rather than someone’s agency in action. So in the end the “positive attitude” was (a) harmful to productive work and (b) ultimately less optimistic than my more “negative” attitude because every failure was our fault.

  16. I don’t know if it’s because I’m a woman or what, but I appreciate the parenting lesson I learn on that show: patience.

    Jessawhy, I think you are correct that we need to learn patience. On the other hand, I think that patience should be coupled with the use of the word No (with appropriate real intent behind it). The problem with Caillou is that no one seems to teach him about boundaries or consequences, both of which I think are pretty important.

  17. Fenevad – there’s a book by Grant Harrison called Drawing on the Powers of Heaven which has been inexplicably popular among missionaries that claims that sort of thing: “If we could control our own minds, we could control our children and our families and the kingdom of God, and see that everything went right, and with much more ease than we do now.” (37) It argues that if we just think and do the right things, God will be bound to give us what we want.

    Great post, Lynnette – this seems to be what happens when Christianity is fused with the modern theraputic self; the language of the religion is subverted to meet theraputic goals of success and satisfaction and self-actualization.

    The Protestants have Robert Schuller and Norman Vincent Peale; the Mormons have Harrison and Stephen Covey.

  18. Thanks for this, Lynnette. I went through a whole agonizing process about this earlier this year regarding the foster daughter I want to adopt but may not get to. Could I make it happen if I just believed hard enough? And then it got crazier: would it be ethical for me to posi-think such a thing into being when it involves failure and loss for another person, her biological mom?

    I am becoming convinced that real faith is much less about getting what we want — through positive thinking or sheer force of will or whatever — than it is about learning what God wants for us. That’s sometimes very different from what we would choose.

    The Secret and related ideas are more like clapping your hands to make Tinkerbell come back to life than they are like the real gospel. Magical thinking is so appealing because it offers the illusion of control. And control is just what doesn’t and can’t really belong to us in the long run. That’s a very hard idea. But when I am most rational I am grateful that things aren’t really all up to me.

  19. Eric R.,

    It’s quite likely that I did. And I phrased that poorly, too. I didn’t mean to say that the book is merely about positive thinking or that the book as a whole is squishy.

    I like the book’s focus on recognizing others’ humanity and stopping blaming them for our unhappiness. The part that felt like squishy positive thinking to me: I felt like readers are being asked to remember that 1-others are not responsible for your unhappiness, no matter what they did to you, but 2-others have their own problems which influenced them to do hurtful things to you. To me, it felt like the message was that others’ actions are never an excuse for your unhappiness, but others’ pasts are excuses for them to be unhappy or treat people poorly. (I don’t think that’s what the author intended, by any means, but that was how it felt when I read it.) It also felt like the author was suggesting that most people should be able to just buck up and be happy once they stop blaming others for their problems. This bothered me because, as one of the commentors above already said, life isn’t just happiness. It’s a gamut of emotions, and they’re all important.

    For what it’s worth, I’ll be reading the book again (both to try to glean more information and to reassess my initial impression), and I’ll probably recommend it to others.

  20. Wonderful post, Lynnette. We really have a gospel of negative thinking, in a way — we’re told that we are all, by nature, enemies of God, enemies of the good. Think of the King Benjamin sermon, right? And only by embracing that negative assessment of ourselves and turning to Jesus Christ to make it better do we move forward — as you note. To claim that we can do it all ourselves, without God, by thinking right is a kind of self-idolatry, isn’t it? It deifies our minds and emotions, setting them at the center of the universe, and thereby dethrones God.

    Pretty serious stuff, I guess.

  21. Brozy, I think I understand why you get those impressions, but as a Warner apologist, let me just clarify a few things.

    “but others’ pasts are excuses for them to be unhappy or treat people poorly.”

    Often times others pasts will be used to explain their behavior, but that doesn’t mean it’s justified, as the word “excuse” would suggest. In any case, the failure to describe the responsibility of others is intentional, it’s about us, not them.

    “It also felt like the author was suggesting that most people should be able to just buck up and be happy once they stop blaming others for their problems.”

    Not at all. Rather, happiness is a natural result.

    This bigger issue at hand here, and I think this applies to thoughts in general in this thread, is this idea that all emotions are important. I most heartily disagree. There are some emotions that we don’t need and can live without. Any emotions that are associated with bitterness, resentment, hatred, contempt, self-pity, or any other form of pride in general are unnecessary. They do us absolutely no good. Our lives are not enriched by them, nor are the lives of others. The suffering that comes to us as a result of these emotions is a cancer. It only does us ill. Christ never experienced this type of suffering and he commanded us to cease such suffering by taking his yoke upon us and becoming as he is. Overcoming these emotions is a central purpose of life, something we can do – if we will follow him.

  22. Eric & all our gentle readers, sorry, I think I’m currently left holding up this blog more or less one-handed (Lynnette’s writing a dissertation; Kiskilili’s studying for comps; Ziff’s trying to raise a couple of kids and work and finish his PhD and read a bunch of books on social policy and economics; and I’m not entirely sure where Seraphine is. These silly people who think they have lives!). So my apologies for the way you all may be stuck with my rather monotone view of things, not to be confused with the much richer, subtler, and more nuanced view of her post which Lynnette herself would undoubtedly give, were she here.

    This bigger issue at hand here, and I think this applies to thoughts in general in this thread, is this idea that all emotions are important.

    I think you’re absolutely right that the status of various emotions is at the heart of the debate w/the gospel of positive thinking. And while I don’t think anyone would claim that all emotions are important, as you put it, a certain range of emotion does seem to be an inevitable part of human, and even divine, existence. My concern with the gospel of positive thinking is primarily with the way it attempts to deny the reality of suffering, and if we deny that, as Lynnette notes, we obviate our own need for the atonement and for grace. As long as we care for one another, we will suffer over one another’s fates, as God so famously does in the his conversation with Enoch. As I see it, the irony is that when we deny suffering, we only prolong it; when we accept it and allow it to run its course, then we can actually be healed of it.

    I suspect, though, both from reading one of Warner’s books (which I realize hardly makes me an expert) and from other things you’ve said here and around the Bloggernacle, that in your reference to unnecessary emotions you’re referring primarily to anger, and to the collateral suffering anger causes. I’m largely, although not entirely, in sympathy with your point of view. The Sermon on the Mount does unequivocally condemn anger, and I certainly think my own bouts of anger are sins. The sticking point I see in your theory, though, is that God experiences anger as well as sorrow. While I wouldn’t want to use this line of reasoning to justify my own anger, I have to wonder if the ultimate picture is somewhat more complicated than the one you give here. Are certain emotions to be eliminated–or are our emotions rather to be purified to their proper uses, so to speak?

    It’s a complex issue that deserves more discussion, but I’ve gotta run to a meeting.

  23. The sticking point I see in your theory, though, is that God experiences anger as well as sorrow. While I wouldn’t want to use this line of reasoning to justify my own anger, I have to wonder if the ultimate picture is somewhat more complicated than the one you give here.

    I agree, Eve, that it seems more complicated than that some emotions should be banished. This may seem a prosaic concern, but if all we ever experience is happiness, how will we know what it is?

  24. Thanks for all the thought-provoking comments, everyone!

    brozy (and Eric), I have read Bonds That Make Us Free, but it was over ten years ago so my memories are rather vague. I remember liking it and thinking that it was quite insightful. I don’t think I found it overly positive, but I also wasn’t convinced that his framework was always applicable–in particular, if I’m remembering correctly, he didn’t really address the complexity of relationships involving serious power differentials.

    AmyB, that’s a fascinating observation about happiness and entitlement. I’ve wondered a lot about that question. Do we think that happiness is (or should be) the normative human experience–implying that if you don’t feel that way, something somewhere must be wrong? The Archives of General Psychiatry published a study earlier this year indicating that depression might well be over-diagnosed, that in as many as 25 percent of cases normal sorrow or grief were being mistaken for clinical depression. I take depression quite seriously, but I also have to wonder about this tendency to pathologize negative emotions.

    Thomas, I appreciated your comments. I too have a deep appreciation for the LDS belief in a God with a body, parts, and passions. I especially like your point about being fully alive; it reminds me of how when I’ve attempted to numb out my negative feelings, the result has inevitably been that I’ve not only been less able to feel anything positive, but I’ve also ended up feeling less alive. (And bonus points for referencing a Classic Trek episode!)

    barbara, thanks–I’m quite flattered that you even noticed I was gone! I’ve been trying to strictly limit my blogging in an attempt to stay on top of my academic work, but we’ll see how long this resolve lasts. (But if I just think positively, maybe all that schoolwork will do itself. 😉 )

    Jessawhy, thanks for bringing in your experience–I can certainly see how more positive thinking could be helpful in a number of situations. I should probably clarify that I’m not opposed to positive thinking per se; rather, what I’m wary of is the notion that it’s necessarily the best approach to any situation, or that it can be used as a kind of magic wand to zap away all the negatives of life.

    Glenn (and Fenevad and Ziff and Jessawhy), I’ve never heard of Caillou, but I’m finding your descriptions of it to be quite amusing.

    Fenevad, thanks for sharing those stories about your sister and your mission companion; they’re great illustrations of why I have concerns about this topic. And I like your point that it’s in fact optimistic to engage your circumstances as they are, not as you wish they would be.

  25. fMh Lisa (and Mark IV), always good to see The Princess Bride being quoted here.

    Mark IV, I’m still trying to sort out my thoughts on hope, but my ever-so-eloquent sister Eve has already expressed a lot of my views on the subject. I think the point about control is central–the positive thinking approach seems to assert that we can force the outcome we want, whereas I don’t see hope in quite that light.

    I’m also thinking about that problem you describe of getting into a relationship dynamic where all you see is the bad in the other person (and the relationship), and forget everything good. I may not be married, but I’ve certainly gotten into that pattern with people. Though I must confess that my more usual problem is to ignore all the problems in a relationship because I hate conflict–which usually works for a while, and then blows up. So I’m thinking that an exclusive focus on the positive can be a problem here, too, if it’s a way of not dealing with the hard stuff–though of course I agree that focusing excessively on the negative is destructive.

    FoxyJ, thanks for the link to Janna Reiss’s review–that’s great! Anne Frank is a perfect counter-example. And I’m glad you made that point about this being very focused on what one can get for oneself; I find that troubling as well.

    Matt B, I’m fascinated by how the language and outlook of contemporary Christianity have been influenced by modern psychology. Salvation becomes self-actualization, and faith becomes positive thinking. I don’t want to just psychology-bash, as I think that the theology-psychology dialogue can be a rich one. But too often it seems there isn’t actually dialogue, but rather the wholesale importation of pop psychology into a religious framework. (I always found it odd that seminary teachers who denounced evolution as the “philosophies of men” had no qualms about preaching the latest pop psychology fads.)

    Ana, I can relate (at least a little), to those kinds of mental gymnastics, though the situation you describe sounds particularly challenging. I like the way you distinguish positive thinking from faith.

    Roasted Tomatoes, that’s a good point that according to BoM doctrine, we are naturally at enmity with God. Your comment reminds me that I’m not sure what room there is for repentance in the world of positive thinking. It doesn’t seem very “positive,” after all, to acknowledge not only that you’ve made serious mistakes, but that you don’t have the ability to fix them, or to change, on your own.

  26. Fenevad #17,

    Because dear companion thought it was just a matter of faith, everything bad that happened was a rejection of his faithfulness rather than someone’s agency in action.

    Thanks for sharing the story of your companion. I had a similar experience in that my worst encounters with the gospel of positive thinking were on my mission, although I don’t think I ever had a companion as deluded as the one you describe. I do recall having a companion tell me that if I had enough faith I could cause people to get baptized. Like your companion, he didn’t really believe in agency.

    Generalizing recklessly, I wonder if missions don’t provide a fertile ground for the gospel of positive thinking because they’re so often based on a sales model. All the same motivational tactics get used. If you’re not able to cause people to do what you want, the reason is that you failed to think enough positive thoughts, not because the people just didn’t want to do what you told them to or (horrors!) because of deficiencies in the product or its packaging.

    And tangentially, no thread critiquing positive thinking is complete without a link to the ultimate antidote:

  27. To follow up on the question Eve raised, I don’t know what to do with scriptures that attribute things like anger, hatred, and jealousy to God. One common response is to say that the terms have qualitatively different meanings when applied to the divine. Yet I find this a little odd, coming from a tradition which insists on reading passages which suggest that God is embodied, or that God relates to us as a father, quite literally. Are we going to say that God has a body which in some basic way like ours, is literally related to us, is in the end a being with some kind of basic similarity to us–and yet is experiencing emotion which is not at all analogous to what we are experiencing? I’d also note that we don’t make that argument about things like compassion. We seem to see some continuity between human love and divine love, even if the former is but a pale echo of the latter. So I’m really not sure what to think on this one.

  28. Ziff, thanks for the link to that despair dot com site. I’ve attended som many corporate rah-rah meetings that I’ve lost count, and at work they even have those motivational posters in the men’s room. Your link is the perfect antidote, and I’m still laughing about some of them. My favorites were:

    It could be that the purpose of your life is only to serve as a warning to others.


    The only consistent feature in all of your dissatisfying relationships is you.

  29. Matt B.: the Mormons have Harrison and Stephen Covey.

    I’m glad you brought up the Harrison book because it is a classic example of taking this PMA (positive mental attitude) idea too far (especially in terms of ordering God around via “covenants”). However, Covey specifically preaches against these naive PMA philosophies so I don’t think he ought to be lumped with Harrison or The Secret at all.

  30. “Are certain emotions to be eliminated, or are our emotions rather to be purified to their proper uses, so to speak?”

    Neither. Trying to control emotions themselves is hacking at leaves. We can suppress negative emotions, to a certain extent, to make it through the day or week. But doing so is going to be emotionally unhealthy in the long run. Allowing negative emotions to flow through us and wear out with time likewise may be a helpful approach in the short term. But I guarantee those emotions will someday return.

    What I am suggesting is getting to these negative emotions at their source: pride and selfishness. Our hearts are the cause of our emotions and by changing our hearts we naturally change our emotional reactions. But can’t our anger be altruistic? I don’t know. I think it can actually. It’s relatively rare, I think. But it happens. What I am sure of is that any emotion that is created by pure love will not cause us to suffer. For having a heart that is motivated by pure love is the very definition of “joy”.

    Does God not suffer for the sorrow he experiences when his children go astray? I think he does, but such “sorrow” and “suffering” are of a different sort. They might be “painful” in their own way, but they will not result in bitterness, resentment or self-pity. They will not produce genuine suffering;. God IS joy. And he is joy because his heart is pure.

  31. What I am sure of is that any emotion that is created by pure love will not cause us to suffer.

    What about grief? Grief seems to involve lots of suffering and pain. I know you mentioned in your last paragraph that God might have sorrow and suffering when we’re evil, but that God’s sorrow and suffering are of a different sort. I don’t see this. It seems to me that God grieves when we reject him and behave badly just as we grieve when those we love reject us or leave us or die. In fact, if we don’t grieve when we lose people we love, it seems to me to call into question whether we really loved them in the first place.

  32. Ziff, I don’t disagree with anything you say in 33. I would just point out though, that purely altruistic grief is very different than a self-pitying grief. The former is not paralyzing, does not lead us into depression and is not emotionally suffocating, all of which can happen with the latter grief.

  33. even if you’ll not approve my comment I still want to say what I think,first of all I’m a Christian and Jesus is my Saviour,and do you know what greaves me most,that we Christians instead of incouragind we discourage people,instead of sharing love we share strife,and how we are going to win those souls. I’ve seen many Christians confused until now,they haven’t got a purpose for there life,they haven’t got a clue where they going,and what Gad wants them to do,I’m sure at least wan thing we could learn from them,is how to find a purpose for our life and to be fruitful,and that exactly what God wants from us,to bear a lot of fruit. I hope I didn’t afend anybody,by sharing my opinion.


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