“Sunshine all the time makes a desert” – Proverb
Positive Psychology is a scientific field of study, that was born of the desire to be more pre-emptive and less reactionary to Western mental health issues.
Some early studies in the field seemed to suggest that focused application of forced “positive” thought has an overall benefit on a majority, but it is not yet a developed enough field to have proven its early assertions.
Born of Positive Psychology was a bastard beast named Magical Thinking, which cherry-picked certain facets of Positive Psychology and blew up the popular self-help market.
The reason I’ve decided to write about this on my poker blog
is because I have seen that some of poker’s big names have joined the Mind-Positivity
Patrol and are therefore spreading what I perceive to be pure lies within my
For clarity, I don’t think they are consciously lying,
because that implies they are aware they are spreading mistruths, I believe
they have been brainwashed.
I don’t believe this piece can help them, chances are they are too far gone,
but if you are hating on yourself because you just can’t seem to feel deeply
grateful to the Universe for having cancer, then maybe it will help you.
My first issue with well-known poker players using their platform to dispense life advice is that they haven’t earned the right; they are authorities on poker, nothing else.
Celebrity is the real 21stC hierarchy; we really should have seen a problem when Jude Law went off to “negotiate” with the Taliban, or Lindsey Lohan was convinced she was an important element of the Iraqi conflict.
It is human nature to want to emulate people at the top of
our cultural hierarchies; there are multiple flaws in doing this when the
hierarchy in question is celebrity, but the big two are:
- repeating the same actions in a different
environment will not guarantee the same results, and the environment of each
life is unique.
- skill or knowledge in one area is not a
guarantee of skill or knowledge in another area. Cardiac surgeons are incredible
and brilliant, but I don’t want a truckload of them turning up if my house is
Celebrities are successfully engaging in a cultural “mission-creep”, becoming a dominant source of information and guidance and diminishing the opinions of experts and scientists on a global scale.
Does this sound like a good idea to you?
Magical Thinking can be defined as when you believe that one
thing happens as a direct cause of another without any empirically identifiable,
causal link; it is a type of faith.
An example would be me BELIEVING I will get AA and then actually getting dealt
AA and directly connecting those two happenings.
The Magical Thinking of Mind-Positivity is unfalsifiable here, because if I
don’t get dealt AA, then I can simply put that down to me “not thinking hard
enough about it”.
There are no cheats, there are no shortcuts, there is no
winning by superficial emulation; if you want to be good and successful at
something, you must work hard at it.
Changing other elements of your life to accommodate and support the work you
need to do is one thing, but swapping the hours you watch TV over to spending
time in the kitchen preparing vegan meals because your hero said it made him
better at poker isn’t going to instantly improve your poker game; nothing
except hours of boring, critical, honest graft and study will do that.
If you perceive that not being a world-class poker player is
making you unhappy, but you’re jogging about the place, lifting weights and
eating carrots as an excuse not to whack out the software and analyse your leaks,
then maybe it’s time to assess whether you truly want what you think you want.
Do you really want to be great at poker, or do you just want to be a visible part
of the poker world?
I see poker celebrities informing me that “negative”
behaviour/thoughts are ruining me, and if I could just be “positive” all the
time, I’d probably get a better deal in life; maybe I could even achieve the
dizzy heights of being like them!
It would seem that any expression of a “negative” emotion is a sign that I am
deeply miserable, and will never amount to more than I am already until I chirp
up a bit.
There is so much wrong with this it makes my head spin, but
again, I’m going to pick on the most important points for consideration:
- Sadness, anger, envy, disgust, hate and grief
are not “negative” emotions, they are just emotions. They are important, they
are valid, they are real, and they cannot be wished away, they must be lived.
They cannot be allowed to rule our lives, because they then become pathological,
not emotional. This is also true of happiness, joy, glee, excitement and
laughter; unchecked and uninterrupted the “positive” emotions become mania.
- “Positive” (or “negative”) is a value judgement
and looks different to different people.
- Sociological studies have demonstrated that when
people feel pressure from others to “feel happy and not sad, this leads them to
feel sad more frequently and intensely” (1). This is important because it means
that when someone is going through a bad time and sees a “simply think yourself
happy” meme they will now add feelings of social inadequacy to their mental burden.
- The great and growing field of psychology has
defined a group as “Defensive Pessimists”. For this personality type, the
thoughts that the Mind-Positive consider to be useless negativity act as a
psychological defence against anxiety. By imagining all the things that could
go wrong with a project or endeavour, defensive pessimists can plan for all
eventualities and doing so actually increases
their productivity and success rate.
- Self-affirming mantras have a detrimental effect
on those with low self-esteem. This is a deep subject, but the cliffs are that
you can’t lie to your subconscious. If you inherently believe that you are ugly
and unlovable, repeating “I am beautiful and adorable” in front of the mirror
will make you feel worse because you don’t trust the source.
There are two elements of the Magical Thinking movement that
really sicken me, the tendency towards victim blaming and the reduction in
If someone wants to believe that every element of their life
is entirely within their control then I may not agree with them, but it’s their
life, and they can do what they want.
When someone implies that a five year old girl was raped by a grown man as a
result of the thoughts she put out into the universe I get incredibly angry,
and I will not be shamed nor silenced out of that anger: I love that anger.
You’ll never actually hear a mind-positive advocate say “she
deserved it” in those exact words, but this mindset has been consistently and
clearly implied by proponents of the theory.
The Law of Attraction states that you will receive what you think of, with absolutely no-exceptions; in no
situation is an uncontrollable external factor ever a consideration- unwanted
events are always your failing.
Lost your job due to industry consolidation? Your fault.
Drunk driver crashed into you and smashed up your football legs? You must have
Piano fell on your head? Well, you have been dreaming of a life in music.
It’s positively dangerous bullshit, people.
I am educated to an underserved level, so I’m perfectly capable of a more
articulate critique than that but it’s such a walloping wad of woo it doesn’t
You’re probably thinking that if I’m so educated, brilliant
and balanced I should be more empathetic to the Positivity Patrol; I mean,
surely I can at least imagine the benefits of forcing everything out of my
brain except dribbling joy at the perfect world?
Trouble is, the mind-positive are less empathetic than the average human, and
this is because they believe that every man has complete autonomy. To empathise
is to entertain “negativity”, to imagine the unbearable situation of another
and admit it exists is against the tenets of Mind-Positivity.
Providing practical help to those in need seems less
important to the Mind-Positive, because all the world’s problems can be solved
with “thoughts and prayers”; it is “negative” to question or consider whether a
person living in a war-torn country can think themselves outta there before
they get exploded.
A 2013 study suggested that Mind-Positive advocates donate
less to charity than population average (2); presumably the wealth of positive
thoughts are enough.
I will not waste my empathy on a group that, by the life rules it chooses to put
in place, cannot have empathy for others.
I do not want to suggest that there is no place for
reassuring language or thoughts, or practical application of thought patterns.
In 2012 I trained as a clinical hypnotist, so I clearly put some credence in
the idea that the subconscious is a force to be reckoned with. I know I have to
work with my subconscious, and I can guide it, change it and develop it, but I
can never consciously control it… the clue is in the name.
I want to reach out to those who are sick of being called
“negative” or “haters” because they can’t or won’t force a smile and a positive
mantra 24 hours a day.
If you think I must just be a neggo hater who is jealous of the success of well-known poker players and wishes it was me with a large platform to spout my life philosophies… well, you may be right!
Accepting all patterns of thought through my head allows me to consider this possibility; my balanced, critical approach to the myriad shades of the world means I’m psychologically strong enough to consider your valid viewpoint without being terrified that it will automatically destroy mine.
I choose not to base my life on causal, unfalsifiable claims.
I will not to stay silent when I am angry.
I will celebrate crying when I am sad.
I will not allow self-inflated egos to contribute unchallenged to the intellectual diabetes of our age by hocking the potent drug of saccharin philosophy.
It’s important to me to balance my emotional ranges, because
I don’t want to be exploited by the external forces of life.
I’m not qualified to tell you how to live your life (I’m not convinced anyone is as a single source), and I’m not trying to.
In my opinion, if you manage to keep on waking up every morning and fighting through each day without seriously impinging on the physical liberties of another human, you’re already the positive hero we need.
1: Bastian, B., Kuppens, P., Hornsey, M. J., Park, J., Koval, P., & Uchida, Y. (2012). Feeling bad about being sad: The role of social expectancies in amplifying negative mood. Emotion, 12(1), 69-80.
2: Kappes, H. B., Sharma, E., Oettingen, G. (2013). Positive fantasies dampen charitable giving when many resources are demanded. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 23 (1), 128-135.