Does “Positive Thinking” Have a Place in Politics?

We should be very concerned that the two most powerful leaders in the Western world, Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, seem to follow and advocate the teachings of self-help gurus.
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To make money in the world of self-help books, being realistic and balanced, and where failure is accepted as a good thing, will not work. It seems that the leaders of America and the United Kingdom have cottoned on to this. It is well documented that Donald Trump is a big fan of the 20th-century positive-thinking movement and some of its books. You can see this in the language he adopts: 

“No dream is too big. No challenge is too great. Nothing we want for our future is beyond our reach.” 

“I’ve always won, and I’m going to continue to win. And that’s the way it is.”

 “I was a great student. I was good at everything.”

It is unclear whether Boris Johnson had read any of these “positive thinking” books, but somehow, their teachings have rubbed onto him as well, given that he has adopted a lot of their mantras:

“There are no disasters, only opportunities.”

 “The doubters, the doomsters, the gloomsters.” 

“The hamster wheel of doom.” 

Many people should be very concerned that the two most powerful leaders in the Western world seem to follow and advocate the teachings of some of the most “successful” self-help gurus. Because some of their messages can not only be harmful where the vulnerable are easy prey, but also psychologically dangerous. 

In 1937, Napoleon Hill published “Think and Grow Rich,” a book that has reportedly sold over 15 million copies to date. The key lesson from this work is that the material universe is governed quite directly by our thoughts. By simply visualizing what you want out of life, those things, and more, will be delivered to you — especially if those things involve money. The past few decades have been a profitable era for all sorts of self-help and business success books. Napoleon Hill blazed a trail for an entire industry.

In 1952, Norman Vincent Peale published his “The Power of Thinking.” His core argument is that by using the power of focus and by believing in success, you will overcome any obstacles in life. No matter how insurmountable they may seem, there is no problem in your life that cannot be surmounted by the power of positive thinking.

More recently, in 2006, Rhonda Byrne’s book, “The Secret,” promoted the notion that you have the ability to be whatever you want to be, and that if you send out good thoughts and intentions to the universe, the universe will give you good things in return. According to Byrne, positive thoughts attract happiness and, conversely, negative thoughts attract bad decisions and fuel existing worries and negativity. She claims that focused concentration combined with positive thinking will lead to happiness and wealth.

The Misuse of “Positive Thinking”

These three authors, and many others, subscribe to basically the same thing: think positive things, visualize the success that will make you happy and wealthy, and you will achieve anything you want.

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Now, there is some merit in this type of “positive thinking,” and millions of people have benefited from some of its teachings. For example, in 1960, Hill and W. Clement Stone published “Success Through a Positive Mental Attitude,” where they promoted the same idea as Peale. They coined the term “positive mental attitude,” or PMA. Today, there is a lot of scientific evidence from well-respected psychologists and scientists that having a positive mental attitude can provide a wide range of health and emotional benefits.

However, the essence of some of these approaches is to deceive yourself by denying — or ignoring — reality. They propose that one should block out challenges and think and visualize only positive outcomes to solve everything. This means that when you are feeling sad, anxious, depressed or angry, you should intercept all negative thoughts with positive ones. They advocate repeating affirmations, which are positive statements to help you overcome self-sabotaging and negative thoughts. They claim that by repeating these often and believing in them, you will start to make positive changes.

Going back to Peale, his positive-thinking ideas that he promoted had a big effect on Trump. Peale was the long-time pastor at the Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan, which Trump attended with his family growing up. Peale is quoted as saying things like, “Think big, and you’ll achieve big results. Think success, and you’ll have success.”

Playing With Fire

It is unclear whether people are aware of how much Peale has influenced Trump. In July of 2015, at the Iowa Family Leadership Summit, Trump talked about his religious grounding: “Norman Vincent Peale — the great Norman Vincent — was my pastor. ‘The Power of Positive Thinking’ — everybody’s heard of Norman Vincent Peale. He was so great.”

There is now much academic and scientific evidence that demonstrates how practicing positive thinking in this way can actually be bad for you. Harvard Medical School professor and psychologist Susan David has done a lot of work in this area. In her book, “Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change and Thrive in Work and Life,” she argues that forcing positive thoughts won’t make you happy.

David claims that avoiding negative emotions by either blocking them or trying to avoid them can do more harm than good. She argues that the idea that somehow people should all be happy, think happy and be positive all the time is antithetical to our real happiness. The reality is that life is fragile, and that you are going to get ill, or that you might lose your job or no longer love your job. And there is a lot of research that supports the view that people who strive to be happy actually, over time, become unhappy.

In 2014, Gabriele Oettingen, Professor of Psychology at New York University and the University of Hamburg, published her book, “Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation.” Oettingen’s research showed that in the short term, positive thinking is beneficial, but over long periods of time, it saps motivation, prevents us from achieving our goals and leaves us feeling frustrated and stuck. To really move ahead in life, we need to engage with the world and feel energized, we need to go beyond positive thinking and face the obstacles that stand in our way.

Both Trump and Johnson are playing with fire by continuing to be disciples of the 20th-century positive-thinking movement. They need to disown and stop using the unrealistic language that they are both famous for. Instead, they owe it to the voters on both sides of the Atlantic to communicate a far more balanced and realistic view of the challenges and the uncertainties that both countries are currently facing.

*[Neil Francis is the author of “Positive Thinking: How to Create a World Full of Possibilities.”]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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