1On Trying Too Hard to Be Happy
Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.
– Fyodor Dostoevsky, Winter Notes on Summer Impressions
THE MAN WHO CLAIMS that he is about to tell me the secret of human happiness is eighty-three years old, with an alarming orange tan that does nothing to enhance his credibility. It is just after eight o’clock on a December morning, in a darkened basketball stadium on the outskirts of San Antonio in Texas, and – according to the orange man – I am about to learn ‘the one thing that will change your life forever’. I’m sceptical, but not as much as I might normally be, because I am only one of more than fifteen thousand people at Get Motivated!, America’s ‘most popular business motivational seminar’, and the enthusiasm of my fellow audience members is starting to become infectious.
‘So you wanna know?’, asks the octogenarian, who is Dr Robert H. Schuller, veteran self-help guru, author of more than thirty-five books on the power of positive thinking, and, in his other job, the founding pastor of the largest church in the United States constructed entirely out of glass. The crowd roars its assent. Easily embarrassed British people like me do not, generally speaking, roar our assent at motivational seminars in Texas basketball stadiums, but the atmosphere partially overpowers my reticence. I roar quietly.
‘Here it is, then,’ Dr Schuller declares, stiffly pacing the stage, which is decorated with two enormous banners reading ‘MOTIVATE!’ and ‘SUCCEED!’, seventeen American flags, and a large number of potted plants. ‘Here’s the thing that will change your life forever.’ Then he barks a single syllable – ‘Cut!’ – and leaves a dramatic pause before completing his sentence: ‘… the word “impossible” out of your life! Cut it out! Cut it out forever!’
The audience combusts. I can’t help feeling underwhelmed, but then I probably shouldn’t have expected anything different from Get Motivated!, an event at which the sheer power of positivity counts for everything. ‘You are the master of your destiny!’ Schuller goes on. ‘Think big, and dream bigger! Resurrect your abandoned hope!… Positive thinking works in every area of life!’
The logic of Schuller’s philosophy, which is the doctrine of positive thinking at its most distilled, isn’t exactly complex: decide to think happy and successful thoughts – banish the spectres of sadness and failure – and happiness and success will follow. It could be argued that not every speaker listed in the glossy brochure for today’s seminar provides uncontroversial evidence in support of this outlook: the keynote speech is to be delivered, in a few hours’ time, by George W. Bush, a president far from universally viewed as successful. But if you voiced this objection to Dr Schuller, he would probably dismiss it as ‘negativity thinking’. To criticise the power of positivity is to demonstrate that you haven’t really grasped it at all. If you had, you would stop grumbling about such things, and indeed about anything else.
The organisers of Get Motivated! describe it as a motivational seminar, but that phrase – with its suggestion of minor-league life coaches giving speeches in dingy hotel ballrooms – hardly captures the scale and grandiosity of the thing. Staged roughly once a month, in cities across North America, it sits at the summit of the global industry of positive thinking, and boasts an impressive roster of celebrity speakers: Mikhail Gorbachev and Rudy Giuliani are among the regulars, as are General Colin Powell and, somewhat incongruously, William Shatner. Should it ever occur to you that a formerly prominent figure in world politics (or William Shatner) has been keeping an inexplicably low profile in recent months, there’s a good chance you’ll find him or her at Get Motivated!, preaching the gospel of optimism.
As befits such celebrity, there’s nothing dingy about the staging, either, which features banks of swooping spotlights, sound systems pumping out rock anthems, and expensive pyrotechnics; each speaker is welcomed to the stage amid showers of sparks and puffs of smoke. These special effects help propel the audience to ever higher altitudes of excitement, though it also doesn’t hurt that for many of them, a trip to Get Motivated! means an extra day off work: many employers classify it as job training. Even the United States military, where ‘training’ usually means something more rigorous, endorses this view; in San Antonio, scores of the stadium’s seats are occupied by uniformed soldiers from the local Army base.
Technically, I am here undercover. Tamara Lowe, the self-described ‘world’s number one female motivational speaker’, who along with her husband runs the company behind Get Motivated!, has been accused of denying access to reporters, a tribe notoriously prone to negativity thinking. Lowe denies the charge, but out of caution, I’ve been describing myself as a ‘self-employed businessman’ – a tactic, I’m realising too late, that only makes me sound shifty. I needn’t have bothered with subterfuge anyway, it turns out, since I’m much too far away from the stage for the security staff to be able to see me scribbling in my notebook. My seat is described on my ticket as ‘premier seating’, but this turns out to be another case of positivity run amok: at Get Motivated!, there is only ‘premier seating’, ‘executive seating’, and ‘VIP seating’. In reality, mine is up in the nosebleed section; it is a hard plastic perch, painful on the buttocks. But I am grateful for it, because it means that by chance I’m seated next to a man who, as far as I can make out, is one of the few cynics in the arena – an amiable, large-limbed park ranger named Jim, who sporadically leaps to his feet to shout ‘I’m so motivated!’ in tones laden with sarcasm. He explains that he was required to attend by his employer, the United States National Park Service, though when I ask why that organisation might wish its rangers to use paid work time in this fashion, he cheerily concedes that he has ‘no fucking clue’.
Dr Schuller’s sermon, meanwhile, is gathering pace. ‘When I was a child, it was impossible for a man ever to walk on the moon, impossible to cut out a human heart and put it in another man’s chest … the word “impossible” has proven to be a very stupid word!’ He does not spend much time marshalling further evidence for his assertion that failure is optional: it’s clear that Schuller, the author of Move Ahead with Possibility Thinking and Tough Times Never Last, but Tough People Do!, vastly prefers inspiration to argument. But in any case, he is really only a warm-up man for the day’s main speakers, and within fifteen minutes he is striding away, to adulation and fireworks, fists clenched victoriously up at the audience, the picture of positive-thinking success.
It is only months later, back at my home in New York, reading the headlines over morning coffee, that I learn the news that the largest church in the United States constructed entirely from glass has filed for bankruptcy, a word Dr Schuller had apparently neglected to eliminate from his vocabulary.
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For a civilisation so fixated on achieving happiness, we seem remarkably incompetent at the task. One of the best-known general findings of the ‘science of happiness’ has been the discovery that the countless advantages of modern life have done so little to lift our collective mood. The awkward truth seems to be that increased economic growth does not necessarily make for happier societies, just as increased personal income, above a certain basic level, doesn’t make for happier people. Nor does better education, at least according to some studies. Nor does an increased choice of consumer products. Nor do bigger and fancier homes, which instead seem mainly to provide the privilege of more space in which to feel gloomy.
Copyright © 2012 by Oliver Burkeman