The Tyranny of Positive Thinking

March 5, 2010

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.


Could it be that “thinking positively” is contributing to our blindness and inaction around energy issues, environmental degradation and economic devastation? I’ve hammered this point home in a number of posts, the most widely read being “Do You Have a Panglossian Disorder?.” Now, a trenchant social observer provides a clear outline of how that may well be so, elaborating on the ‘dangers of positive thinking.’

Americans are “positive” people.”

Image RemovedSo goes the first line of Barbara Ehrenreich’s most recent book “Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America

(Metropolitan Books, 2009). This book points out the dark side of optimism. While Americans have crafted and embraced “happiness” ideology, arguing that a positive outlook can lengthen lives and improve health, Ehrenreich examines this “research” and finds its evidence flimsy and motivated more by financial success than scholarly rigor. What function does the evolution of “positive ideology” play in a nation that, even in prosperous times, ranks 23rd in self-reported worldwide happiness? Why do we embrace the ‘happy face’ while swallowing two-thirds of the global market’s supply of antidepressants, making them the most widely prescribed drug in the United States? Are we depressed because we aren’t happy or does the constant demand for happiness lead to depression? To address these questions, the author begins by defining her terms:

Elements of Positive Thinking

While we American citizens believe that an optimistic “can do” attitude is part of our national character, Ehrenreich concludes that being “positive” and maintaining a “positive outlook” is an ideological mandate. She defines “positive thinking” as having two elements:

“One is the generic content of positive thinking—that is, the positive thought itself—which can be summarized as: Things are pretty good right now, at least if you are willing to see silver linings, make lemonade out of lemons, etc., and things are going to get a whole lot better.” While often confused with hope, optimism is a cognitive stance, a conscious expectation, which presumably anyone can develop through practice, while hope is an emotion, a yearning, and not entirely within our control.

The second meaning of “positive thinking” is the practice, or discipline of trying to think in a positive way. The author points out that researchers on positive thinking aren’t content to argue that positive thoughts lead to happy feelings. Why isn’t it enough to simply “feel happy?” No, the act of “accentuating the positive” must actually lead to happy outcomes. Optimism promises to improve health, heighten personal efficacy, boost confidence, and intensify resilience, making it easier for us to accomplish our goals. If you expect things to get better, the argument goes, they will.

While psychologists have attempted to prove this is so, through research, a far less rational theory also runs rampant in American ideology—the idea that our thoughts can, in some mysterious way, directly affect the physical world. Negative thoughts somehow produce negative outcomes, while positive thoughts realize themselves in the form of health, prosperity, and success. The explanations may vary, but the message is the same: whether by “reading the relevant books, attending seminars and speeches that offer the appropriate training or just doing the solitary work of concentrating on desired outcomes—a better job, an attractive mate, or world peace” can be ours if we put the effort into learning how to think positively.

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A History of Positive Thinking and Modern Links to Consumer Capitalism

Ehrenreich traces the history of positive thinking, from the mavericks that inspired Mary Baker Eddy onto modern day ‘mega-church’ preachers. Dale Carnegie published the first great text on how to act in a positive way in his book “How to Win Friends and Influence People, published in 1936, and still in print. Born “Carnagey” he changed his name to “Carnegie,” apparently to match that of the industrialist Andrew Carnegie.

Carnegie’s book did not assume that his readers would feel happy if they took his advice, but that they could manipulate others to their own advantage by putting on a successful happy act. It was no accident that books like “How to Win Friends” and Napoleon Hill’s book, “Think and Grow Rich” were written and heavily promoted during the last Great Depression, because there was a lot of propaganda about the importance of having a “positive attitude,” a “pleasing personality.” The “right attitude” could overcome the massive structural and economic problems the USA was facing. Then, like now, what’s now thought of as “consumer confidence” would pull the country out of its morass once people “believed” that “prosperity was right around the corner.” We now call the anticipation of this prosperity “green shoots.”

While the early “positive thinkers” were reacting to the harsh judgementalism of Calvinist thought about sin and damnation, modern day “positive thought police” maintain many of these same rigid features. Ehrenreich still sees the preservation of Calvinism’s more “toxic features—the same harsh judgmentalism, echoing the old religion’s condemnation of sin, and an insistence on the constant interior labor of self-examination.

The American alternative to Calvinism was not to be hedonism or even just an emphasis on emotional spontaneity. To achieve positive thinking, emotions must remain suspect, and one’s inner life subject to relentless monitoring. While the Calvinist searched for signs of laxness, sin and self-indulgence…the positive thinker is ever on the lookout for “negative thoughts” charged with anxiety or doubt.” Such efforts are, according to Ehrenreich, “a form of ‘secular salvation.’”

It is no surprise that “think and grow rich” should blend the notion of positive thought with the accumulation of material wealth. Hundreds of self-help books since the start of positive thinking have talked about how the right thoughts can “attract” money. They’ve also framed practical problems such as world-wide unemployment, low wages, or medical bills as “excuses.” If you can free your mind of the “real” obstacle to wealth—such as the harboring subconscious revulsion for “filthy lucre” or deep resentment/jealousy of the rich, you can have it all. It is not social class or larger institutional structures that limit the average person’s success but “negative self-talk” that impede your progress toward wealth accumulation.

Consumer capitalism is, according to Ehrenreich, “congenial to positive thinking.” It promises that we deserve more, and can have it, if we really want it, and if we are only willing to make the effort to get it. While she agrees that the notion of perpetual growth is absurd, a belief in positive thinking makes ‘having it all’ seem, “possible, if not ordained.” p.8. Think –the right way–and growing rich is yours.

Play-Acting Happiness to Happiness as a Predisposition

Happy shoppers, according to Les Slater, spend up to 20% more, and therefore one avenue to making customer’s happy is to have happy salespeople.

During the last Great Depression, workers were expected to ‘fake it ‘til they make it.’ Today, it is no longer enough to simply act happy. Employers now expect their workers to be happy. A reader of Ehrenreich’s work wrote to her about her experience working at a call center for Home Depot:

“I worked there for about a month when my boss pulled me into a small room and told me I “obviously wasn’t happy enough to be there.” Sure, I was sleep deprived from working five other jobs to pay for private health insurance that topped $300 a month and student loans that kicked in at $410 a month, but I can’t recall saying anything to anyone outside the line of “I’m happy to have a job.” Plus, I didn’t realize anyone had to be happy to work in a call center. My friend…refers to [simulating happiness] as the kind of feeling you might get from getting a hand job when your soul is dying.” p. 54.

Happiness: From State to Trait

“You can’t hire someone who can make sandwiches and teach them to be happy,” says Jay, “So we hire happy people and teach them to make sandwiches.”

“GET RID OF NEGATIVE PEOPLE IN YOUR LIFE. Negative People SUCK! Avoid them at all cost. If you have to cut ties with people you’ve known for a long time because they’re actually a negative drain on you, then so be it. Trust me, you’re better off without them…”

The message is clear: go with the flow, or prepare to be ostracized or fired.”

Read this advice from a ‘management expert:’

“We knew what to do about increasing sales and cutting losses, but the morale problem had us stumped. We decided we really didn’t know what “morale” meant, or why the employees seemed down in the dumps. In true Machiavellian fashion, we had made the needed personnel cuts early and all at once. The deadwood was gone. The people remaining were the survivors, in for the long haul. They knew that. They should have been happy they still had jobs. Not everyone was unhappy, though. There was a solid core group of people who were up-beat and supportive. … [so] we decided to watch those positive, upbeat individuals more closely to see if we could get a handle on what made them that way.

After a couple of weeks… the answer hit us: The individuals in our upbeat group were just plain happy people, on or off the job. They had stable, fulfilling family lives, they had interests outside of work, they were confident in their abilities. Ups and downs were a part of their lives too, but in general they liked themselves. It was just that simple. [W]e had a disproportionately large share of basically unhappy people who were dragging the company down. Morale, being a group dynamic, was low because of all those unhappy people…Our solution was to hire happy people…

The [previous research study’s] assumption was that morale is determined by the conditions of the workplace–the “work environment” The reports of such studies routinely and dutifully concluded with suggestions to employers about what they could change in the workplace to increase the general level of job satisfaction. Implicit in such admonitions was, first of all, that job satisfaction actually needed changing, and second, that making the specified changes would indeed have the effect of raising morale. We now have reason to believe that, for any given person, job satisfaction is …accounted for by what is in, as opposed to what is around, the person.”(emphasis added)

In other words, people are not made happy by decent working conditions, fair wages, or good benefits. Happy people are hired. Happy people are happy regardless of how miserable their jobs are, and as early as the teen years, “cheerful” adolescents, as rated by their guidance counselors, have job satisfaction 30 years later, regardless of their type of work.

The message is clear: ‘hire the happy’ and rid your company (and your life) of “negative people.”

But what about that “downer” auto executive who questions the company’s overinvestment in SUV’s and trucks? Or that worry-wart financial officer who says the bank is overexposed in subprime mortgages? Get rid of them! In a world of positive thinking, “if you cannot bring good news than don’t bring any.” Reality checks or negative predictions of any kind become evidence that someone is ‘unwilling’ to be nourishing, full of praise, or affirming and therefore is a downer and must go.

The Business of Being Happy

Clearly if the reader walks away with one unfaltering message from Ehrenreich’s book, it is that positive thinking is big business. After laying off “deadwood,” most large companies are still faced with the task of shaping the thoughts of its remaining workers in a positive direction. In 1994, the same day that AT&T announced it would lay off fifteen thousand workers, it sent its San Francisco staff to a big-tent motivational lecture by Zig Ziglar who told the crowd:

“It’s your own fault, don’t blame the system; don’t blame the boss—work harder and pray more” p. 115.

Businesses were willing to pay big bucks to the “power of positive thinking professionals” who promised to emotionally prepare the remaining workers who were facing increased pay cuts, fewer benefits, longer work hours, heightened work loads, and decreasing job security. Corporations could boost a book to the best-seller list by purchasing tens of thousands of copies to be distributed to their remaining workforce.

This “happiness” industry produces an “endless flow” of books, DVDs, and other products and provides corporate employers with tens of thousands of “life coaches,” “executive coaches,” and motivational speakers” as well as the cadre of psychology profession willing to train them.

Quantum Flapdoodle

Positive thinking had now become so ubiquitous and virtually unchallenged, that it became the stuff of runaway best sellers like the 2006 book The Secret. What’s the secret? It has an unmistakable resemblance to traditional folk magic—that like attract like. Like a fetish or a talisman, the ‘thought’ brings about some desired outcome. But no one in this industry would be happy to be linked with the word “magic.” They prefer to link their efforts to “real” science such as quantum physics. In Bright-sided, Ehrenreich goes on to list a series of assertions about how this “scientific” principle works; theories Nobel physicist Murray Gell-Mann calls “quantum flapdoodle.”

Happiness Academy

Fortunately, for this industry, the lure of lucre has motivated even the crabby halls of mainstream academia, to entered the fray, with courses in “positive psychology” designed to help students “pump up their optimism and nurture their positive feelings”–no doubt as an antidote to their soon-to-be-faced dismal job prospects and inescapable student loan debts.

Ehrenreich is perhaps, particularly hard on my own profession, psychology, because she sees it as having sold out true research in favor of fad and fashion. Arguing that while insurance companies have gutted incomes for clinical psychologists, the corporate role of “positive thought coach” and “trainer” offers a new avenue to financial stability.

She quotes from a 2007 article in the New York Times, describing the course “Happiness 101.” It has “the sect-like feel of positive psychology” and suggests that “the publicity about the field has gotten ahead of the science, which may be no good [science] anyway.” “Poor science” worries its leading advocate, Martin Seligman, also, according to this same article: “I have the same worry they do,” states Seligman. “That’s what I do at 4 in the morning.”

Ehenreich continues her brutal critique:

“At a late afternoon plenary session on “The Future of Positive Psychology,” featuring the patriarchs of the discipline, Martin Seligman and Ed Diener, Seligman got the audience’s attention by starting off with the statement “I’ve decided my theory of positive psychology is completely wrong.” Why? Because it’s about happiness, which is “scientifically unwieldy.” Somehow, this problem could be corrected by throwing in the notions of “success” and “accomplishment”—which I couldn’t help noting would put the positive psychologists on the same terrain as Norman Vincent Peale and any number of success gurus.”

Seligman suggested a new name, –“positive social science” capturing a ‘plural theory’ embracing anthropology, political science, and economics,” but this statement “created understandable consternation within the audience of several hundred positive psychologists, graduate students and coaches.” Changing the name was a mistake, argued Diener, because “positive psychology is a brand.” Besides, he argued, he ‘hates’ the idea of ‘positive social science,’ since social science includes sociology and sociology is “weak” and notoriously underfunded.”

The gathering agreed that despite the fact that the science wasn’t “keeping up with the applied work like coaching,” it was “meeting a need.” “Application,” it was argued, “sometimes gets ahead of science, and science later follows.” Despite the weak research supporting the field, ‘people want happiness’ argued Seligman and Diener (and apparently ‘positive thinking psychologists want income…)

While attempting to differentiate themselves from the motivational industry, Ehrenreich argues that “positive psychologists” are still attempting to corner a market in the corporate world. “The subject [positive psychology] she argues ‘seemed to have veered away from science to naked opportunism…When one audience member proposed renaming positive psychology “applied behavioral economics,” because “it’s popular in business schools and goes with high salaries,” nobody laughed.”

Thinking Your Way to Health

Positive Thinking as the new American theology is also now a ‘medical prescription’ for life-threatening illness. It reframes what is life-threatening, as a “gift,” that clarifies priorities, strengthens family ties and heightens spiritual connection. What a positive way of framing a disease that has a lifetime prevalence of 1 in every 2 men (killing 1 in 4) and 1 in every 3 women (killing 1 in 5).

As a result of treating her own breast cancer, Ehrenreich became intimately familiar with a culture that “had little tolerance for the expression of anger, discussion of environmental causes, or the fact that much of the immediate illness and pain was induced by the treatment.” She quotes Cindy Cherry in an article published in the Washington post who stated:

If I had it to do over, would I want breast cancer? Absolutely. I’m not the same person I was, and I’m glad I’m not…

“Cheerfulness is required, dissent a kind of treason” p. 31. “Never a complaint about lost time, shattered sexual confidence, or the long-term weakening of the arms caused by lymph nodes dissection and radiation. What does not destroy you, to paraphrase Nietzsche, makes you a spunkier, more evolved sort of person.” “If that’s not enough to make you want to go out and get an injection of live cancer cells..[another cancer survivor insists] “

Cancer will lead you to God. Let me say it again. Cancer is your connection to the Divine” p. 28-29.

Positive thinking in cancer support groups were once thought to lead participants to cure, but this previous compelling evidence no longer stands up to scrutiny. In May 2007, in an issue of Psychology Bulletin, James Coyne and two coauthors systematically reviewed all the literature on the supposed effects of psychotherapy on cancer and found it full of “endemic problems.” A few months later, David Spiegel, an early researcher on support groups and cancer survival rates, reported in the journal Cancer that support groups conferred no survival advantages after all. “It might improve ones mood, but they did nothing to overcome cancer.” There are emotional and social benefits “but they should not seek such experiences solely on the expectation that they are extending their lives” p. 37.

Nevertheless the bias favoring a link between emotions and cancer survival persists. When asked why, Coyne believed that it was because cancer-related grants to behavioral scientists were riding on it. Skeptics, like himself, tended to be marginalized. “It’s much easier for me to get speaking gigs in Europe” he told Ehrenreich.

With regards to her own struggles with breast cancer, happening a decade before writing this book, Ehrenreich reflects:

What [cancer] gave me, if you want to call this a “gift,” was a very personal, agonizing encounter with an ideological force in American culture that I had not been aware of before—one that encourages us to deny reality, submit cheerfully to misfortune, and blame ourselves for our fate.”

“He didn’t like pessimism, hand-wringing or doubt.”

Some would argue that political and business leaders set the tone for what attitudes and beliefs are acceptable to hold. Among American Presidents, while it has always been “Morning in America,” this mantra reached a “manic crescendo” of optimism at the turn of the twenty-first century initiated by Bill Clinton, and later George W. Bush who “took his presidency as an opportunity to inspire confidence, dispel doubt and pump up the national spirit of self-congratulation.” For George W., the key adjective was “optimistic,” and this demand for positive thinking shaped his advisers profoundly. According to Condoleezza Rice “the president almost demanded optimism. He didn’t like pessimism, hand-wringing or doubt.”

Bosses Drank the Kool-Aid

This same “Yes we can!” attitude led to delusional optimism and a demand for “bright thinking” on the part of bankers and a large part of the investment industry. After demanding that their work force digest positive thinking, the CEO’s themselves “drank the Kool-Aid,” with disastrous economic consequences. The image of a CEO changed from being a capable administrator to a leader—a motivating, flamboyant leader”—very much like a motivational speaker, in fact. Many business leaders, “developed a monomaniacal conviction that there is one right way of doing things, and believe they possess an almost divine insight into reality…they are charismatic visionaries rather than people in suits.” “Corporations are full of mystics,” a 1996 business self-help book declared. “If you want to find a genuine mystic, you are more likely to find one in a boardroom than in a monastery or cathedral” p. 112.

Both on a political and corporate level, this “reckless optimism” pervaded every aspect of American life, from the invasion of Iraq, to the mortgage and banking industry, as well as the delusional capacity to “dismiss disturbing news” about the levees breaking in New Orleans. While the tragedy of September 11 was blamed on a “failure of imagination,” Ehrenreich argues that there was, instead, plenty of imagination, but the type that imagined “an invulnerable nation and an ever-booming economy—there was simply no ability or inclination to image the worst.”

Avoiding the Misery

What’s the best trick to staying happy according to Happiness Gurus: don’t read or watch the news. Why is the news such a bummer? According to one theorist:

“The great majority of the population of this world does not live life from the space of a positive attitude. In fact, I believe the majority of the population of this world lives from a place of pain, and that people who live from pain only know how to spread more negativity and pain. For me, this explains many of the atrocities of our world and the reason why we are bombarded with negativity all the time.” p. 58-59

Starvation. It’s a bummer, man.

Ehrenreich argues that this fear of taking in bad news stems from a deep believe in one’s own helplessness, which she believes is at the core of this positive thinking: “It causes you sadness and you can’t do anything about it.”

Giving the Universe a Boost of Optimism

If things are truly always getting better, if we live in the best of all possible worlds and if the arc of the universe slants toward happiness and abundance, why are we required to put forth the effort to maintain a positive outlook? Because, apparently, we don’t believe that the universe can truly function on its own without our help. And this egocentric perspective leads us to believe that we are, truly, the center of the universe, G-d’s ‘special creatures’ and that therefore the universe, and the little planet we operate from, will remain a forever giving ‘Mother Earth,’ because of our positive thinking.

When we are confronted with so much contradictory evidence like the polar ice caps won’t stay frozen “because we say so,” or oil depletion continues unabated, our anxiety demands that we pump up our thinking. We run for the help of therapy, workshops, tapes and self-help books, given by the preachers, gurus and seminar leaders more skilled than we at “self-hypnosis,” “mind control,” and “thought control” who can instruct us. How else can we hope to maintain the constant effort required to repress or block out so many “unpleasant possibilities” and “negative” thoughts?

Those who are truly self-confident, or those who have in some way made their peace with the world and their destiny within it, do not need to expend effort censoring or otherwise controlling their thoughts” she argues. “It has become an American obsession because we are a terribly insecure nation.”

Massive Empathy Deficit

And just as “purely positive thinking” can allow us to deny the environmental, economic, and energy calamity happening all around us, it encourages us to reject and distance from the very same people who are most likely to call our attention to the plight that befalls us.

“Negative people have to go, even, presumably, the ones that you live with: “Identify the situation or person who is a downer in your life. Remove yourself from that situation or association. If it’s family, choose to be around them less.”

Keep away from victims and “Debbie Downers!” Their fate will become yours, as if by magic, should you allow yourself to be influenced by them.

Those that cannot help but be impacted to the core by deep fears of rain forests destroyed, species extinctions, or the dramatic impact of a fossil fuel-free future feel the depression and despair. They panic or are filled with immobilizing anxiety. They refuse or are unable to “put on a happy face” and their sensitivity is rewarded by job rejection for not being optimistic.

By logical extension, why should we tolerate the “whiny toddler, the colicky infant, or the sullen teenager?” How could we put up with the depression of our unemployed husbands or the chronic pain vocalized by our dying parent? Rather than promote tolerance of the challenge, present in any family or group, to empathetically read and respond to the moods and messages of others, “accommodate to their insights and offer comfort when needed,” we are told to dump them and seek out the winners. Instead of becoming more closely connected to our bodies and to our emotions, we face the stress and emotional depletion when forced to remain ever cheerful and insensitive to the environment that surrounds us.

This is a horrible message for a difficult time.

But perhaps Ehrenreich gets at the heart of the matter when she says that:

“If the power of the mind were truly “infinite,” one would not have to eliminate negative people from one’s life; one could, for example, simply choose to interpret their behavior in a positive way—maybe he’s criticizing me for my own good, maybe she’s being sullen because she likes me so much and I haven’t been attentive, and so on. The advice you must change your environment—for example, by eliminating negative people and the news—in an admission that there may in fact be a “real world” out there that is utterly unaffected by our wishes. In the face of this terrifying possibility, the only “positive” response is to withdraw into one’s own carefully constructed world of constant approval and affirmation, nice news, and smiling people” p. 59.

And so, as we achieve success at positive thinking, achieved through discipline, we tolerate no possibility for planetary collapse, job loss, energy depletion or business failure that we cannot control. Refuse to let in such negative thinking, or the failure will be your fault. You are the world, and your thoughts require you to take full personal responsibility and to exert the necessary power of will to not allow the possibility of failure. If you should fail, only the “whiners” or the “losers” are disappointed, resentful, or downcast.

“Winners” make cancer a gift and a dead ocean a “unique opportunity.”

She ends her introduction stating her wish for:

more smiles, more laughter, more hugs, more happiness and better yet, joy…but we cannot levitate ourselves into that blessed condition by wishing it. We need to brace ourselves for a struggle against terrifying obstacles, both of our own making and imposed by the natural world. And the first step is to recover from the mass delusion that is positive thinking….Why should one be so inwardly preoccupied at all? Why not reach out to others in love and solidarity or peer into the natural world for some glimmer of understanding?…Why spend so much time working on oneself when there is so much real work to be done?

Thank you, Barbara, for being MY Peak Shrink.

Kathy McMahon

Kathy McMahon Psy.D. is a clinical psychologist who is internationally known for her writing about the psychological impacts of Peak Oil, climate change, and economic collapse. She's written for Honda Motors, and has been featured in American Prospect, Greenpeace International, the Vancouver Sun, Freakonomics, Itulip, Ecoshock Radio, and Peak Moments Television. 

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