Self-Help Suicides and the Danger of Positive Thinking

Photograph by Jean Berard/Gallery Stock

When the Brooklyn couple who co-host a motivational radio show called The Pursuit of Happiness were found dead in an apparent suicide yesterday, with helium-filled bags around their heads, the personal tragedy took on a deeper poignancy. You want to look for clues to explain the obvious disconnect, as with the mother who kills her children or the preacher doing meth with male prostitutes.

No one will ever truly know the inner demons that haunted Lynne Rosen and John Littig. Their choice of weapon—helium—is hailed by the EXIT euthanasia blog (“Leaders in self-deliverance”) as the most popular method of “rational suicide.” But it’s hard see a rational motivation for two people so publicly committed to The Power of Positive Thinking to end their lives. Their brutal actions go against everything that came out of their mouths. A quote from author Norman Vincent Peale adorns the home page of Rosen’s website: “It’s always too early to quit.”

The notion of the dysfunctional life coach—much like the sad clown or depressed psychiatrist—is itself a stereotype. But the tragedy is also a reminder of the counterproductive power that positive affirmations can have for the people who need them most. A 2012 Canadian study, published in the Journal of Psychological Science, found a negative correlation between positive self-statements and mood in people with low self-esteem. As lead researcher Joanne Wood of the University of Waterloo explained, those who try to pump themselves up with such phrases as “I accept myself completely” end up feeling worse, in part, because affirmations conflict with their own view of themselves.

On their WBAI radio show, Rosen and Littig dispensed positive affirmations like candy. There were inspirational quotes from Eleanor Roosevelt and Mark Twain as well as enthusiasm for the idea of instant, life-transforming change. We all know the rhetoric: From “Just Do It” to “Yes We Can,” American culture is steeped in the belief that positive thinking can take us anywhere.

Go watch the promotional video for Lynne Rosen’s life-coaching service, titled “The Person You Always Wanted to Be,” and she seems almost frantic in clinging to that belief. “Remember: positivity is precious.” she says to viewers. “Even a brief exposure to negativity is like being drenched in an acid bath.”

The problem is that she’s wrong. As Dr. Wood and others have discovered in studying the psychology of self-esteem, what unhappy people need most is a chance to acknowledge their feelings of negativity. Change is tough. Every day, in every way, some people don’t get better. Praising yourself in the mirror every morning isn’t the secret to a better career.

To suggest that low self-esteem drove Rosen and Littig to form a death pact is, of course, a form of trite pop psychology in itself. As with any suicide, the layers of emotion are complex, and the ripple effects in their communities of family and friends are profound. But to see such ardent disciples of positivity opt for such a brutal end is a reminder that pithy phrases, however catchy, are no balm for the tortured soul.

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