Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Tyranny of Positive Thinking

This post is going to be awesome. It will get me everything I want. Because I can visualize it. People will flock to it and smother me with love and affection. Because other people exist to help me reach my personal goals. Yay me!!!

At least, that might have been the case if my positive attitude hadn't been hijacked by the curmudgeonly Barbara Ehrenreich in her latest book, Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America.

It's an amazing book, and like all eye-opening nonfiction, parts of it disgust me.

Ehrenreich shows how positive thinking, something that in general benefits a person and a society, has become so perverted in our culture-- in medicine, psychology, religion, and business-- that it's turned into a form of propaganda that subverts reason and critical thinking.

She writes about her own struggle with breast cancer, and how she was never allowed to feel angry, sad, or frustrated by the disease. People who voiced any negativity over the fact that they had a possibly fatal disease were chastised and told they were only making the cancer worse. Some went as far as to say that it was their negative energy that gave them the cancer in the first place. (Despite some earlier studies that showed a positive attitude increases your chances of beating cancer, further studies have shown this not to be the case. But the attitude remains in the public mentality.)

Having cancer in America means that not only do you have to deal with all the shit of having cancer, you also have to deal with the "additional burden" of feeling guilty if you ever fall off the positive train.

Positive thinking has infected American business to such an extent that it's used as a justification for downsizing. Yes, you CAN lay off thousands of workers and increase your stock! If you're one of the laid off workers, you're told to stop moping about it and find a new job. If you can't find one, you only have yourself to blame! This mania has also contributed to our current recession. So many investors, bankers, and loan officers were so busy saying, "Yes, I can!" they didn't bother to ask, "But should I?"

In religion, mega churches adopt the business model and use positive thinking to attract members (some churches even call them "customers") by avoiding all that pesky stuff about sin. Instead, negative thoughts are the only sin, and the basic message is God is there to make you rich and happy. God is a servant, and if you only stay positive, he will get you everything you want.

The most insidious extreme of the positive thinking movement is books like The Secret, that preach that you can control all the events in your life merely by your mind. They are so afraid of any unpleasant thoughts that they advise you to avoid or dump any people in your life who are negative or critical. Parents, friends, spouses, children. Hey, if they complain, get rid of them! You don't need that in your life!

The worst thing about The Secret is how ultimately selfish and self-serving it is. It completely disregards the reality that we are all interconnected. In one story, a boy doesn't like having to wait in long lines at an amusement park, so through positive thinking he decides he's not going to. The next day his family wins a special pass that allows them to jump to the head of the line all day. But what about all the other kids who still have to wait in line? If you can get whatever what you want merely by imagining it, and at the expense of other people, then other people are simply pawns in the story of your life. It's an incredibly narcissistic and juvenile way to view the world.

One part of the Bright-Sided I found particularly interesting is when Ehrenreich writes about the American myth that everyone will get rich. The reason so many poor Americans politically support conservative fiscal agendas is that they hope to one day become rich. This, despite the fact that Americans are less likely to move from one economic class to another than members of many other industrialized countries. This is exactly the lottery mentality I wrote about last year.


As Ehrenreich points out, in nature animals survive because they are vigilant. The antelope doesn't escape the lion with a mind full of positive thoughts. The meerkat doesn't find yummy grubs merely by visualizing them. Humans don't protect their children from harm with mere thoughts that they'll be okay. Real world vigilance is what helps us survive.

Ehrenreich's solution isn't to just be negative all the time. She says negativity can be just as delusional and dangerous as positivity. Her advice is to "get outside of ourselves and see things as they are." We need to emphasize critical thinking over positive thinking.

In short, pull your head out of your Secret and see the world as it really is.

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