As a long time consumer of the self-help industry, I kept on (and still do to some extent) trying to better myself. Sometimes it was to get over a professional set back, sometimes to get over a personal set back. But none of the efforts ever helped me get over the feeling of maybe I wasn’t doing it right enough, because things did not seem to change much. The Secret, the laws of attraction, soups and other confabulations were things I had tried in varying quantities and recipes.

Facebook and other social media made it seem so entirely possible. Everyone seemed to be going on vacations, everyone was changing jobs all the time, everyone had the sweetest boyfriend/child/parents/boss.

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And all self help literature had stories of some magic moment or some cathartic experience that made that particular person successful. It seemed just logical that I wasn’t either trying hard enough or wasn’t good enough somehow or possibly wasn’t able to maintain the train of positivity. After all, didn’t the books say that if only you did such and such and banished all doubt, you would all be the next Bill Gates?

Then one day as I was losing myself in the self help quicksand in yet another book store, I caught sight of Barbara Ehrenreich’s Smile or Die. The book is a well thought out attack against the relentless positive thinking industry. The author begins with a personal account of her struggle against breast cancer and how the entire time, she was told thinking positive was essential to her treatment. She was asked to look at cancer as a ‘gift’ and deny any feelings of anger and disappointment of having contracted the disease. Taking this as a premise, the author attacks the premise of baseless positive thinking.

The author then attacks the basic principle of all New Age books – that you are responsible for your own fate. Most new age books would tell Ehrenreich, that she wished the cancer into her life. Ehrenreich then takes the example of popular self help book on adaptation to change – Who moved my cheese – and talks of how adaptation to things like layoffs is a necessity to hold up the capitalist structure. That made me sit up. Isn’t it true? How do you absolve the past financial malpractices of corporate heads that led to the financial mess of downsizing? By making it the employees’ headache of course. Instead of having to question the absurd practices and building a society where lay offs wouldn’t acquire a legitimacy of their own, tell the employee that they can add some other skills, keep thinking ‘happy’ thoughts, be nice to the employer they leave and just happily find another sunset to walk into. Revise your expectations, change your goals, adapt. Try to explain away the uncertainty in life by concentrating hard on a ceremonial candle, if you will.

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It actually reminds me of a funny Simpsons episode that parodies The Secret. In the episode, Bart places the blame of one of his pranks on his teacher, who then is fired. Seeing her lonely in a care center and overcome with remorse, Bart then shows her the way with the help of the book named ‘The Answer’. Bart’s teacher uses the principles, finds her forgotten passion for baking and opens a successful bakery. But when she finally knows that Bart was behind her suspension, she gets angry and tells him that he made her succeed in something she didn’t really want to do and goes back to her teaching.

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Indeed it seems that capitalism to survive, needs to deflect attention from the greed of corporations and the devastation it causes. It is classic victim blaming, however of a greater level at work. Other than Ehrenreich, Oliver Burkeman, a Guardian columnist who has written on the self help industry extensively also has a book titled Antidote : Happiness for people who can’t stand Positive Thinking. While I am yet to read the book, I read some of his interviews. Burkeman makes a vital point in an interview saying, sometimes the real skill you need is a not-doing skill, sort of resisting the urge to always try to do everything right. Burkeman derives greatly from the ‘Stoic’ and Buddhist schools of thought. Burkeman also encourages thinking about the worst possible outcome to reduce anxiety.

What I have discovered mostly from my reading of positive thinking and self help industry is that it leads people to a newer form of depression. Earlier they were only depressed about not having something, now they are depressed also about not feeling worthy of something, of not having thought the right thoughts to make it happen. It will only lead to a culture filled with regrets and longing, the very thing we are trying to run away from. Burkeman at some point in one of his interviews says that 50% of what people achieve is genetics, 10% is circumstance and 40% is within our control. While he does think we overestimate that 10%, I also believe we should not undermine the fact that 60% is not in our hands.

There will always be uncertainty and some of it may never go away. There are choices to be made and sometimes you will not have the knowledge of all the variables affecting it. It is life and it is going to go off kilter many more times than we like to believe. There will be people richer, luckier, taking more vacations, having better behaved relatives etc. But to believe that it is all because of something you did or didn’t do, is giving your ego power, that it really doesn’t have. To quote M. Scott Peck’s opening line in the Road Less Travelled ‘Life is difficult’. And we may not be always able to change it.