Positivity and positive thinking are very often held as inherently good qualities to embody. If you think positively, so the reasoning goes, you will live a better life. Self-help gurus and guides implore you to have gratitude and appreciation for what you have, independent of circumstances. In recent decades, a field of scientific research, called positive psychology or happiness studies, has emerged to wield the epistemological might of psychological and social scientific research, much of it quantitative, to enable us to live happier lives. Subjective well-being, as it’s called in the field, can be hacked. Good social relations, a job that produces personal satisfaction, lots of oxytocin-inducing activities, and not comparing oneself with others are all components of a happier, more productive existence. We can take simple steps and be happier—even in a pandemic!
Such thinking implies that positivity is a universal virtue. It’s good to think well about yourself and life in general, whoever you are, and whatever’s going on around you. Social media influencers have taken up positivity as an inherent and unambiguous good. Watching the Netflix documentary about the doomed Fyre Festival, Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened, I was struck by a montage of influencers answering what their brand was: Positivity. As a quality, it’s aspirational, magnetic, even glamorous. Yet those perusing #positivity on Instagram would be forgiven for thinking that being positive was synonymous with being a white woman who adheres to culturally normative standards of beauty: thin; athletic; expensively groomed long straight hair; heavily defined eyes, lips, cheekbones; with clothes and makeup that also adhere to the prescriptive standards set by the fashion industry.
Positivity is also pervasive within personal branding. Anthropologist Ilana Gershon’s scathing analysis of branding amongst jobseekers and employers, Down and Out in the New Economy (2017), includes a vignette about a sprightly Google employee who defined her personal brand as “positivity.” She got her job at Google because the person who interviewed her found her to be one of the most positive people he’d ever met. He contrasted her attitude with those in his previous job in the automotive industry in Detroit, who were very negative. Gershon notes that perhaps automotive workers in Detroit would have been more positive if they had had secure well-paying jobs and weren’t witnessing the collapse of their industry amidst the worst economic recession in a generation. Branding, she concludes, leads to focus on personal qualities over context, as if the two were somehow separable and independent of one another.
In Bright-Sided (2009), writer Barbara Ehrenreich, critiques positive thinking as an ideology in America, one that has become both normative and normal. The way we should be. Positive has become synonymous with good, an unquestionable virtue. Those that do question it are likely to be viewed with suspicion, as if there’s something wrong with them. Although, she notes, it’s a way of thinking that’s most common among the white upper/middle classes, those who have become accustomed to thinking that life should work out for them. The link to economic and social status is no mere coincidence.
The problem with much positive thinking is that it’s instrumentalized. It’s a small, easy step from perceiving positivity as a virtue in itself to believing that thinking positively makes good things happen. Then the inverse also seems true: Thinking negatively makes bad things happen. The implication of this train of thought is that people deserve their lot. Translated into economic terms, it means that the rich deserve their wealth, and the poor also earned their impoverishment. It can be hard for proponents of positive thinking to step back, and ask, for example, how did 1% of the world’s population come to control 44% of global wealth? Because they think more positively? Money may not equal happiness, as happiness researchers admit, but it’s far easier to have the rich, contemplative life they propose when your material needs are met.
Trump attended the New York church of Norman Vincent Peale in his youth. Peale took the positive affirmations of New Thought and turned them into religious principles and economic maxims. It also goes further than Christianity, connecting to new age thinking found in works expounding the Law of Attraction, such as Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret, now in its tenth edition. The Law of Attraction states that what you put out there comes back to you, a type of thinking called prosperity consciousness; that the energy of your thoughts creates what happens to you in reality.
Prosperity consciousness aligns ideologically with prosperity gospel but replaces the Christian God with ‘the universe’ and refers to energy more often than blessings. In my own ethnographic research on the spiritual community in Sedona, Arizona, variations of prosperity consciousness were common. Positive energy attracts positive outcomes, I was told. Abundance, often a byword for wealth, can be manifested through positive thinking and affirmation. Saying “I AM abundant” every morning would bring more money into one’s life. Negative thinking, and by extension negative people, were to be avoided, as if their negativity were contagious and would bring misfortune simply by association. After I critiqued my own driving ability during the my time in Sedona, an interlocutor told me that she wanted to get out of my car because by simply saying those words I could cause a traffic accident.
Yet one thing that I found perplexing during my fieldwork was why people who seemed so concerned with thinking positively were also so frequently talking about conspiracy theories. While I was in the field from 2012-2014, it was common to hear stories about vaccines as toxic, or chemtrails, poisonous heavy metal sprayed into the air from airplanes for nefarious purposes. Now in 2020, the same people are posting and talking about QAnon, election rigging, and that Covid-19 is a hoax. Belying simplistic associations between new age hippies and left-wing politics, there’s a deep distrust for any government, scientific, medical, or technocratic authorities.
Rather than an issue of political alignment or polarization, the problem seems to be a gap in systemic thinking. There’s no middle level of society that influences health and wealth; instead there are only individual solutions to large-scale social problems. For someone who believes in the individualistic promises of positive thinking, personal misfortune is a quandary. It’s often much easier to blame someone else than change their own worldview. Problems are caused by the dark cabal, the New World Order, Hillary Clinton, Bill Gates, or whoever.
In systemic thinking that lacks the middle level of society, specific individuals are to blame for problems. And while it’s true that certain individuals, such as Bill Gates, do have vastly more power and influence than the average person, this results from inequitable distribution of capital, not a sinister scheme to microchip the populace under the guise of vaccines. Rather than critique the contradictions of this system, individual actions are held responsible. Social complexity is reduced, and individual agency over-attributed, to become a dark conspiratorial network holding back the health and wealth that should be coming.