The dubious virtue of positive thinking

Too much self-belief blinds us to the flaws in our character


A portrait taken on May 13, 1983 shows British singer David Bowie during a press conference at the 36th Cannes Film Festival. He is the main actor in Nagisa Oshima's film "Furyo (Merry christmas Mr. Lawrence)", official selection in Cannes. He is also with French actress Catherine Deneuve maina ctor in Tony Scott's film "The hunger" presented out competition at the festival. AFP PHOTO RALPH GATTI (Photo by RALPH GATTI / AFP) (Photo by RALPH GATTI/AFP via Getty Images)

If there is one phrase that characterises the aspirational mindset of modern life, it is surely this: “Believe in yourself”.

If you do, so we are told, “then anything is possible”. Dozens of motivational speakers and upbeat celebrities tell us: “Have faith in your abilities”, “don’t let anything get in your way,” and “your only limitations are those you set upon yourself”. Is all this positive thinking healthy?

There is a whole industry of literature pushing us to believe in ourselves. For sure, this helps to overcome the innate worry and self-doubt that too many of us have, but the relentless reassurance of our capabilities may also be spawning a dangerous culture of unrealistic expectations, bloated self-importance and increased disillusionment when the expectation “to be all that you can be” is not met.

In the season of the High Holy Days, it is worth reconsidering the pros and cons of self-belief.

The first-century sage Hillel presents us with an antithetical stance: “Do not believe in yourself until the day you die” (Ethics of the Fathers 2:5). This is sobering. It seems he would rather we constantly doubt ourselves than be overconfident.

Most of the commentaries reference the Talmud to elucidate his statement: “Do not believe in yourself until the day you die because Yochanan the High Priest served in his role for 80 years and in the end became a Sadducee” (Berachot 29a).

Although there is scant information about him, it seems that Yochanan was a devout religious leader for decades and yet, in the end, he turned to heresy and became an enemy of the Jewish community.

It is a truism that just because you have adopted one path in life, there is no guarantee that you will not get thrown off course. But Hillel is teaching us more. Believing in yourself might be encouraging, but it is disingenuous. It convinces you that you are more stable than you really are. It is much better to be unsure.

This unsettling perspective does chime well with one particular hero of modern culture: David Bowie. The dark ballad Quicksand, from his 1971 album Hunky Dory, has a Hillelesque chorus:

“Don’t believe in yourself,

“Don’t deceive with belief

“Knowledge comes with death’s release

“Aah-aah, aah-aah, aah-aah, aah-aah.”

Throughout this still wildly popular song, Bowie grapples with what he cannot understand. He sings: “I’m sinking in the quicksand of my thought, and I ain’t got the power anymore.” He is mired in deep thought about unresolvable questions.

Nevertheless, he doesn’t want himself, or us, to be deceived by spurious self-belief; and he realises that answers might only be forthcoming after our demise. The aahs punctuate this point well when you hear (rather than read) them.

There is, however, a further talmudic dictum which directly contracts the tale  of Yochanan the High Priest’s late-in-life turnabout: “Rabbi Chiya bar Abba said: Once most of a person’s years have passed and they did not sin, they will not sin again” (Yoma 38b).

Of course, everyone sins, but Rabbi Chiya’s view seems to be that once a person has lived half their life acting in a moral way, then they are very unlikely to change. The problem is that Yochanan did.

A resolution to this talmudic disagreement might come from the biblical phrase Rabbi Chiya quotes to back up his perspective: “God guards the steps of His pious ones” (I Samuel 2:9). Rather than miraculous divine intervention, the point here is that God created human consciousness to respond well to regular re-enforcement through habit.

The Hebrew root word for “steps” in the verse is regel, which is very close to hergel, meaning “habituation”. At the end of the daily morning blessings, we say “And may it be Your will, Lord our God and God of our ancestors, to habituate us to Your Torah, and attach us to Your commandments. Lead us not into error, transgression, iniquity, temptation, or disgrace… Help us attach ourselves to  the good instinct and to good deeds.”

The day-in, day-out practice of Jewish rituals is not always exciting, but it has a profound effect on our psyche. Aristotle argued in his Nicomachean Ethics that virtues are acquired through habitual practice. These routines do not assure a life of virtue, but they make it that much more likely and attainable. We become attached.

So it seems Yochanan the High Priest was an exception that acts as a warning to be awake to the dangers of too much self-belief, and the need for good habits. In this vein, Maimonides teaches that we must repent not just from our mistaken actions, but from our mistaken attitudes too:

“A person should not think that teshuvah is only necessary from those sins that involve a deed such as promiscuity or theft… Just as a person is obligated to return from these, similarly, they must check their bad character traits, and return from them: from anger, hatred and envy… and from the pursuit of money and honour… And these sins are more difficult than those that involve deed. For when a person is attached to these, it is more difficult for them to
separate themselves” (Laws of Repentance 7:3).

The days leading to Yom Kippur are our annual opportunity to review not just what we have done, but who we are. What traits have we acquired that are detrimental to who we want to be? What good traits can we try to adopt to set us on a better path? Maimonides admits that this is incredibly hard to do, but our God-given ability to choose means that personality is not set and capacity to change our destiny is ever-present.

On the other hand, if we are overly focused on believing in ourselves, then we will never see the cracks in our character. We can fall into narcissistic blindness. In the 2010 book The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement, Dr Jean M Twenge and Dr W Keith Campbell, both professors of psychology, warned of what is happening across the pond:

“Narcissism causes almost all of the things that Americans hoped high self-esteem would prevent, including aggression, materialism, lack of caring for others and shallow values. In trying to build a society that celebrates high self-esteem, self-expression, and ‘loving yourself’, Americans have inadvertently created more narcissists — and a culture that brings out the narcissistic behaviour in all of us.”

We in the UK are not immune to this either. Rabbi Sacks would often say, “God believes in us even when we don’t believe in ourselves”. Maybe being reassured by God’s belief in us is better that our own, because it widens the door to humility, reminding us of our deep responsibilities rather than inalienable rights.

“I’m sinking in the quicksand of my thoughts” — Bowie’s imagery is frightening but informative. Struggling madly with self-belief and self-doubt will only drag you down further. But if you take calmer consistent steps — steps that lead to good habits — then you might just get out of the hole you are in.

Rabbi Zarum holds the Rabbi Sacks Chair of Modern Jewish Thought at the London School of Jewish Studies

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