In general, I am a pretty happy person. I have a quirky sense of humour – although many of my friends would probably describe it more as absurdist and “weird” but I am okay with that. I lead a busy life, but have fortunately been able to make life decisions (not without some sacrifice. of course) that allow me to do what makes me happy most of the time – on a personal level, an academic level, work level and on a political level.
Usually, I am not for following silly fads but recently a friend of mine, who is also a political activist, started doing #100HappyDays. It was great to see her photos which celebrated her life and experiences. As a result, I decided to give it a go myself. In doing so, I was aware that many people taking up the 100 Day challenge may have been coming at it from a different perspective from my friend and myself.
Within a day or so of starting it, another friend and political activist asked me what the deal was and had I “gone all hippy”? My response – of course – was no, mainly because I am the least “hippy” like person I know. The primary reason that my friend asked me this was because #100HappyDays very much falls within the cultural idealist phenomenon of “positive thinking”.
According to Dmitry Golubnichy, who started the #100HappyDays challenge: “being happy is a choice and everyone can be happy just by appreciating little things in life one has”. Writing in the Huffington Post about the challenge, Bev James, who is a Business mentor and CEO of The Coaching Academy, argued that by really committing to the challenge you can “train yourself to find happiness, develop resilience and overcome any obstacle to live the life you want”.
As a Marxist, I disagree with both Dmitry Golubnichy and Bev James. To say that happiness is choice is an abstraction which ignores the material conditions (ie the economic, social and political) under which most people on the planet live. In addition, thinking positively and training yourself to find happiness will not necessarily help you or others to overcome structural obstacles which exist under capitalism, such as poverty, racism, sexism or homophobia and other oppressions.
As a Marxist and a political activist, I am not an idealist – by this I mean, I do not believe that reality or reality as we know it, is determined or fundamentally mentally constructed. For a philosophical idealist, the process of thinking (ie. ideas) is viewed as being independent of the material world. For philosophical idealists, ideas work to construct and fashion reality and social consciousness.
However, as Karl Marx noted, when critiquing the Hegelian idealism, philosophical idealism results in people forming “wrong ideas about themselves, about what they are and what they ought to be. They have arranged their relations according to their ideas of God, of normal man, etc. The products of their brains have got out of their hands. They, the creators, have bowed down before their creations.”
Like Marx, I have a materialist conception of the world and believe that objective reality exists outside of our individual experiences. In other words, I believe objective reality exist independently outside of ones own personal, individual consciousness and personal sensations. As such objective reality is not constructed mentally but instead it is reflection of the material conditions (the economic, social and political conditions) under which we live.
Within capitalist society, the dominate ideas which exist and are shared in our society are a reflection of these material conditions, social relations and class relationships which exist under capitalism. As Marx noted: “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas.”
So what has this got to do with the cultural idealism and ideology of “positive thinking”?
The answer is that the cultural ideology of “positive thinking” is an expression of ruling class ideas in 21st century capitalist society. It can be described as being a 21st century version of “snake oil”, sold to us to sooth all our ailments and woes. But like the snake oil of the old West, it does no such thing and it prevents us from taking real action to address the ills we might be suffering.
The dominant cultural ideology of “positive thinking” is a simply a modern day manifestation and expression of philosophical idealism. It tells us that if we just think this way or that way, then we can change the material conditions we live under. That we can shape the reality as we know it, independent of any material conditions that might exist.
Positive thinking exhorts us to have a positive outlook on life, irrespective of the material conditions we face. It tells us we can achieve happiness, not by challenging the system that is oppressing us, but by burying ourselves in it and learning to accept the status quo. We are told if we just think positively we can improve our financial status, our emotional status and much much more, if we just think happy thoughts.
Positive thinking is often billed as an empowering activity. However, far from empowering people, it works to disempower them from taking real action to change the world and the capitalist system, which is the source of our alienation – whether it be economic, social or political alienation. Capitalism is a system which creates the social inequality and oppression, whether it be racism, sexism, homophobia or other types of oppression, none of which can be overcome simply through the delusion of “positive thinking”.
Positive thinking is used to mask social, economic and political inequality and is used to down play and/or negate the necessity to engage in the struggle to change the material conditions under which we live. As writer and political activist, Barbara Ehrenreich has noted in the past, the ideology of positive thinking tells you “don’t worry about social inequality if you’re a positive thinker, because you, too, can become rich just by modifying your thoughts. So why be concerned that some people are off in the stratosphere in their personal jets while you’re waiting for the bus?” The ideology of positive thinking therefore trains us to accept the status quo and to not challenge the inherent inequalities that exist under capitalism.
In addition to masking inequality, “positive thinking” also tells us that if you can not over come emotional problems or social inequality – its because it is our own fault. You just did not think positively enough or did not work hard enough etc to overcome whatever problem or inequality you face.
So why then do the #100HappyDay challenge? Am I not engaging in philosophical idealism and promoting the delusional and de-empowering ideology of positive thinking? My answer to this would be that like with most things we encounter under capitalism, we need to recognise that there is a dialectical dynamic.
Being critical of the ideological role of “positive thinking” does not mean that you have to be against being happy, having a nice day, smiling at strangers, finding joy in our everyday lives and relationships or having a good time. Being opposed to the ideology of positive thinking simply means we refuse to train ourselves to accept the status quo and recognise that demanding people be cheerful, upbeat and optimistic at all times will not change the material conditions of the world or eliminate the alienation, oppression and inequality they may experience under capitalism.
Instead, by recognising that objective reality exists independently of our own personal consciousness and independently of our sensations, we can acknowledge and even celebrate aspects of our everyday lives and experiences through such things as #100HappyDays, while at the same time recognising that the only way we can bring about a better world is by engaging in active political struggle to change the material conditions under which we live.