Jul 262012

Barbara Ehrenreich’s book, Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America is an optimistic undertaking for a writer. She attempts to detail a history of positive thinking in our country and then concludes that such a mind set and philosophy is, in great part, responsible for the financial collapse of 2008.

Positive thinking is embedded in our culture, in the corporation, in certain congregations, in large parts of academia and has resulted in a huge positive thinking industry that promotes motivational speakers, life coaches, team builders, positive psychologists and a prosperity gospel.

Ms. Ehrenreich’s interest in the subject was piqued after her diagnosis of breast cancer brought her face to face with the “pink ribbon culture” which has the effect of using positive thinking “to transform breast cancer into a rite of passage—not an injustice or tragedy to rail against but a normal marker in the life cycle, like menopause or grandmotherhood.” Those who have had the experience of breast cancer might find this chapter interesting. Others will find it upsetting for she argues that positive thinking won’t have much to do with a cure. Cancer, in her case, motivated a study of the literature and personalities that have made positive thinking so pervasive in this country.

Reading her book I found that I had some resistance to her idea that so much positivity could be detrimental. After all, I consider myself generally speaking a positive person although I have been occupationally trained to be able to see the glass as half empty as well as half full. I’ve seen positivity at work in corporate culture at sales meetings and conventions. Positivity has it’s place.

I had an early exposure to positive thinking. My dad was a positive thinker from the school of Dale Carnegie (How to Win Friends and Influence People) and later Normal Vincent Peale who in 1952 wrote The Power of Positive Thinking, the book that popularized the phrase. Carnegie was big on smiling and my dad smiled almost all the time. It was, he said, his “natural expression.” So, as kids, my brothers and I had to contend with a very powerful personality who was also positivity personified. If we demonstrated upset or a bad mood he would literally sing to us the following: “Smile and the world smiles with you sing a song. Don’t be weary just be cheery all day long,” until we affected to feel better. He wasn’t much of a singer and the song was excruciating to me at least. But, I learned to pretend to be positive which is what Dale Carnegie recommended in his famous book. Dad was famous for asking people his blood type and then telling them with great pleasure that he was, “B Positive!” However, uncomfortable the positive approach to life made me feel I had to admit it worked well for my father so I’ve never discounted it as a life skill.

But it’s clear that one can go overboard and I saw that as well. And this is the thrust of Ehrenreich’s book—that, as it’s developed we have seen positivity run amok. She discusses the teachings of such people as Mary Baker Eddy, the aforementioned Normal Vincent Peale, Dale Carnegie, the best selling book The Secret, Napoleon Hill (Think and Grow Rich), happiness psychologist Martin Segilman and mega-church pastor/CEOs like Joel Osteen who preach that God wants you to have things. Positive thinking taken to extreme is not realistic.

The author argues for vigilant realism. She points out that when we drive a car we don’t expect that everything will go smoothly. We are vigilant. Aware that something could go wrong and making certain we are ready for it. Sometimes things do go horribly wrong whether we are positive about it or not. Recently, positivity guru Tony Robbins was in the news when a couple dozen people who he had coached in firewalking got their feet burned after he had told them how to do it. Thousands have reportedly firewalked without injury. More thousands have bungi jumped and skydived. I am apparently not positive enough because I wouldn’t care to participate in any of those activities.

Back to the subject: how did positivity undermine America and why didn’t more people see bad things coming? If one is predisposed to only positive outcomes, e.g. housing prices will always go up, the possibility of unpleasant or even catastrophic outcomes won’t appear on ones radar. A number of commentators did predict the housing crisis pointing out that it was a bubble. They were deemed to be “doomers” lacking in a positive outlook. I actually saw that one coming myself when in around 2004 a close relative, then unemployed, was able to get a loan on a second house! It was like a mass psychosis with people  believing that real estate prices could go on forever and that so many people could afford million dollar homes.

Unfortunately, we are still locked up in positive thinking, believing that our economy is in a lull and will coming storming back. We are bright-sided which is to say we’ve been blindsided. It seems to me that vigilant realism makes more sense as the way to approach the future than just being positive that everything will work out, that the gas will keep flowing, that the food will be in the stores and that the ferry will be on time.

“A vigilant realism does not foreclose the pursuit of happiness; in fact, it makes it possible. How can we expect to improve our situation without addressing the actual circumstances we find ourselves in? Positive thinking seeks to convince us that such external factors are incidental compared with one’s internal state or attitude or mood.”


  9 Responses to “The Case Against Positive Thinking”

  1. I’d have to say that for the most part I agree with Barbara Ehrenreich. Vigilant realism is a more sensible approach to life than going around with stars in our eyes. However I do wonder how much positive thinking had to do with the housing crisis in America? I am going to suggest that it was more the result of greed and a culture of entitlement. Just because lending institutions were willing to offer loans and mortgages to just about anyone wasn’t reason enough for these individuals to accept the cash. Surely they should have understood that such houses were beyond their means?

    As for breast cancer and the pink ribbon campaigns, it is true that happy thoughts will not cure cancer, but positivity goes a long way in helping those affected overcome their fear in dealing with this horror. Fear itself is paralyzing and isolating. Better to adopt a positive mindset.

    And besides, as irritating as some might find unrelenting positivity to be, those people are a lot more fun to be around than constantly cantankerous cranks.

  2. “Dad was famous for asking people his blood type and then telling them with great pleasure that he was, “B Positive!”

    My blood is “O-No!”

    I’ve found that hope-for the-best-expect-the-worst thinking works best for me. People like that will be wearing hardhats and a smile on the big day.

  3. Must-read on this issue, in my opinion: Everyday Survival: Why Smart People do Stupid Things (L. Gonzales). The library has it in book, MP3 and CD formats.

  4. I doubt positive thinking had anything to do with the economy. Especially the housing bubble. It’s more likely that people will buy or do anything if it is made possible. Look at how many people use herbicides and pesticides in their yards and think it is ok because it is legal or been approved for use only to have it pulled off the market later because it causes cancer or impacts the environment negatively. (just one example) People in general choose to believe what they want to believe because the alternative is not easy or pretty or it is too scary. We are in for a big surprise on many fronts and it is only going to be a surprise because people refuse to acknowledge things like peak oil, peak water, economic crises etc. They will be ill prepared and surprised.

  5. Fun thought experiment. Were these individuals who successfully predicted these 10 financial calamities optimistic, pessimistic or something else? http://www.ritholtz.com/blog/2012/07/10-spectcular-speculations/

  6. I enjoyed reading that. I have always considered myself a realist, but I have a natural tendency to see the glass half full. Jerry is a cheerful upbeat sort of guy, but he loves gloomy predictions, especially economic ones. I suppose it just goes back to what genes you come into the world with.

    BTW, a friend of mine who has had breast cancer says that all that talk about positive thinking when you have cancer just produces feelings of guilt if you can’t keep on being upbeat when you might be dying.

  7. The words ‘Transition Lummi Island’ can mean many things to different people. I find that for me it’s more a personal attitude than an island movement.
    Without going into much detail here, my focus lately has been on doing some serious soul searching for how I intend to conduct the last phase of my mortal life here on a very small island – or perhaps this petri dish is a tad to small to thrive in. This last year has been marked with many personal disappointments, finally capped by a sense of betrayal by my fellow islanders over a flagpole, or perhaps my own judgement. I’m still sorting that one out. Several other incidents have made me question the wisdom of engaging my neighbors in any number of exercises, such as Emerg.Prep, island comm systems, weeds, gardening, land preservation, water conservation or ferry issues. With each disappointment comes a new layer of armor, to the point of deciding to remain close to home and let the other ‘Do-Gooders’ carry the torch for a while.
    Wynne recently sent me a Bill Moyers, hour long interview with Karl Marlantas, author of ‘What it’s like to go to war’. I’m on my second listening in two days, as the insights provided between the ‘I and We’ of human interaction has raised more questions about what’s going on that I could ever express here on a blog. Suffice to say, his long journey from VietNam to accomplished writer have explained much why all brains are not factory wired from a common blueprint. The petri dish size seems of little importance.
    I trust the judgement of many who comment on this blog, especially Randy, Ed, and Wynne for their thoughtful comments – many times on different sides of the fence, but always respectful of others.
    On a lighter note, I had fun last night creating some refrigerator magnets that summarized the multipage Map Your Neighborhood (MYN) manifesto. It boiled down to 9 steps to take after a major disaster, which all fit neatly on a business card, plus local contacts for our initial basic needs. I plan to pass them out at our MYN-Block Party for Upper Granger Way next month, followed by a neighborly BBQ.
    I really like the fusion of living life to the fullest for the present, while finding ways to be resourceful for those times when things are not going so well. I see it as a puzzle to be solved.
    Both can live in harmony, at least in my version of Transition Lummi Is.

  8. Mike,

    It’s really hard not to take things personally when you feel strongly about issues. Trying to get out front on things is hazardous (think point man for the Vietnam analogy). Having tried to push the envelop a bit most of my “career” I’m used to be sniped at and I don’t like it one bit but realize it comes with trying to change things (as I often did when in business) or in just trying to be an informed messenger (blogging) it’s just part of the deal. And, I confess that it’s gotten tiresome enough for me that I’ve quit any number of things (my business, for example) rather than continue to put up with it. I’m tempted everyday to just shut up and do my own thing and that could still happen.
    Lummi isn’t much different from any other group or community I’ve been a part of except that I think the demographic is skewed a bit toward those of us who are in the fourth quarter of our lives. The 80/20 rule seems about as proven a rule as I’ve come across. Take the case of volunteerism. 900 people on the island. Let’s deduct 100 for kids and 100 for those too feeble to do anything. That leaves about 700 people, or 140 to do all the work of the island and this is divided up between churches, Trust, Boys and Girls Club, school, Conservancy, library, PLIC, etc. Many of the 140 are involved in several groups. Of the 140 there are that many points of view, politics, attitudes, energy levels, economic resources, histories with the island…It’s a microcosm of the county, state and country and it’s a wonder that we can ever agree on anything or get anything done at all. I’ve always found that if you can find four or five people that agree with you on anything that it’s very comforting. The problem boils down to expectation. If you expect to be appreciated for something you are trying to accomplish you are bound to be disappointed because there will be a number of people with a differing viewpoint who won’t appreciate you. So, we have to decide whether its worth it or not to take the heat and take the hits and I’ve been witness to the fact that you’ve had your share in the past year. But you have to look at what you’ve actually accomplished: a long-range plan for the Trust, a nice orchard park in the parking lot which was an eyesore, the beginning of creating awareness of noxious weeds, and more all while keeping Hiltop’s water flowing. So, the point man takes the hit spends a bit of time healing and rehabbing then, glutton for punishment that he is, gets out front again.

  9. Totally natural feelings, Mike. All of them.

    One thing I’ve found useful (for both long-past and current disappointments & frustrations in how I’ve handled life) is to dissociate a bit & consider what I’d feel, how I’d treat another person with the same experiences that are plaguing me. Would I be angry at her? Grieve for her? Feel compassionate toward her? Generally my sense is that ‘she’ was doing the best she could and deserves my compassion, maybe even forgiveness. I wish sometimes I could go back and say, “There, there, my dear. Things have certainly gone awry, partly from what others have done, partly due to your own actions & attitudes. Just try to figure out what went wrong & what you can learn from it — and act, maybe, more effectively next time.” Nothing pollyannaish about this ploy, nor excusing things that weren’t right, just ]kinder (and more practical) than giving reign to the demonic gargoyle sitting on my shoulder who’s always ready to spew self-doubt in my ear.

    I find this attitude has useful carryover to viewing others. As Karen Armstrong pointed out in her new book “12 Steps to a More Compassionate Life,” what it means to “love your neighbor as yourself” differs radically depending on how well you love yourself.

    As for community contributions… they can and probably should ebb and flow like the tide. Some work, some don’t. Some work now, some later. Some things one can’t help jumping into, given the situation and one’s character. Some things are better avoided. I don’t think there’s any ‘final’ solution to these things.

    Randy rightly points out that any person who does or says ANYTHING of substance (or even something novel) will hear from those who take umbrage. Anything at all. My sense is that umbrage taken often has more to do with the character (and demons) of the critics than the action attempted.

    We live in a very complex inter-dependent world, so none of us ever has sole control of the outcome. Better to do what you think and feel is your best course of action than to be paralyzed by worrying about the outcome. This strategy doesn’t imply blaming others when things don’t come out the way you want, it just recognizes there are always many players in community situations, each with their private notions of what is The Right outcome. Many players with diverse intents lead to … well, whatever actually happens.

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