The Failure of Positive Thinking

Woman in wedding dress pumping gas.
Photo by Elijah O’Donnell from Pexels

Look up there, and you'll see my favorite photo of all time. It was taken in Italy, around the beginning of the pandemic. There's so many stories there. On the most basic level, it's about something we all feel.

It's about running out of gas.

Back in high school, there was this teacher. He used to stand in the hallways and watch me walk to class. He locked eyes on me. I tried to make myself smaller and sneak past him. Then he said it.


He had no idea who I was, except I was some sad girl who needed to cheer up. He didn't know that I'd spent the night in the ER with a paranoid schizophrenic parent. He didn't know she wanted to kill me. He didn't know that social workers visited me at my house and had me called out of class to answer questions about whether or not I felt safe. He didn't know I lied.

He didn't know that I'd already spent hours pretending everything was fine and I was just a normal teen. He didn't know he'd caught me in that one brief moment when I was giving myself a rest.

I didn't want to talk about it. I didn't want to cheer up.

I wanted to be left alone.

Years later, I had this boss. He stopped everyone he ran into. He asked them how they were doing. If they said something like "I'm okay," he reprimanded them. He said, "You're just doing okay? You're not doing grrrreat?" He stood there until you upgraded your mood and forced out a smile. He didn't smile while he was doing it. He acted angry, like he was going to fire you.

He did it to me three times.

America has a problem.

It has a problem with positive thinking. It thinks everyone can cure cancer with a good attitude. It thinks everyone can cure depression by smiling. It thinks everyone can eat and breathe gratitude. It thinks optimism alone can keep forests from burning. It thinks your body can build up tolerance to temperatures that kill all life on earth, even creatures that spent thousands of years adapting to extreme heat. America thinks you can't get sick if you eat apples.

Then it pretends to eat apples.

America spends billions of dollars on positive thinking. They consume it in the form of books and podcasts. They consume it in the form of listicles and bumper stickers. They buy gratitude jars for fifty bucks.

Look at our heroes.

Most of them have committed fraud in one form or another. Many of them have been charged with crimes. Some of them have committed assault. The wife of a megachurch prosperity gospel preacher started a fight with a flight attendant over a stain on her armrest. She got kicked off the plane. The world's richest man exposed himself to one of his employees. The world's richest self-help guru was accused of assault by multiple women.

The worst president in history is the disciple of a megachurch pastor who wrote one of the most popular self-help books of all time.

They ruin everything they touch.

They're celebrated.


It's simple. No matter what happens to them, no matter what abuse they inflict on everyone around them, they stay positive. You can't make them feel guilty. You can't make them feel regret or shame. They always smile.

Even when they're crying.

Our most popular books and songs command us to smile. They tell us to smile no matter what happens to us or what we're feeling.

We think it's healthy.

America has mastered the art of pretending to feel happy. Our jobs usually depend on it. We don't smile for ourselves. We smile for customers. We smile for bosses. We smile for cameras. We smile for money.

We smile to fit in.


The world is burning. America has failed to win a single war since the 1940s, no matter how much we spend on bombs and missiles. We've failed to stop or even slow down mass shootings. We've failed to stop or even slow down drug abuse. We've failed to stop or even slow down the destruction of the planet. We've failed to stop or even slow down fossil fuel use or emissions. As a country, we care more about guns than children. We care more about profits than health. We care more about money than ourselves.

America's proud of that.

As we speak, our newspapers and television stations are telling us it's okay to get infected with diseases. It's okay to refuse vaccines. It's okay to put your own immediate gratification ahead of everything else. What really matters is that you shop. What really matters is that you eat out and go to concerts. Enjoy it now. Don't think about what happens later. You worry too much about getting screened for cancer. You worry too much about the future. You worry too much about what happens outside your own little bubble.

We're told we can do whatever we want as long as we can smile and get away with it. We're told that's the definition of success.

And yet, we're not happy.

If we were happy, drug abuse wouldn't be at record highs. Road rage wouldn't be at record highs. Poverty and homelessness wouldn't be at record highs. Scams and fraud wouldn't be at record highs.

If we were happy, we wouldn't be so eager to start wars with the countries we depend on for survival. We wouldn't shop so much, and then read books on the life-changing magic of throwing it all away. Our life expectancy wouldn't be dropping. Mass shootings wouldn't happen every week.

There's a lot of studies that show optimism and positive thinking hurt more than they help, but there's one that I never forget. It's a study about servers. The more you're forced to smile for customers, the more you drink. That seems like the perfect metaphor for America right now. The harder we try to pretend we're happy, the worse things get.

If you ask me, positive thinking hasn't worked.

We should try something else.

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