Peak Shrink has an interesting post on The Tyranny of Positive Thinking, a review of Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. In it, she expresses the same frustration I’ve felt when dealing with our cult of positivity.

I believe that I can improve situations by the way that I think about them and how I interpret them. I believe that, by envisioning a positive future that INCLUDES the harsh facts about peak oil and climate change, I can work toward that future by coming to terms with the massive changes that will be occurring and taking steps to prepare for it. A positive vision helps keep me motivated.

However. There is a pathological brand of positive thinking that demands that we be happy at all times, that we neither admit nor experience pain, unhappiness or depression. In order to achieve this type of happiness, the high priests and priestesses of the cult of positive thinking make recommendations like “don’t read the news” and “get rid of negative people.”

In other words, deny reality, hide from reality, and don’t let your friends and family experience any real emotions. You don’t want to hear about their difficulties with cancer and death, financial troubles and lost jobs – it’ll just bring you down. Without all that negativity, you can float about in a bubble of pretense, your life padded on all sides by smiles and affirmations.

That same cultish positivity goes a step further to promote the idea that “wishing makes it so.” While research that I’ve read seems to back up the effects of positive goal-setting and mental envisioning, these people believe that you can magically conjure up riches and wealth just by imagining it – hard enough. Not imagining and then working towards it – but just by being positive and believing.

The dark side of this is that you can then blame people who are poor, unemployed, sick, injured, or diseased for their own misfortune. Nothing to do with the realities of the physical world, history, biology, or sociology. Nothing to do with the unjust and environmentally harmful systems that are built into our society. It’s just that they must not be thinking the right thoughts! Those Negative Nellies are bringing all that cancer/genocide/war/infertility/poverty on themselves! If they’d just get with the program, they’d be healthy, rich and happy.

I have one friend, for instance, who hates it when I talk about problems like oil depletion. “Enough of that doom and gloom!” she cries. “Let’s talk about solutions!” Well, excuse me, but until you understand the depth, breadth and scope of the issue, you can’t even begin to imagine the magnitude of the changes that are going to have to occur – and which we are going to have to work towards.

Someone who doesn’t understand the fundamental facts around peak oil is likely to think that we can just slap a PV solar band-aid, or some electric car Neosporin, on the problem. Someone who does understand the problem knows that we’ve got serious gangrene in our system and we’re looking at radical amputation of our car culture, entitlement thinking, and globalized industrial consumerism.

From what I’ve read about survival and trauma, one of the keys to dealing with a trauma appears to be avoiding the feeling of helplessness. In that case, in order to deal with the traumas we are experiencing now, and will experience in the near future, we have to believe that we can actually achieve good things by taking action. If positive thinking – looking on the bright side and finding the opportunities – helps you and those around you to prepare for the collapses we are facing – then look on the bright side. It helps me.

But if positive thinking causes you to shun all news and discussion about peak oil, unemployment, bank failures, and environmental catastrophe, then you are only setting yourself up for failure. If positive thinking causes you to avoid your friends and family who want to discuss and prepare for these “depressing” issues, you’ve shot yourself in the foot. And if positive thinking causes you to think that these problems are all going to go away without any investment or energy on YOUR part, then you really are doomed.

Sticking your head in a hole, no matter how bright and shiny, isn’t a long term success strategy. Short term happiness (from oblivious ignorance or denial) is no substitute for long-term happiness (survival, healthy relationships, and peace of mind knowing you have helped preserve our future and a future for our children). Choose wisely.