Friday, February 21, 2014

Positive Thinking is Just Like Magick

The success of books like The Secret and films like What the Bleep Do We Know? has popularized a revival of the New Thought movement that first emerged in the early nineteenth century. It emphasizes that positive thinking and visualization are responsible for bringing good things into your life, and that by cultivating such an attitude you will be more successful. There's a grain of truth to that idea, in that defeatism is unlikely to produce any sort of positive outcome, but at the same time critics of positive thinking have wondered for a long time whether reflexive positivity might have a downside as well.

Recently social psychologists have put positive thinking to the test, and have found that the critics do in fact have a point - one that I would argue applies to magick as well. One of the big cornerstones of the "blogosphere school" of magick is that magical operations and rituals are no substitute for mundane action. In order to achieve the best possible result, the point is that you take every possible mundane action in pursuit of your goal and then use magick to increase your odds of success further. Using magick in place of mundane actions likely has a fair amount to do with the reason that so many occultists wind up broke. You can use a spell to get a better job, but you still need to network, send out resumes, and so forth. Even a well-done spell is unlikely to drop a new job right in your lap by itself.

As the journalist Oliver Burkeman noted in “The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking,” “Ceaseless optimism about the future only makes for a greater shock when things go wrong; by fighting to maintain only positive beliefs about the future, the positive thinker ends up being less prepared, and more acutely distressed, when things eventually happen that he can’t persuade himself to believe are good.”

Burkeman is onto something. According to a great deal of research, positive fantasies may lessen your chances of succeeding. In one experiment, the social psychologists Gabriele Oettingen and Doris Mayer asked eighty-three German students to rate the extent to which they “experienced positive thoughts, images, or fantasies on the subject of transition into work life, graduating from university, looking for and finding a job.” Two years later, they approached the same students and asked about their post-college job experiences.

Those who harbored positive fantasies put in fewer job applications, received fewer job offers, and ultimately earned lower salaries. The same was true in other contexts, too. Students who fantasized were less likely to ask their romantic crushes on a date and more likely to struggle academically. Hip-surgery patients also recovered more slowly when they dwelled on positive fantasies of walking without pain.

None of this means that you shouldn't cultivate a positive attitude, any more than it means that you shouldn't use magick in pursuit of your goals. But you also need to cultivate an appropriate level of mental discipline so that your positive attitude or spellcasting doesn't prevent you from actively working toward your goals. Without discipline, complacency can overcome any benefit positive thinking or magical operations provide. While it's true that a magician who uses a spell in conjunction with five mundane steps should on average do better than a non-magician who takes those same steps, said magician probably won't do as well as someone who does ten, whether they're a magician or not. And both will be beat by somebody who does those ten steps and a magical operation.

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