Elizabeth Gilbert’s autobiographical book “Eat, Pray, Love” has sold millions of copies worldwide. And it is primarily women have devoured Gilbert’s inner and outer journey from a claustrophobic marriage in New York to orgies of food in Rome and to an ashram in India, where she ends up in a man’s arms in Bali.
Oprah Winfrey has invited the author to her popular television show several times. The film version, starring Julia Roberts, drew over 70 percent of US female moviegoers during its opening week.
The fundamental idea in the book is that the divine dwells within us and by looking inwards, we find happiness. But “Eat, Pray, Love” is only one part of a larger contemporary phenomenon that is a billion dollar industry.
The positive philosophy insists that we choose our thoughts and therefore we can literally think ourselves to success. Many self-help books in the genre, not least the best seller author of “The Secret”, pay tribute to the law of attraction. Positive thoughts attract positive people and events. Negative thoughts have the opposite effect. Those who dwell on illness have illness, those who focus on wealth becomes wealthy.
The gospels of positive thinking have not only conquered gemstone healers, but have also gotten into the corporate boardroom. The film “Up in the Air” portrays this phenomenon with irony. George Clooney plays a redundancy consultant who continually dismisses desperate employees with the mantra: “Look at this as a new start! Anyone who has ever built an empire and changed the world has sat where you sit now.”
The problem is that if getting well, getting a new job or avoiding welfare is your own responsibility, then failure to do so is also the individual’s own responsibility. It paves the way for a cynical outlook. The American journalist Barbara Ehrenreich examined the positive philosophy after being confronted with the it when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Ehrenreich was infuriated by the claim that you can think yourself healthy. Patients she met had embraced the view that cancer as a gift that change their attitudes and were convinced that worrying would make the tumor to grow faster.
A growing trend, preached by Oprah Winfrey, is the keeping of gratitude diaries. Gratitude diaries are now even available as iPhone applications. One of the prophets, Sarah Ban Breath Nach, testifies to her personal experience of keeping a gratitude journal:
“I started by giving thanks for everything: daisies in a jam jar on a windowsill, the sweet scent of my daughter’s hair.”
In short: be grateful for what you have instead of fretting over it you have not.
Yes, it’s certainly useful to think of positively instead of burying oneself in grievances. This is shown by the success of cognitive psychology. And yes, it can give spiritual harmony and inspire good actions.
But history teaches us that it’s critical thinking and anger at injustice that brought the world forward and increased humanity’s collective happiness.
Revolutionaries such as Mary Wollstonecraft, Martin Luther King and Lech Walesa were not grateful. Democracy fighters who I met in Cuba, in Belarus and in Somalia are not grateful. And we should be happy for it. The World Values Survey research project shows that the main factors behind the increase in happiness are democracy, tolerance, freedom and global economic growth. We cannot achieve things by just sitting behind ashrams walls and meditating.
This optimistic philosophy has gained particular support among women and it is a feminist challenge to respond to it.
We appreciate that female suffrage exists, and are thankful to the fact that suffragettes wrote glowing pamphlets instead of gratitude diaries. Many of the victories of feminism are still ahead of us.
In the country where Elizabeth Gilbert’s guru lives, in India, millions of female fetuses are aborted, for example because of the dowry system. And a frightening one quarter of the world’s maternal deaths occur on Indian soil. Holy wrath is a force that can bring the world’s happiness forward, rather than gratitude.
Jenny Sonesson is the president of the Women’s Association of the Liberal Party (Liberala Kvinnor) in Stockholm.