Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand “Positive Thinking”

Happiness sells. So do books promising a way to help you be happier—especially when they carry the designation “Christian.” In her 2009 book Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Under­mining America, social critic Barbara Ehrenreich traces the genealogy of positive thinking ideology back to religious Americans: for example, Norman Vin­cent Peale, author of the 1952 best seller The Power of Positive Thinking, and Mary Baker Eddy, the 19th-century founder of Christian Science. Positive psychology is now profitable quite apart from any religious associations, but one need only peruse Amazon best sellers in “Christian Living” to see that it remains popular in American Christianity.

Books promoting a Christianity driven and defined by positive thinking do not belong exclusively to the corpora of authors like Joel Osteen, Marianne Williamson and Joyce Meyer—all heavy on miracles and material blessings. Ann Voskamp, who describes herself as “just a farmer’s wife,” has created an impressive brand with her best-selling book One Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are and its companion journals, DVDs, devotionals, photo-illustrated gift books and iPhone apps. Her teaching is simple: start a running list of little things you’re grateful for—“a high pile of freshly grated cheese,” “moonlight on pillows,” “new toothbrushes”—and identify them as gifts from God. Then even tragedies will be transformed into “seeing-through-to-God-places.”

If this sort of thinking leaves you cold, British journalist Oliver Burke­man’s The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking will be for you just what the title promises. Burkeman introduces a different way to think about happiness: although happiness may be a “worthy target,” he writes, “aiming for it seems to reduce your chances of ever attaining it.”

{This is the beginning of a review I wrote for The Christian Century. Continue reading here.}

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2 thoughts on “Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand “Positive Thinking”

  1. A good review of a good book. I’ve long thought that Christians (at least contemporary one) should learn from the Stoics. In a fallen world excessive perkiness can be downright nauseating.

  2. Rachel, your writing is so darn good! I’ve long had a problem with this but couldn’t articulate why it bothered me so much. Do you think that women perpetuate this more than men? For some reason…I feel this way. Maybe it’s because I know more women than men. I don’t know. I know that the “prosperity” preachers (i.e. Osteen) are strong proponents, but I find that many mainstream “Christian” womens’ books are all out to tell you “yes life is bad” but then have this unrealistic “happiness solution” that you will find from reading the book. It seems like false honesty because it starts out transparent (i.e. my life was so hard before…. and then…. now it is wonderful.”) I would love to see more on this. I’m trying to figure this out myself. Very impressed with your writing.

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