Positive thinking has its limits – study Boris Johnson and tense tennis star Johanna Konta

Our leading tennis player seems to use these methods and mantras as a crutch, while the new prime minister's brand of positivity is untethered to any empirical reality

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Who could be against positive thinking? Who wants to be beset by negativity? In the mother and father of self-help guides, The Power of Positive Thinking, first published in 1952, Norman Vincent Peale set out a series of practical rules and techniques according to which “by learning how to cast them from the mind, by refusing to become mentally subservient to them, and by channelling spiritual power through your thoughts, you can rise above obstacles which ordinarily might defeat you”. Subsequent chapters have titles such as “Believe in Yourself”, “A Peaceful Mind Generates Power”, “Expect the Best and Get It” and “I Don’t Believe in Defeat”.

Inspiring stuff, eh? Well up to a point, Lord Copper. Two of Britain’s most prominent exponents of positive thinking, the tennis player Johanna Konta and the new prime minister Boris Johnson, have recently been showing the limits as well as the power of positive thinking.

After a period in the doldrums Konta rediscovered her form this year, with fine runs to the finals of the Rome Open and the semi-finals of the French. But both there and in her Wimbledon quarter-final, Konta started strongly before falling away to defeat. Questioned about this in the Wimbledon post-match interview, Konta sounded childish and over-defensive: “I don’t think you need to pick on me in a harsh way… Please don’t patronise me.” At the same time she intoned one of the tenets of positive thinking: “I still believe in the tennis I play.”

Konta has worked with two “mind coaches”, the Spaniard Juan Coto (who tragically committed suicide in 2016) and the Italian Lorenzo Beltrame. Coto’s stress on visualisation techniques and trigger phrases such as “keep fighting” was apparently very helpful to Konta. As for Beltrame, he has said that after the defeat at Wimbledon, “We underlined the positive things… We discussed what happened more so than what went wrong.”

Maybe what went wrong was that Konta – notoriously a programmed and sometimes robotic-seeming player, with her praying-mantis-like ball bounce before serving – is too reliant on methods and techniques, and not spontaneous enough to react to the quicksilver ebb and flow of events.

Boris Johnson, a very different character in most respects, also seems dangerously sold on the idea that positivity by itself can bring results, or that belief can get you everywhere. Johnson used to claim that the problems with delivering Brexit stemmed from the negativity of the Remoaners. But it is doubtful whether more positivity on the part of British negotiators, politicians or businesspeople would have shifted the EU position on the Irish backstop, changed the geography of the English Channel or caused Japanese companies to abandon their misgivings about investing in British companies and factories post-Brexit.

More recently Johnson has shifted his focus to the “vaporous negativity that has been rising from certain sectors of the political establishment” over the past three years at the prospect of a no-deal Brexit. Would that include the forecast by the Office for Budget Responsibility (a body deliberately set up to be independent and non-political) of a £30bn per year hit to the British economy in the case of no deal? What seems more vaporous is Johnson’s “positivity”, untethered to any empirical reality.

The kind of positive thinking espoused by Johnson is profoundly solipsistic. It relies on the idea that everything depends on the individual’s (or a single country’s) mindset, which can be changed at will. But this is not how the world or the mature adult mind works. We are embedded, both personally and politically, in relationships that we cannot wholly control, and are at the mercy of contingency. Maybe in individual sports such as tennis the banishing of negative thoughts and the repetition of positive mantras can bring results, but such techniques are of limited value when listening and responding to others and accepting unavoidable compromises are of the essence.

The great psychoanalyst Melanie Klein theorised a crucial stage in child development as the shift from the paranoid-schizoid to the depressive position. The paranoid-schizoid infant cannot bear “negativity” (the frustration of its desires) and screams and rages when, as it were, she cannot have her cake and eat it. Shades here of the widely reported Johnson tantrums.

The depressive position means accepting and acknowledging inevitable frustrations, pains and losses. In the transition from one position to the other, as the psychoanalyst JH Rey puts it, “destructive impulses lose their intensity, and loving impulses play a fundamental role… Primitive compassion begins to take over from the total egocentricity characteristic of the beginning of life.”

It seems that Konta and Johnson both have a bit of growing up to do. Perhaps Konta could take on board some of the open-minded acceptance of Roger Federer, who did not hide in his post-match interview how much his loss in the fifth set tie-break of the Wimbledon final to Novak Djokovic hurt, or deny that he had let slip an amazing opportunity. In a performance as remarkable as the one he gave on court, Federer showed how sadness and disappointment can co-exist with serenity and pride.

Most unfortunately, Johnson seems stuck in the total egocentricity which has been the leitmotif of his entire life. Even more tragically, he seems capable of amplifying a fundamentally immature attitude through an entire nation – the idea that there is no downside to “going it alone”, that all wishes can gratified just in the act of wishing, that buccaneering chaos and destruction are better than the slow and difficult art of building and maintaining relationships. 

Harry Eyres is the co-author of “Johnson’s Brexit Dictionary” (Pushkin Press)

This article appears in the 02 August 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Summer special