The dark side of the mindfulness industry — the dangers of Compulsory Optimism

Marcus Aurelius — ‘The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.’

We can ’t escape it.

“Think positively.” “Be grateful.” “Focus on the good in your life.”

These are the mantras of our times.

Photo by Ryan Stone on Unsplash

We live in an age of unprecedented connection — yet in many ways, we are more disconnected than ever, more anxious than ever, more overwhelmed than ever.

Positive thinking is touted as our savior to sidestep all this overwhelm we experience from constant stimulation — and this state of anxiousness is clearly as old as time itself.

Torturing ourselves is part and parcel of the human experience — it’s just our methods, along with the technology, that change over time.

Understanding the power of the mind and how it works goes back a long way — the Stoics were obsessed with it; yoga, meditation, and mindfulness have been around for thousands of years.

Occasionally when I am up to my eyeballs in anxiety from endlessly scrolling on social media or an unwanted email sailing into my inbox, or whatever it is that day, and I do manage to remember to take time out for meditation — one of my recurring musings is wondering what on earth the ancient Greeks or the yoginis of 500 BC were so stressed about that they needed these exact same tools for.

We are but human.

Mindfulness, then, is both a remedy and a superpower. And today it’s also a billion dollar industry — predicted to be worth $22 billion in the next three years.

Books, blogs, courses, retreats, workshops — the works.

By any account, it has undoubtedly transformed millions of people’s lives. But as wonderful as it is, there are some less well documented, detrimental effects, too.

For many, there's just no amount of positive affirmations, applied like a plaster, that will stem the tsunami of anxiety, fears, doubts and overwhelm, all rearing up like wild horses …

But does Positive Thinking actually work?

Cliched or not, positive thinking and optimism do make us feel better than negativity and pessimism — even with very British tendencies of miserablism, we do all love a positive meme to brighten our day.

Besides the perk up, there are significant, quantifiable health benefits to positivity too. It is associated with lower levels of stress, depression, longer life span, better immune system, and lower risks of cardiovascular disease.

Generally speaking, a more positive outlook on life does bring about more positive experiences.

And, of course, being positive is a factor for success. Think (positively) and grow rich.

Who wouldn’t want that?

Coming from a family whose standard response to any question starts with, “The problem with that is …” — I had my work cut out. But I committed to the path.

A few years ago, I shared a story with my yoga students about when I began to notice dogshit all over our local high street. I was mortally offended. I obsessed about it for a few days, and all I did was notice it more and more. I soon caught myself looking out specifically for shit, and of course I found it everywhere I looked. In that moment, I decided to focus on something nicer, anything nicer, like trees, clouds, smiles and sunshine, and suffice to say — I saw a lot less dogshit after that.

You get what you focus on.

“Pessimistic prophecies are self-fulfilling” — Martin Seligman

It is important — because whichever way you swing, you’ll just get more of it.

The way you think will define the parameters of your life and your experiences.

“Your beliefs become your thoughts,

Your thoughts become your words,

Your words become your actions,

Your actions become your habits,

Your habits become your values,

Your values become your destiny.”

Gandhi

It is a compelling case.

But is Positive Thinking the best mindset?

Starting with the basics — according to the authority that is WebMD, “positive thinking, or an optimistic attitude, is the practice of focusing on the good in any given situation.”

In other words, it is about seeing the glass as half full, rather than half empty.

It is the ability to see the silver lining on the cloud.

The mindset piece is simply being able to recognize the existence of the silver lining. We aren’t hippy-dippy denying that there is a big black cloud, or pretending that the cloud isn’t there. We aren’t willing the cloud to go away — or be anything other than what it is.

For the silver lining to exist, of course, so must the black cloud.

The danger comes when we feel guilty about the black cloud. When we pretend it isn’t happening. When we feel compelled to subject ourselves to mandatory optimism.

We do it because we are told to.

Because we believe that is where the magic lies.

Positive Mindset for Success

We hear it everywhere: positive thinking is what we need to succeed.

No one wants to be a sad sack, the Eeyore of the group.

So we swallow the pain and we paint a picture of joy and happiness.

“How are you, darling?”

FINE.”

But even the grandaddy of positive psychology, Martin Seligman, author of Authentic Happiness, and Flourish (two of my favorites) distances himself from this bandwagon of positive thinking — he wants us to focus more on accuracy.

This can fly in the face of positive thinking if we are forced to confront our reality — rather than blindly dancing our happy dance, perhaps now we have to give ourselves permission to bravely face the music.

Ouch.

What pain do we avoid when we choose to “think positively”? What are we denying, holding back, or suppressing?

How do we even know anymore — when we know all the motivational quotes off by heart?

Positive thinking is drummed into us by therapists, coaches, entrepreneurs and gurus. It is the gold standard for success mindset. It seems to be the cornerstone of CBT.

But what if we fail it?

What if Positive Thinking Doesn’t Work?

The premise of learning to think positively is that we are neurologically re-wiring the brain to respond to stimuli positively and to connect to positive emotions in the amygdala — to create a “preferred” neurological pathway.

In time, and in the event of a tug of war between good habits and bad, or a positive outlook and a negative one, our new neural superhighways of positivity override the negative ones.

This might be done through visualization, or repetitive practices — like physical training, but for the mind.

Sound familiar? This is a very common strategy among top athletes.

But what about for the rest of us?

What about when it goes tits up? Or just plain weird?

What about when, rather than seeing more abundance and joy — or maybe you do that as well — you experience overwhelming anxiety, plagues of doubt, and spiraling panic attacks?

If you use positive thinking as a way to block out pain, or to lift you up temporarily, then — like a drug — the comedown is inevitable.

Boosterism isn’t a sustainable term strategy.

It might work in the short term, but long term — the problem just buries itself deeper like a worm.

It is for these reasons that Tony Robbins is actually a strong advocate against “positive thinking.”

Because it’s not about pretending to yourself that the dark cloud isn’t there, or your glass is actually half full — or as he puts it, that there are no weeds in the garden … in his view it’s a matter of finding the root of them, and ripping the weeds out.

My own journey to a positive mindset began with (I thought) planting the seeds of joy and hope and dreams. But instead what grew up was a perennial anxiety problem, much like Japanese Knotweed — a pervasive, invasive and virtually indestructible weed.

So how did that happen?

When we practice boosterism, when we attempt to force ourselves to think positively, we aren’t actually sowing seeds of hope or positivity at all.

What we are doing is pouring fuel on the fire — we are directly feeding the anxiety, the doubts, and fears. We aren’t rewiring the brain at all — quite the opposite.

We are placing a marker over the spot in the brain that says, “This is important,” and all those mantras, affirmations or visualizations are akin to feeding it the best quality fertilizers out there — attention and practice.

Any google search for “how to think positively” will spit out generic suggestions: rituals of reciting positive affirmations, positive mantras, surrounding yourself with positive people, and the importance of using positive self-talk.

Social media, and quite probably the entire internet, is littered with memes and shareables proffering remedies how to think positively.

But each time we do this, it's like the silent “g” in gnarly — each positive affirmation has a subconscious, silent negative pre-fix, kicking off the show.

It is the negative thought that we are paradoxically reinforcing.

And it just escalates.

Repeating a positive mantra like this is the equivalent to popping a pill for the pain. It is short term relief. Short term relief of itself is not bad — but it stacks up, and like any drug, builds toxicity in our system.

Added to that, in our rush to avoid pain and discomfort, we are — in effect — lying to ourselves.

Newsflash. Lying and denial do not make a positive mindset.

Positive thinking, in this context, becomes an act of self soothing in response to a negative trigger. This is essentially a pattern of obsession and compulsion — which only escalates.

We can’t talk or think ourselves out of it.

The more and more we try to avoid the negative thoughts, the more and more we reinforce them.

The cycle becomes vicious, and when we notice that all these negative thoughts or responses are still present — guilt, or feelings of failure enter the equation.

And so it goes on.

So how do you break the pattern?

Sadly, there is no black and white solution — just as there is no quick fix.

Similar to meditation, the key lies in not necessarily stopping these thoughts from happening, but simply to observe them.

Perhaps it is about learning to face the music and the inevitable suffering of life — the awful reality of an emptying glass.

So I believe the essence of positive thinking is actually being present with it — not painting it over with rosiness.

It is, much like Martin Seligman suggests, about being able to answer that question honestly — “How are you?” — and accepting that state in that moment, rather than feigning optimism, or masking the truth.

A blanket policy of positivity is an inherently counterproductive course of action, particularly given that there are times when a negative view may actually help us problem solve more effectively. It may even motivate us to go fill up our sodding half empty cups — see Defensive Pessimism.

For me, I am learning to use both.

Where I may have previously tried to quash any sign of pessimism, it’s fascinating to learn how it can be a strength. Yet I remain a staunch advocate of a positive mindset, mainly because I’d rather not see so much dogshit in my day to day life, thank you.

But I am done with the anxiety of compulsory positivity.

It feels refreshing.

It has often felt like the practice of nipping naughty thoughts in the bud with mantras and positive affirmations is as futile as trying to manage a garden of Japanese Knotweed — so, going forward, a different gardening strategy is most definitely called for.

Spring is coming, so you might just find me rootling around in the proverbial garden, figuring out what I did actually plant, and chucking the occasional weed over the back wall as far I can.

Founder, feminist, entrepreneur, coffee + self care

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