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“The Secret” and other nonsense about “happiness”

By Dr. Marcel de Roos, Psychologist PhD, the Netherlands

Bestseller writers like Norman Vincent Peale (“The power of positive thinking”, 1952), Anthony Robbins (“Awaken the giant within”, 1991), Rhonda Byrne (“The Secret”, 2006) and Martin Seligman, the founder of the “positive psychology” movement (“Authentic Happiness”, 2002 and “Flourish”, 2011) make us believe that continuous happiness is within our reach. We just have to follow what they advise in their books and our worries will disappear. From this list, “The Secret” is by far the shallowest one and filled with silly quotes and superstitious nonsense.

Bestseller writer Rhonda Byrne (“The Secret”, 2006) tries to make you believe that “success in life” is something that you have in your own hands. Just visualise what you want, think positively, show gratitude, and you will receive what you wish for. Yessss, conveniently forgetting that being born in the Bronx New York (as opposed to being born in an affluent academic Bostonian family) there is extreme little chance that you will end up in Harvard.

This is how real life works: success often comes with commitment, but besides this a lot of other factors have to be in place. Like education, your parents social, academical level, their ability to guide you and to show empathy, your IQ, the neighbourhood and country you grow up in, your ethnicity, the family wealth, your network, they all play a significant role in your chances for the future.

And then the “law of attraction”: it states that by wishing things to happen they will eventually manifest themselves in your life. “Positive” (for example creating wealth) or “negative” (for example dying of cancer, because you weren’t positive thinking enough). And all because the Universe is made up of energy and if you are attuned to that energy things will happen. In essence, it’s blaming the victim.

All these books more or less say the same things: stay positive and focus on your goals, pay no attention to negative thoughts and self-doubt, and visualise what you desire. Then you will get what you want….. This quest for happiness is an existential mistake. Nowadays many people not only want to be non-stop “happy”, but they also want this experience each time to become deeper and more intense. But with this constant pursuit of kicks and pleasure you will lose meaning in life.

Happiness is NOT the absence of negative emotions. It’s not about being happy and smiling 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Happiness is not about being numb to negative feelings. Nietzsche wrote: “Mankind does not strive for happiness; only the Englishman does that.” With this he meant that those who aim at being happy (as the English utilitarian philosophers of his time did) are doomed to fail. We can only become happy as a by-product of something else.

In order to live the full human life, you have to experience the full range of human emotions, the positive and the negative. They both play an important role in our ability to thrive. Positive emotions make you feel good, negative emotions make you feel uncomfortable but they also make you aware of things that are wrong and of possible ways how to change them.

“Positive psychology” uses cognitive behaviour theory and techniques, gratitude journals and positive affirmations in order to challenge your negative thoughts. But we can’t THINK ourselves happy. You simply have to understand and come to terms with the disturbing feelings that CAUSE these thoughts; you can’t push them away or ignore them. These feelings are too strong and they invariably will surface again but then much more powerful. IF YOU DON’T DEAL WITH YOUR FEELINGS, YOUR FEELINGS WILL DEAL WITH YOU. “Positive psychology” also promotes “resilience”, and in order to become more resilient they urge you to have stronger and closer relationships. But the only way to do that is to become more vulnerable. In other words to communicate about your “negative emotions”; in life there are periodically inescapable challenges like suffering and deprivation. People in relationships encounter for example conflicts, anger and sadness. Which is a no go area for the “positive psychologists”.

The Harvard Medical School professor and psychologist Susan David wrote a book called “Emotional agility”. She states that in our present culture the “happiness obsession” and the positive-thinking movement have caused a tyranny of positivity (“just be positive and things will be fine”; “you can beat cancer with positive thinking, and if it didn’t work then you weren’t positive enough”). People are used to avoid or repress feelings like grief, sadness, guilt or anger. And we are taught not to probe our feelings (negative or positive) too deeply.

But instead of this we should pay close attention to our emotions. In adverse situations the steady stream of thoughts and feelings that form our inner self can become our best teacher. Our emotions can tell us what we value most, and these values can guide us to become more resilient, stable, compassionate and courageous. Life guarantees us that you will become sick, your loved one might leave you, your work might become a lot less interesting. We will experience anger, sadness, guilt, grief, etc. Our resilience will only grow if we learn to process and become comfortable with the whole range of our feelings. The present strong focus on happiness and positive thinking makes us less resilient. More importantly, emotions like anger, sadness, guilt and grief make our values clear. We get angry or sad about things that we care about. If we ignore these emotions then we lose an opportunity to learn about ourselves. Thinking positive and putting our negative emotions aside, just doesn’t work.

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