Saturday, July 3, 2010

The Power of Positive Thinking by Barbara Ehrenreich

In the middle of the first decade of the twenty-first century, positive thoughts were flowing out into the universe in unprecedented volumes, escaping the solar system, rippling through vast bodies of interstellar gas, dodging black holes, messing with the tides of distant planets. If anyone - deity or alien being – possessed the means of translating these emanations into comprehensible form, they would have been overwhelmed by images of slimmer bodies, larger homes, quick promotions, and sudden acquisitions of great wealth.

Nothing new about this in America, beginning with Phineas Parkhurst Quimby and his most famous patient, Mary Baker Eddy. The rationale of the positive thinkers has been that the world is not, or at least no longer is, the dangerous place we imagined it to be. This is how the founder of Christian Science saw it: the Universe was “Supply” and “Abundance” made available to everyone by a benevolent deity. Sin, crime, disease, poverty - all these were “errors” wrought by minds that had fallen out of resonance with the cosmic vibration of generosity and love. A hundred years later, Martin Seligman, founder of positive psychology, was describing anxiety and pessimism as unhelpful vestiges of our Paleolithic past, when our ancestors scrambled to avoid predators, flood and famine. Today, however, goods and services are plentiful”, as he put it; there is enough to go around, and we can finally let our guard down. Any lingering dissatisfaction is, as Eddy would have said, a kind of error – correctable through the right self-help techniques and optimism exercises.

But has the human outlook really been improving over time? Has the universe played its assigned role as a “big mail order department” accessible to all through “the laws of attraction” as propounded by the gurus of positive thinking? For affluent individuals in peaceful settings, decidedly yes, but for most Americans things have been getting worse and the overall situation more perilous.

The poor, including those who sought spiritual leadership from prosperity preachers like Joel Osteen and Creflo Dollar, remained poor and even increased in numbers. Between 2002 and 2006, as the economy grew briskly, the number of officially “low-wage” families shot up to 25% of all families with children. The traditional working class saw its wages decline and decent manufacturing jobs disappeared . The white-collar middle class – prime target for self-help books, motivational products, and coaching services- found itself subject to the same forces compression; tossed about by “income volatility”: lay-offs as well as cutbacks or elimination of pension and health benefits.

To many people who had long been denied credit on account of their race or income, the easy mortgages of the middle of the decade must have indeed come as a miracle from God - “God caused the bank to ignore your credit score and bless you with your first house” Pastor Osteen would argue. By 2006 dicey subprime and Alt-A categories of mortgages – requiring little or no income documentation or down payment- had expanded to 40% of the total. No wonder that within a year more and more Americans were finding themselves in over their heads!

But the gullibility and optimism of ordinary individuals go only so far in explaining the collapse of the housing bubble and the financial crisis. Someone was offering tricky mortgages to people of dubious means, someone was bundling up those mortgage debts and selling them as securities to investors throughout the world. In fact, the reckless optimism of the borrowers was far exceeded by that of the lenders, with some finance companies involved in subprimes undertaking debt-to-asset ratios of 30 to 1. American corporate culture had long since abandoned the dreary rationality of professional management for the emotional thrills- and quick profits- of mysticism, charisma, and sudden intuitions. Pumped up by paid motivators and divinely inspired CEOs, American business entered the midyears of the decade at a manic peak of delusional expectations, extending to the highest level of leadership. The once sober financial sector was not immune to the “virus” of positive thinking.

Furthermore, even some of the most positive-thinking evangelical pastors have recently acknowledged the threat of global warming. The notion of “peak oil” is no longer the exclusive province of a few environmentally minded kooks. Everywhere we look, the forests are falling, the deserts are advancing, the supply of animal species is declining. The seas are rising, and there are fewer and fewer fish in them to eat. But over the last couple of decades, as the icebergs sank and the levels of debt mounted, dissidents from the prevailing positive-thinking consensus were isolated, mocked, urged to overcome their perverse attachment to negative thoughts and fired. Within the U.S. any talk of intractable problems like poverty could be dismissed as a denial of America's greatness. Any complaints of economic violence could be derided as the “whining” of self-selected victims.

It is easy to see positive thinking as a uniquely American form of naivete, but it is neither uniquely American nor endearingly naive. American preachers of positive thinking would no doubt be appalled to find themselves mentioned in the same breath or even the same book as Stalinist censors and propagandists. The reality is, however, that in the Soviet Union, as in the Eastern European states and North Korea, the censors required upbeat art, books, and films, meaning upbeat heroes, plots about fulfilling production quotas, and endings promising a glorious revolutionary future. Czechoslovakian literature was suffused with “blind optimism”, North Korean short stories still beam with “relentless optimism. In the Soviet Union being charged with lack of historical optimism meant being charged with distortion of truth or transmission of false truths. Pessimism and ideological wavering meant the same thing.

In his 1968 novel, The Joke, the Czech writer Milan Kundera has a character send a postcard bearing the line “optimism is the opium of the people,” for which the character is accused of being an enemy of the people and sentenced to hard labor in the coal mines. Kundera himself was punished for daring to write The Joke. He was expelled from the Communist Party, saw his works removed from libraries and bookstores, and was banned from traveling to the West.

The big advantage of the American approach to positive thinking has been that people can be counted on to impose it on themselves. Stalinists regimes used the state apparatus – schools, secret police, and so on – to enforce optimism; capitalist democracies leave this job to the market . Yet even among American proponents of positive thinking, you can find a faint uneasiness about its role as a mental discipline, a form of self-hypnosis involving affirmations, visualizations, and tightly focused thoughts. “Don't think of 'thought control' as a repressive tool out of George Orwell's 1984”, John Templeton advised readers of one of his self-help books. “Rather, think of it as a positive force that will leave your mind clearer, more directed, and more effective.”

The great irony in all this, as a story in the January 2009 issue of Psychology Today acknowledged, the American infatuation with positive thinking has not made us happier : “as a nation we've grown sadder and more anxious during the same years that the “happiness movement”- promoted by positive psychology academics and an ever growing host self-appointed experts- has flourished; perhaps why we've so eagerly bought up its offerings.” Neither is there any evidence that positive-thinking cures disease, strengthens the immune system, prolongs life or makes us wealthy. No study has been able to convincingly separate mental attitude from circumstance and education as an independent variable for an individual's prospects in life.

Positive thinking encourages us to worry about negative expectations themselves and subject them to continual revision. It ends up imposing a mental discipline as exacting -as that of the Calvinism it replaced – the endless work of self-examination, and self-control or self hypnosis. It requires, as historian Donald Meyer puts it, “constant repetition of its spirit lifters, constant alertness against impossibility perspectives, constant monitoring of rebellions of body and mind against control.”

This is a burden that we can finally, in good conscience, put down. The effort of positive “thought control”, which is always presented as such a life preserver, has become a potentially deadly weight - obscuring judgment and shielding us from vital information. Sometimes we need to heed our fears and negative thoughts, and at all times we need to be alert to the world outside ourselves, even when that includes absorbing bad news and entertaining the views of 'negative' people. As we should have learned by now, it is dangerous not to. 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?

It is true that subjective factors like determination are critical to survival and that individuals sometimes triumph over nightmarish levels of adversity. But mind does not automatically prevail over matter, and to ignore the role of difficult circumstances – or worse, attribute them to our own thoughts- is to slide towards the kind of depraved smugness Rhonda Byrne expressed when confronted with the tsunami of 2006. Citing the law of attraction, she stated that such disasters can happen only to people who are “on the same frequency of the event.” The threats we face are real and can be vanquished only by shaking off self-absorption and taking action in the world. Build up the levees, get food to the hungry, find the cure, strengthen the 'first responders'! We will not succeed at all these things, certainly not all at once, but, if I may end with my own personal secret of happiness – we can have a good time trying.


  1. To complainers everywhere: Turn up the volume!

    Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company, N.Y., 2009

  2. Its not the power of positive thinking...... thinking does nothing...... the power of positive feeling actually changing the vibration!
    Excuse me your life is waiting- Lynn Grabhorn
    Been seeing some very real positive results when I can put this into action

  3. Of course positive thinking has a huge effect on people's lives. One just has to look at the miserable, sickly, passive life of Mary Baker Eddy before Quimbly got her off her butt and after. Barbara recognized that- "It is true that subjective factors like determination are critical to survival and that individuals sometimes triumph over nightmarish levels of adversity", but its not what she emphasized, but focused rather on debunking the claims of the commercial "positive thinking" movement and the role it plays in the advancement of the conservative political agenda, the way "self-blame" deflects us from attending to very real inequities and injustices- and self-destructive tendencies- in American society as a whole. In some respects she herself is "a victim" of positive thinking", she just has a different agenda, pursues happiness, as usual, as a labor activist etc.

    One thing she seems to overlook more than I would prefer is the subtle, even facile, role negative thinking plays in the positive thinking movement. Sometimes it seems that movement could hardly stand without it, as in political campaigns and many other advertising and public relations endeavors. And it takes a lot more effort to think positively than negatively. We tend to accept negative judgments more more easily and on far less evidence than positive ones. One problem with Obama's administration may be he is not negative enough, which greatly undermines the power of his positive message!

    Modern evangelicals do not emphasize the traditional Christian sins- and the depths in which they truly bind us- or damnation. They have expunged the image of the tortured and suffering Christ from their temples and preach a benevolent God and universal salvation. But they still use fear as a goad- fear of homosexuals, fear of liberals, fear of the breakdown of law and order, fear of socialism, fear that there are limitations to our ability to control nature with science, fear that the American dream is not what it is cracked-up to be. Ultimately, Barbara suggests, this is a childish and ineffectual way to deal with real problems and, based on evidence, positive thinking per se has almost no recognizable effect on individual destiny. This was first brought home to her in her long struggle with breast cancer.

  4. Another thing Barbara doesn't quite get is the character of Calvinism in its early days in the 16th and 17th centuries: its upbeat nature, its careful attention to the precepts of Erasmus, the way it encouraged the expansion of liberal arts education and its complete antipathy to a fundamentalist interpretation of scripture.

  5. Or perhaps it could be stated better like this: she doesn't get Calvin who undoubtedly might have made a remark very similar to one of Karl Marx's most famous: " I am not nor ever have been or will be a Marxist."

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