Positive Thinking Won’t Lead You To Happiness
Positive Thinking Won’t Lead You To Happiness

Positive Thinking Won’t Lead You To Happiness

Good morning, dudes! If this were a traditional church, we would probably begin by singing some hymns or maybe having a live band guide us through some of our favorite songs. This is not a traditional church, though. I mean, you can hum something if you want, we won’t fault you for that. For those so not inclined, though, we’ve created a playlist specifically for this morning’s homily. We encourage you to listen to a few songs before beginning to read.

So much of our social philosophy is summed up in the songs we play the most. That’s not especially unusual, mind you. Popular music has always been reflective of society, whether intentional or not.

One such song comes from the 1996 movie Space Jam and was, at the time, a hit for the now-disgraced artist, R. Kelly. A couple of lines from that song particularly stand out:

If I can see it, then I can do it
If I just believe it, there’s nothing to it

The song is meant to be inspirational and encouraging, but anyone who follows that advice is almost certain to be disappointed. Just because one believes in something, even with all their heart, doesn’t mean it is going to happen. Having faith doesn’t actually move mountains.

Do you know what does move mountains? Dynamite and dump trucks, baby! Actions trump beliefs every time.

Unfortunately, since the early part of the 20th century, that’s not what we’ve been taught, and that’s holding us back. In 1936, Dale Carnegie wrote How To Win Friends And Influence People. The book became an instant bestseller and only the Bible has sold more copies. There are Dale Carnegie courses all over the world, teaching people to succeed by simply believing that they can succeed. Carnegie wrote:

If you believe in what you are doing, then let nothing hold you up in your work.

We hear that and we think, “Hey, that sounds pretty good.” So, we practice believing in what we are doing and we try as hard as we can, putting all our faith into our effort, and … we fail.

Downer, man.

Then, in 1952, a New York City pastor, Norman Vincent Peale, published the book The Power of Positive Thinking. Again, the book was an instant bestseller and has been touted by hundreds of business people. Our current president (#45) even attended Peale’s church when growing up. All these people were listening when Peale said:

Believe in yourself! Have faith in your abilities! Without a humble but reasonable confidence in your own powers, you cannot be successful or happy.

Once again, people all over the world latched onto these words of encouragement, making Peale and his church very, very rich in the process. The system worked … for Norman Vincent Peale. Others, though, had a little more difficulty.

Over and over throughout the twentieth century, this philosophy of believing things into reality has been preached by both business leaders and clergymen looking to make a quick buck. Within religious circles, the practice is known as “Prosperity Theology.” Some of its best-known proponents are the late Oral Roberts, Robert Tilton, Joel Osteen, Creflo Dollar, Kenneth Copeland, and Kenneth Hagin. They all preach that all one has to do is believe. Have a positive attitude (buy their books)! Live a healthy life (buy their supplements)! Give generously (to their ministry)! Do that, and you cannot help but succeed!

Their congregants number in the tens of millions, every last one of them thinking that the only reason they too aren’t on Forbes’ list of millionaires is just because they’re lacking faith, they don’t believe quite enough, they need to be a little more positive.

So, why aren’t those ministries millionaire factories?

One of the most well-known preachers of the 19th century saw this trouble coming and tried to head it off at the pass. Charles H. Spurgeon, a British preacher whose works continue to be studied in seminaries and was a particular favorite of my late father, put it this way:

“I believe that it is anti-Christian and unholy for any Christian to live with the object of accumulating wealth. You will say, ‘Are we not to strive all we can to get all the money we can?’ You may do so. I cannot doubt but what, in so doing, you may do service to the cause of God. But what I said was that to live with the object of accumulating wealth is anti-Christian.”

Now, let’s take his words out of the capsule of Christianity and apply it to just normal folks like you and me, and what he’s saying is that if money is your only goal, you’re just not chill, man.

Even more important, though, is that we realize we cannot simply “believe” ourselves into being happy. Happiness, that state some refer to as Nirvana, requires some actual effort that goes beyond positive thinking.

The number one issue with the whole positivity thinking philosophy is that it is severely flawed psychologically. To maintain a constant state of positivity, one must repress the negative emotions and feelings that naturally occur. Repressing emotions, positive or negative, is a very dangerous practice.

There are two ways to look at this problem. The first is through science, which should always be where we look first. Scientific research shows over and over again the unhealthy effects of repressed emotion. This gets serious, dudes. I mean, you could die from holding stuff in.

A study from the University of Rochester and Harvard School of Public Health shows that people who repress anger, specifically, have a 70 percent higher risk of dying from cancer. Ouch, dude. That right there seems to be a pretty good argument for not putting a cork in what we feel.

The  Journal of Psychosomatic Research published a study from Kings College that compared 69 patients with breast cancer to a control group of 91 patients with benign breast disease. What did they find?

“There was a significant association between the diagnosis of breast cancer and a behavior pattern, persisting throughout adult life, of an abnormal release of emotions. The abnormality was, in most cases, extreme suppression of anger and, in patients over 40, extreme suppression of other feelings.”

The level of scientific research on the topic is rather considerable and it all demonstrates that repressing emotion is bad for us.

Anecdotally, we have the bad example of the stoic fathers of previous generations who never showed any emotion. Their children grew up starved for love, attention, and any sense of affirmation. As they became more detached, their wives divorced them. They were misunderstood, accused of not caring, and died premature deaths from stress and heart disease. Theirs was not a pleasant existence and it is good that we have, for the most part, put those bad habits behind us.

We are also warned on a more spiritual level against repressing our emotions. Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, a Buddhist teacher well-known in some circles, wrote in his book, Penetrating Wisdom:

“When we recognize an emotion, such as strong passion accompanied by jealousy, we are actually breaking down the speed of that emotion. The total sense of recognition is important in both Sutra and Tantra. In Sutra, it is mindfulness. In Tantra, if we see that nature and look at it nakedly, we will see the nature of that wisdom. You don’t need to logically apply any reasoning. You don’t need to conceptually meditate on anything. Just simply recognize and observe it….We will have the experience of that wisdom by simply being with it without conception. Therefore, recognition is quite important.

“The first step is just simply to observe it. Simply recognize the emotion and then watch it as it grows or as it continues. Just simply watch it. In the beginning, just to have an idea that [the emotion] is coming is very important and effective. In the Vajrayana [Tantric] sense, the way to watch these emotions is without stopping them. If we recognize the emotion and say, “Yes, it is passion,” and then try to stop it, that’s a problem. Rejection our emotions is a problem in Vajrayana.

photo credit: charles i. letbetter

The whole concept that we can just will ourselves into happiness, that we can shut everything negative out of our lives and be successful, is misguided at best. We are approaching the concept of happiness from the wrong direction, with a mindset that prevents us from being able to abide peacefully.

Happiness and contentment, that condition known within the Church of the Latter-Day Dude as being a dude, comes not from shutting out the negative and clinging desperately to the positive. Rather, it comes from finding the balance between the positive and negative in our lives.

Kahlil Gibran, a Lebanese-American philosopher dude, wrote of joy and sorrow and gets it right for dealing with all our emotions:

Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.
Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven?
And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives?
When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.
When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.

Some of you say, “Joy is greater than sorrow,” and others say, “Nay, sorrow is the greater.”
But I say unto you, they are inseparable.
Together they come, and when one sits, alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed.

Verily you are suspended like scales between your sorrow and your joy.
Only when you are empty are you at standstill and balanced.
When the treasure-keeper lifts you to weigh his gold and his silver, needs must your joy or your sorrow rise or fall.

When we go hunting for happiness, we look for something that immediately becomes invisible to our eyes. Happiness is not something we can capture in a net, quantify with statistics, or place in a container and dole out as we desire. Rather, happiness is a state of balance between all aspects of our lives, not merely emotions, but the physical and spiritual as well.

A truth of our existence is that if we let any one aspect of our lives get out of balance, we feel troubled, out of sorts, and perhaps even disgruntled. The imbalance doesn’t have to be large or significant. Following Gibran’s metaphor, even the smallest sliver of weight tips the scale. Spilling a bit of coffee on a clean shirt. Missing the turn signal at an intersection. A child disrupting a moment of meditation. In the grander scheme of things, none of those events truly matter. Yet, each one has the ability to tip the scale, putting us out of balance, sometimes for an entire day.

We must realize that we can no more will ourselves into happiness than we can cause a flower to bloom on command. Happiness does not come and go at our beckoned call. Rather, happiness is a condition of our condition; a state of contentment that finds acceptance in whatever life chooses to throw at us.

I find it deeply disturbing that we expect someone to lay out a path to happiness for us when genuine happiness is a journey we must travel for ourselves. My experience cannot be duplicated even if you attempt to follow immediately in my footsteps for once I have stepped upon the sand, the sand has changed and responds differently to each step that comes afterward.

Lao Tzu said:

A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.

There is no 7, 10, or 12-step plan toward finding happiness. One cannot create a list and check off each element as it has been achieved. Sure, the Internet is full of so-and-so’s “steps to happiness” but what we must realize that we only find happiness when the steps are our own. We cannot find happiness at the end of someone else’s path.

Why do we search for that which is impossible to find? Google does not have the answer. Joel Osteen does not have the answer. All the books on all the shelves in all the libraries do not have the answer. We do not find nor control happiness. Happiness finds us and then lets us be.

How does happiness find us?

For happiness to find us, we must first be open to being found. We must know who we are and what we want. Lao Tzu wrote:

At the center of your being, you have the answer; you know who you are and you know what you want.

We put up roadblocks against happiness when we deny who and what we are. Start with the fact we are human–at least, most of us are. Work outward from there and meditate on what it is that defines you, your passions, your being. What controls your attitudes and your actions?

The answer is there at the core of your being. Accept it. Don’t mask it, excuse it, or blame your reality on anything or anyone else. Run with it. Embrace it. Only when we are first open and honest about who and what we are can we be open to happiness coming into our lives.

We must also make ourselves open to the influence of others in our lives. The Dude had Walter, Donny, Maude, and even the Stranger, all of whom influenced his state of being. When Donny died, The Dude felt sadness in part because he had lost one of the sources through which some portion of happiness and completeness funneled into his life.

Likewise, we need those friends, those relationships, who accompany us on our journey as they travel their own. Not that we need anyone else to make us happy, but that in the camaraderie of others we open wider the doors of our life so that happiness might find us. Through those shared pieces of life, the conversations, the experiences, the travels, the frames bowled, we dismantle some of the walls that keep us from achieving balance and allowing happiness into our lives.

Happiness finds us as we are doing the things that we love–the things we are good at doing. The character of Donny in The Big Lebowski is an apt metaphor for this truth. Happiness finds Donny when he’s bowling. While he has plenty of shortcomings in other areas, the one thing Donny does well is throwing one strike right after another. Putting that bowling ball onto the polished wood is Donny’s moment of zen.

photo credit: charles i. letbetter

Each of us has something that is our thing, our particular ability, the one thing we do better than anything else we might be asked to do. Perhaps it’s a talent with which you were born, or a skill carefully honed through hours of learning and practice, but it’s there. Doing that thing at which we’re good opens the door to happiness, making it possible to be content with our work.

What saddens me is the frequency with which people are denied doing that thing they do best. They’re told, “you can’t make a living at that,” or “you’ll never get rich doing that thing.” Don’t let anyone push you away from what you do well. Embrace your abilities and happiness is more likely to embrace you.

We also make our lives more open to happiness when we reject the complexity and confusion that life tries to force upon us. Remember what Lao Tzu taught us:

Simplicity, patience, compassion. These three are your greatest treasures.

We know well the metaphor used in Tao te Ching about water being murky when it is stirred and clear when we are still. We are admonished to be patient and allow the water around us to be calm.

Being still when it seems like everything around us is going to shit is one of the most difficult things we might try to do. I am far from having this mastered. Mediation works for some. Yoga works for others. For me, it’s the peace and quiet contemplation that comes with being alone with a cup of coffee early in the morning. Finding that place of simplicity is important for each of us for many reasons, not just happiness.

Simplicity, though, sometimes takes some serious work on our part. Many of us grew up in a society that places undue value on materialism, the accumulation of things that we allow to surround us. Those possessions complicate our lives. We feel we have to protect them and that somehow our value as a person is lost if we don’t have them.

Happiness finds us most easily, however, when we have nothing. Consider the many peoples of third world countries who struggle even to find food to eat. Yet, they dance and sing and experience happiness at a much higher level than we do because there is nothing blocking happiness from reaching them.

Compassion opens yet another door to happiness and it is here that I fear we are mostly unfamiliar. Greed and selfishness drive so much of our society that fully embracing a life of compassion puts us at odds with much of what those around us consider normal. We shy away from being overly compassionate because we fear people might see us as weird and even question our motivation.

The Tao te Ching teaches us to act without expectation, however. This is a universal truth we find in all the world’s major religions, to demonstrate compassion and not expect rewarded just because we did something good.

Remember the Big Lebowski, how he had all the trappings of riches and even manipulated The Dude and stole from the foundation in an effort to make himself richer. Yet, in the end he’s left helpless on the floor, crying.

Compassion changes our course, away from complexity and down a path where we look to help those around us rather than trying to benefit from them. This does not mean that we shouldn’t be paid fair wages for legitimate work that we do, mind you. But neither should we expect or demand tips for doing the decent thing, such as helping change a flat tire or attending the landlord’s interpretive dance performance. Being compassionate removes significant barriers between us and happiness.

You know what else smooths the path to happiness? Music. There’s a reason that music is such an integral part of many religious rites and services. Music both calms our spirits and frees our minds from troubling thoughts, allowing us to focus on the things that truly matter, like not burning the nachos.

This is why I include a playlist with our Sunday postings. When you come here, burdened as you may be with whatever is going on in your life, I want to give you music that allows you to set those worries and concerns aside for a while. My hope is that in doing so you are better able to focus on the abiding truths we hope to present.

What music works in this regard? That, dear dudes, is totally up to you. Today’s playlist runs a wide gamut of old and new, instrumental and vocal, calm and excited. Not everything will speak to everyone, but chances are everyone finds something there that works for them.

If happiness rides a horse, then surely the name of that horse is music.

Finally, my dear dudes, I encourage you to lay aside the pursuit of happiness and strive to abide in the joy of the moment. Be present now and let the happiness of the moment wash over you. We can do nothing to alter the past and the future is best left to fend for itself. We gain nothing from guilt or worry. We gain everything from embracing the present.

The Buddha taught us:

The Secret of health for both mind and body is not to mourn for the past, worry about the future, or anticipate troubles, but to live in the present moment wisely and earnestly.

Here is where I feel some more “traditional” religions fail us. They would have us looking toward some future event of deific significance. As a result, their followers spend entire lives so consumed with worry and anxiety over being prepared for what they believe is coming that they are incapable of participating in the joys that are here for them now.

Happiness cannot be sitting out somewhere in some static place in the future waiting for us to arrive for our paths may never take us to where it is seated. Rather, we must give happiness the opportunity to embrace us now, where we are, doing what we do, being who we would be.

The final song in today’s playlist was chosen because I think it might embody the state of mind in which happiness is most likely to find us: Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay. We’ve traveled far. Trouble won’t leave us alone. Yet, there is a sense of peace, of being at home, just sitting there watching the tide.

Feel free to jump ahead in the playlist and listen along:

Sittin’ in the mornin’ sun
I’ll be sittin’ when the evenin’ comes
Watchin’ the ships roll in
Then I watch ’em roll away again, yeah

I’m sittin’ on the dock of the bay
Watchin’ the tide roll away, ooo
I’m just sittin’ on the dock of the bay
Wastin’ time

I left my home in Georgia
Headed for the Frisco Bay
‘Cause I had nothin’ to live for
It look like nothin’s gonna come my way

So I’m just goin’ sittin’ on the dock of the bay
Watchin’ the tide roll away, ooo
I’m sittin’ on the dock of the bay, wastin’ time

Look like nothin’s gonna change
Everything, still remains the same
I can’t do what ten people tell me to do
So I guess I’ll remain the same, yes

Sittin’ here restin’ my bones
And this loneliness won’t leave me alone, yes
Two thousand miles, I roam
Just to make this dock my home

Now I’m just gonna sit, at the dock of the bay
Watchin’ the tide roll away, ooo yea
Sittin’ on the dock of the bay
Wastin’ time (whistle)


© Warner/Chappell Music, Inc., Universal Music Publishing Group

My dear dudes, as we go about our lives this week, may we not pursue happiness, but rather open the many doors that allow happiness to come to us. May we not fall victim to those telling us we can find happiness in thinking positive and repressing other emotions. Instead, may we embrace the balance that our emotions bring to our lives, be still when the waters around us become agitated, and dance to the music of the air.

Abide in peace,

-the Old Man

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photo credit: charles i. letbetter

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