Overdosing on positive thinking

I expanded this article and rewrote the headline on Sept. 18, 2011.  I inserted the two videos on Nov. 1, 2011.  The RSA Animate video at the beginning of the article is abstracted from a longer talk recorded in the longer video at the end.

Somebody—maybe it was Robert A. Heinlein’s Lazarus Long character—remarked that if you pray hard enough, you can make water flow uphill.  And if you pray and water continues to flow downhill?  Obviously you didn’t pray hard enough.  The contemporary U.S. cult of positive thinking tells us that if we think positively enough, we can be healthy, wealthy and loved.  And if we aren’t?  We weren’t positive enough.

Barbara Ehrenreich in her 2009 book, Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, said this attitude permeates American society.

The medical profession prescribes positive thinking for its supposed health benefits.  Corporations demand their employees be cheerful and optimistic, and, when they lay people off, send them on their way with self-help courses.  Evangelical megachurches tell parishioners that you only have to have faith to get what you wish for, because God wants you to have it.

At the extreme, positive pastors such as Joel Osteen are preaching a form of sympathetic magic, like the Cargo Cults in the South Seas following World War Two; all you have to do to get what you want is to visualize it and wish for it hard enough.

Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, encountered the positive thinking cult when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.  When she expressed her fear and anger on an Internet message board, a fellow patient told her to run, not walk, to therapy, because she supposedly was harming her recovery with her bad attitude.  Ehrenreich, who has an advanced degree in cell biology, thought  her anger was justified.  She had reason to think her cancer may have been caused by her earlier hormone replacement therapy.  She said that hopefulness is better than despair, and cheerfulness will make life easier for your caregivers, but there is no clinical evidence that either will make your cancer go away.

In her book, she traced the history of positive thinking back to the late 19th century, and its origins in Phineas T. Quimby’s New Thought and Mary Baker Eddy’s Christian Science.  She saw Quimby and Eddy as rebels against Calvinism, under whose influence people literally did make themselves sick through obsession with sin and their personal unworthiness.

The creed of the “abundance” gospel is the opposite of Calvinism.  Instead of telling people they are sinners who need to be forgiven, positive preachers told them that they are entitled to the good things in life, which God will give them if they just wish for them and have faith that they will get it.   Poor people were encouraged to talk out mortgage loans they couldn’t pay back, because God would provide.

When illness or economic calamity struck, they were told the fault was in themselves, because of their imperfect faith.  Positive preaching turned out to be a kind of reverse Calvinism.  People were told to constantly monitor their thoughts and feelings, for lack of optimism rather than sinful desires, and to blames themselves for their misfortune.

Positive thinking is a means of social control, Ehrenreich wrote.  Corporate employees with increasing work loads are given motivational talks, not increased pay and benefits.  The unemployed are told their lack of a sufficiently positive attitude keeps them from getting a job, and may have caused them to be unemployed in the first place.  They are encouraged to blame themselves, not employers or the economic system.  They are told to think positively, not band together to demand jobs or change the economic structure.

People giving positive thinking advice may be as cynical as the outplacement counselor played by George Clooney in the movie, “Up In The Air.”  But Ehrenreich found positive thinking is gospel in the higher as well as the lower levels of the corporate world.  In 2206, Mike Gelband, head of Lehman Brothers’ real estate division, warned Lehman CEO Richard Fuld of the real estate bubble. Fuld fired Gelband for his bad attitutde.  Two years later, Lehman Brothers went bankrupt.  Ehrenreich pointed out the similarities between American corporate attitudes and the mandatory optimism of Stalin’s USSR or the Shah’s Iran.

The problem with the kind of optimism that denies reality is that reality eventually catches up with you.  What is needed is the kind of fortitude than enables you to face whatever comes.

Within my circle of friends and acquaintances are three people of great perseverance and determination—a woman with multiple chronic illnesses, a man who for years has been looking for a full-time job, and a poor black single mother.  I admire them.  I think they are examples of how to live.  I think they are better off for not giving up and succumbing to despair, but the woman is still sick, the man is still under-employed and the other woman died poor (although she gave her sons a good start in life).  Illness, unemployment and poverty can be reduced, but it will take more than positive thinking on the individual level to do it.

My own happy, comfortable life is due less to my philosophy of life than to modern medicine, Social Security and Medicare and the good fortune of coming of age during the period of greatest American prosperity.  It is a step from pointing out that sometimes sufficiently strong-willed individuals can overcome bad circumstances to pretending that circumstances don’t matter.

The other problem with positive thinking is the evasion of the grim realities of illness, old age and death.  Bright-Sided reminds me of an anecdote I read years ago about the longshoreman-philosopher Eric Hoffer, when he was a young man hitchhiking across the United States.  He was given a ride by a German immigrant, who praised the United States as a land of hope.  Hoffer made some disparaging remark, and the driver quoted Goethe: “Without hope, there is no life.”  This bothered Hoffer so much that he asked to be let out at the next town, where he went to the public library and looked up the quote.  What Goethe had written was: “Without courage, there is no life.”

Click on The Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America for an interview with Barbara Ehrenreich.

Click on Barbara Ehrenreich on the Perils of Positive Thinking for an article by her in Time.

Click on ‘Smile or Die’: Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided for a review of her book.

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