Illustration: Simon Letch
Visualise your goals. Think positive. Cut the word ''impossible'' out of your life. These are the sentiments of a generation, and self-help gurus have made a fortune peddling them. Through seminars, DVDs, CDs and books such as The Secret and The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, positive thinking has formed the heart of a multibillion-dollar industry. ''Life coach'' Anthony ''Tony'' Robbins alone takes home about $80 million a year.
But as positive psychology reaches its zenith, now comes the backlash. The cheeriest movement that ever there was is being blamed for everything from teen suicide to the global financial crisis. Social researcher Hugh Mackay, who has become an unlikely fixture on the happiness conference circuit (given his scepticism about the pursuit of happiness), has noticed that even positive psychologists are rebranding themselves.
If we overemphasise self-esteem in kids ... they're going to find it hard to cope with disappointment and failure.Hugh Mackay, social researcher
''One of the leaders of the movement in Australia said to me there's a real movement to drop the word 'positive','' Mackay says.
The outbreak of cynicism started in the US, the spiritual home of evangelical positivity. Barbara Ehrenreich argued in her book Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World that reckless optimism blinded the financial sector to looming catastrophe: ''What was the point in agonising over balance sheets and tedious analyses of risks … when all good things come to those who are optimistic enough to expect it?''
The latest retort to the onslaught of cheerfulness comes from Oliver Burkeman with his book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking. Burkeman writes a column on mental well-being for Britain's The Guardian newspaper, and is convinced that chasing happiness is a problem. He explores a ''negative path'' to happiness, learning the arts of Stoicism and meditation, how to embrace failure and why it is better to accept than resist insecurity.
He points out that charisma and perseverance - which motivational speakers often characterise as the hallmarks of successful entrepreneurs - are also likely to characterise extremely unsuccessful people. ''Motivational books, tapes and seminars might leave you feeling briefly excited, but that feeling fades,'' Burkeman writes. ''Which is, a cynic might suggest, how motivational speakers and self-help authors guarantee themselves a reliable income: if their products delivered lasting change, they would have less repeat custom.''
But he admits the concept of positive thinking is appealing. ''Filling your mind with positive thoughts and emotions, it seems to make sense,'' he says. ''I think the idea grew out of … finding a philosophy of life that feels compatible with consumer capitalism.''
As Mackay sees it, the counterpoint to the happiness movement that The Antidote and other books represents is an inevitable reaction to ''the excesses of the happiness movement, the self-esteem movement, the cult of perfection, all of that stuff which has held sway for 20 years''. They were appealing because they came at a turbulent time in our history, but aspiring to be permanently happy is unrealistic at best. At worst, it leaves people emotionally ill equipped to face the vicissitudes of life.
''There's a lot of life that's just a hard grind,'' Mackay says. ''If we overemphasise self-esteem in kids, inevitably when they reach adulthood, early adulthood, even adolescence, they're going to find it very hard to cope with disappointment and failure.''
It struck him again watching the Olympics, and Emily Seebohm's disappointment in winning a silver medal. She thought she let her parents down. ''Now, her parents, of course, disowned that but it was a strange and very telling comment about a generation of people who think they have to please their parents all the time,'' he says. ''In fact, the darker emotions, failure and disappointment, have much more to teach us than the bright shiny ones.''