To Well and BackThe Bleak Future of Positive Thinking

a thin, white woman sits on the floor in a meditation pose with hair wrapped around her eyes

Photo credit: L B/Unsplash

Nora Salem is Bitch Media’s 2020 Writing Fellow in Global Feminism

On April 2, 2020, Jeremy Haynes, owner of a marketing agency, tweeted:

“If you don’t come out of this quarantine with either: 1.) a new skill 2.) starting what you’ve been putting off like a new business 3.) more knowledge

You didn’t ever lack the time, you lacked the discipline”

It was a tweet that spawned endless eyerolls. There are tons of Twitter users like Haynes out there—usually influencers or marketers who believe almost exclusively in the cult of individual success and claim that the only route to it is paved with self-confidence and optimistic thoughts. This type of life coach, wellness influencer, or “self-made” entrepreneur has been a part of the Twitterscape for many years, but most of the content they create is treated as non-controversial. This tweet, however, promptly unleashed streams of criticism. It could have been the timing: With most of the country less than a month into a lockdown, and many unemployed or sick or both, Americans were not in the mood to be told that they weren’t hustling hard enough. It was one of the COVID era’s first instances of Twitter users united in annoyance at unsolicited, unhelpful advice: Everyone, it seemed, agreed that simply surviving the terrifying uncertainty of the moment with physical and mental health intact would be accomplishment enough. 

The incident, though barely a drop in the deluge of fear, confusion, injustice, and despair of the spring and summer that followed, seemed like a signal that Americans were rethinking wellness culture and the toxic positivity associated with it. And it wasn’t the first: Early in 2020, the podcast The Dream followed up a first engrossing season exploring the world of multilevel marketing with Season 2, which focused on the intersection of wellness and marketing. Among other revelations, the 10-episode season emphasized the complete lack of U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulation within the supplement industry, and even offered up a few pearls—for instance, divulging that Gwyneth Paltrow and Alex Jones sell the same dietary supplement under different names (“Sex Dust” and “Super Male Vitality,” respectively). And in August, the Washington Post published an article that warned of the danger of “going overboard with the ‘good vibes only’ trend,” using the Haynes tweet as one of the examples. According to Natalie Dattilo, a psychologist interviewed by the Post, “promulgating messages of positivity denies a very real sense of despair and hopelessness, and they only serve to alienate and isolate those who are already struggling.”

It’s increasingly difficult to ignore that the wellness industry, which is worth about $4.5 trillion globally, has thrown its cards in with corporate capitalism and distanced itself from its spiritual roots. In 2019, Ronald Purser, a San Francisco State professor of management and an ordained Zen Dharma teacher, offered a damning takedown of corporate and government co-optation of Buddhist meditation practices in his 2019 book McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality. While Purser’s most terrifying example may be the U.S. military’s mindfulness-training programs intended to produce calm combat soldiers, the main target of his analysis is corporations and startups, revealing, among other things, how they have leveraged free wellness programs to keep their stressed and overworked employees in golden handcuffs. Tactics like these have long been effective at keeping us focused on our individual concerns and blind to widespread inequities.

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It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that many Americans are growing tired of being told to deal with their problems by getting in shape, meditating, or just thinking happy thoughts. The radical right-wing turn in American politics has forced us to look directly at the widespread suffering that so many people in the United States are experiencing, and that suffering has only been multiplied in 2020. If COVID’s economic impact has left you unemployed, if you’ve lost your home in a wildfire or hurricane, if a loved one died because they believed the pandemic was a hoax, being told that positive thinking can get you your dream job sounds cruel and deranged. In fact, it sounds like something President Trump might say. After all, this is a man who, after being hospitalized for COVID and infecting several members of his own team, insisted that the country was “rounding the corner” on the pandemic.

Trump’s desperate efforts to turn language into reality are also not a coincidence. His connection to pastor and positivity guru Norman Vincent Peale has been widely noted. Peale, who wrote the enormously popular 1952 book The Power of Positive Thinking, believed that optimism was the key to life, and that anyone who was struggling simply needed to perk up. This ideology didn’t endear him to mental-health professionals: Albert Ellis, the founder of cognitive psychology, insisted that Peale’s work was dangerous and that his prescriptions were not only likely to boomerang back on those who used them but could also “prejudice them against effective therapy.” But critiques of Peale’s philosophy didn’t keep his work from being influential, particularly to politicians—Presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, and George H.W. Bush were among those interviewed for a 1994 documentary about Peale’s life.

How did six U.S. presidents come to be guided by the ideology of a man now considered a charlatan or outright fraud? Easily, as it turns out. Peale’s ideology echoed generally popular beliefs about individualism and the American Dream that were the cornerstones of conservatism, and his theories were validation for politicians who wanted to limit the reach of government. (Can’t pay for groceries? Guess you’re not working hard enough to afford them.) As with today’s GOP and its refrain of “personal responsibility,” positive thinking centered and prioritized the individual. After all, if all earthly problems can be resolved by changing your mindset, there’s no need to understand or acknowledge structural inequities. Peale’s theory of positive psychology moved to the mainstream later in the 20th century thanks in large part to Martin Seligman, who became president of the American Psychological Association in 1998.

Essentially the less churchy, more academic version of Peale, Seligman’s work has inspired education policy as well as that military-mindfulness program. More important, his work on positive psychology emerged during a time when wellness practitioners were beginning to influence mainstream culture and politics in a modern New Age. The ’90s kicked off with Vanity Fair naming then–little-known Marianne Williamson “guru of the moment;” the decade also saw Oprah Winfrey’s talk-show empire elevate Williamson, along with Deepak Chopra and Eckhart Tolle, as preachers of a new, secular gospel. And the early aughts brought forth The Secret, Rhonda Byrne’s Oprah’s Book Club-anointed bestseller whose titular promise was that your thoughts create your reality.

Believing that you can manifest health or a good job can seem like a neoliberal yuppie version of prosperity gospel, the conservative-Christian belief that wealth is a blessing for those who have pleased God—and that personal attitudes, rather than structural or social factors, are the cause of any limiting individual circumstances. Like Peale’s, these are very American ideologies. But the limits of solving widespread problems with individual manifestations have become clearer and harder to ignore: In 2020, we understand the necessity of working together in order to keep one another safe and healthy, and that justice requires collective action. We’ve learned that a coordinated response and shared goals make us much more effective than we are as individuals. That’s the reason berating others for not being well (or well-off) can seem gauche. Yet many wellness influencers and brands are stuck in the hamster wheel of their own making, reminding us all to be mindful or eat healthy while our economic and political systems are collapsing around us. They have products to sell, but no amount of blackout posts or nods to solidarity can keep this angle from seeming awkward or ill-timed.

Given the current political atmosphere, it’s obvious that this sort of social-media content would generate a negative response. Recently, psychotherapist Seerut K. Chawla critiqued “overfixation on ‘inner work’ and wellness” to a chorus of more than 9,000 likes on Instagram. Socialist icon Barbara Ehrenreich critiqued wellness culture in her 2018 book Natural Causes: Life, Death, and the Illusion of Control. One review of the book, published in the New Republic, noted the healthcare implications of wellness culture’s conspicuous consumption: “[The] same logic says that those who smoke (read: poor), or don’t eat right (poor again), or don’t exercise enough (also poor) have personally failed and somehow deserve their health problems and low life expectancy.” Proponents of the wellness industry often see those who don’t have the resources to ensure their health and well-being—through things like ready-made healthy meals, gym memberships, or meditation studios—as lacking the motivation to improve their circumstances, as opposed to facing high structural barriers like lack of inherited wealth, food deserts, or environmental racism. 

By repackaging positive thinking with words like “manifesting,” the wellness industry has marketed 1950s conservative “bootstraps” language to an ambitious, liberal crowd.

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As with prosperity gospel, there’s a belief that the well-off, healthy, and glowing are not privileged or lucky—they’re simply being rewarded for their hard work in real time. As Americans, our feelings about wellness culture seem to track with our recent political history. Back when the industry was just a couple short years away from its meteoric rise, Obama’s 2008 campaign put hope into the hearts of many voters. More than a decade later, the reemergence of sentient wellness brand Marianne Williamson as a presidential candidate seemed like a satire of that political optimism: Few liberal voters took her seriously, but many felt a certain sympathy toward her. However, though Williamson ran on the Democratic ticket, her personal philosophy had clear commonalities with Trump’s. For example, journalist and theologian Tara Isabella Burton pointed out in a 2019 Washington Post article that the two both cleave to a spiritual ideology focused primarily on the individual.

This similarity is not one that many who found Williamson charming would have wanted to admit, especially as it has become clear that and that no amount of reshaping of individual mindsets will get us to where we need to be. Being advised to “take a chill pill, grab some green juice, and go do some yoga” or told not to be afraid of a highly contagious virus sounds not just condescending but outright foolish. Those who have watched in horror as anti-maskers held pool parties at the height of the pandemic know that a measured dose of fear is often a necessary tool, especially when you don’t have access to presidential healthcare. Many of us also know that to settle onto meditation pillows and wish a collapsing country well will not do the trick. As do many of the ultimate experts on mindfulness.

As former Zen Buddhist monk Clark Strand told McMindfulness author Purser, “None of us dreamed that mindfulness would become so popular or even lucrative, much less that it would be used as a way to keep millions of us sleeping soundly through some of the worst cultural excesses in human history.” In the best of outcomes, the events of 2020—global pandemic, massive wildfires and other big climate events, the threat of democratic collapse, and the emboldening of a violent police state—positive thinking will give way to clear-eyed determination, and make way for something more attuned to our human connections, our structural challenges, and our collective strength.


Nora Salem, a writer of color, wearing a yellow shirt and light-blue jeans
by Nora Salem
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Nora Salem is a writer and teacher. A graduate of Virginia Tech’s MFA program, she completed a Fulbright research program in Kuala Lumpur and an Open City Fellowship at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop in New York. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two cats.