Positively wrong

December 28, 2009 by
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I have just read a fantastic new book by American social commentator Barbara Ehrenreich; ‘Smile or Die. How positive thinking fooled America and the world’. Barbara is speaking about the book at the RSA in the new year, come if you can, or tune in if we live cast the event.

The book tracks the origins and excesses of the ideology of positive thinking, looking at how it has become dominant in American religion, business and psychology. I was particularly intrigued – and challenged – by her chapter of positive psychology in which she is wittily scathing about the movement’s founding father, Martin Seligman (someone I have quoted favourably in the past).         

In essence, Ehrenreich has three criticisms of the idea that positive thinking is the key to success and happiness. First, it is often based on mumbo jumbo or pseudo science. Second, it encourages victim blaming by suggesting that people’s misfortune is the result of a failure to think positively while arguing that the way to increase social welfare is for individuals to think differently rather than for society to be organised differently. Third, the bland pursuit of subjective happiness can make us blind to the real world; to risk, to pathos, to the often troubling nature of beauty, to suffering or injustice.        

As I say, it is a brilliant book and a good corrective to reductionist, or simply ridiculous, accounts of what is a good life and how to live it. But the book also explores how positive thinking was in large part a reaction to the failings of earlier anti-humanistic ways of thinking; the harshness of Calvinism, the brutalism of organisational bureaucracy and the exclusive focus of psychiatry on pathology.  

Going back once again to cultural theory; one of its insights is that each of the four ways of thinking about change in the world derive their power not so much from their own view as from their antagonism to the other views. What society does and believes at any time can only be fully understood as, in part, a reaction to what came before. I’ve never read Hegel, but perhaps I can rely on some of my brilliant readers to tel me whether this is the essence of the historical dialectic?

The idea that our attitude to life matters and that contentment and fulfilment are not just about material circumstances but also how we decide to approach life’s challenges is important – it goes back a lot further than the positive thinking fad. It is something to hold on to even while we look very critically at exaggerated – or just plain wrong – assertions that thinking positively helps us fight diseases, get rich or even - in the end – live fulfilled lives.

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15 Comments on Positively wrong

  1. Caitriona on Tue, 29th Dec 2009 2:27 am
  2. OK, I haven’t read the book – and I will, and hopefully come to the lecture – so I may have to retract this comment at a later stage.

    But it seems to me there are different sorts of positive thinking:

    1) The idea that thinking positively will change events that are actually subject to external or independent forces – eg “visualise a space in the carpark and you’ll find one”. Bonkers, based on mumbo-jumbo, etc. When applied to something more serious, it can be rather damaging, eg the implication that people whose cancer kills them just had the wrong attitude.

    2) Thinking positively about situations or people in a way that genuinely does change external or independent events or others. eg – approaching a group of strangers with an open mind and therefore finding friendship or connections where a more negative person would have assumed none existed. Or starting a conversation about a problem with an assumption that it can be resolved or overcome, which frees up the brain to do some genuinely creative thinking. This can more often than not have a good and concrete impact on a situation that could have gone either way. Optimists and pessimists each turn out to be right, etc

    3) Positive thinking which allows us to notice and give thanks for the good things, even on bad days, to appreciate and give greater space in our minds to the positive aspects of life than to the genuine problems. Given the connections between mental and physical health, even those of us with a big dose of scepticism for the claims that a smile can shrink a tumour will admit that life can be much, much better and problems borne more easily if gratitude and openness seeing the upside to dominates the day.

    The first sort I’d certainly join in criticising. The second can be a source of unexpected joy – both in your own life and in those of others. And the final one can be a practiced and effective resilience, which I think you may have blogged about before – and seems to me to be a characteristic which is absolutely essential for most of us, given the tough stuff in life that comes to us all.

  3. oldandrew on Tue, 29th Dec 2009 7:17 am
  4. “Second, it encourages victim blaming by suggesting that people’s misfortune is the result of a failure to think positively while arguing that the way to increase social welfare is for individuals to think differently rather than for society to be organised differently.”

    This strikes a chord with me. I have seen people being horribly mistreated in the workplace, only for managers to complain that the victims of the mistreatment were the cause of their own problems because they had “miserable” personalities.

  5. daniel snell on Tue, 29th Dec 2009 9:54 am
  6. morning/evening matthew,

    interesting. have you read the metaphysical club by louis menand, which does a magnificent job of describing pragmatisim, the forefather of the positive thinking.

    there is something central in this that i think is particularly american – the notion that if you have a ‘positive mental attitude’ and a good work ethic, then anything is possible – hey you can even become a president.

    clearly in reality that is nonsense.

    however, what is the alternative to having a ‘half full’ attitude to life – i don’t know about you but i don’t want to hang around with negative people.

    that said, i’m not a massive fan of ‘the secret’ styly of ‘if you can think it you can have it’ mentality, that a number of my friends have fallen into. it’s as if they think by just picturing it they can achieve it. yet they don’t act. to me a little crazy.

    i was given a free ticket to see a couple fo those secret featured guru’s – clearly they were motivated by money and material wealth alone. they were in my opinion – snake oil salesmen.

    but without doubt, changing the attitude of the young people i work with produces huge results, i often see results – within a year – of up to 5 whole grade improvements. that comes about mostly in a shift of belief and attitude toward themselves and their ability.

    a bit like a good private school and a comprehensive – one says yes you can the other no you can’t. if that isn’t simply defining a positive and negative attitude/thinking what is?

    i’ve not read the book, however, becareful not to through the baby out with the bath water, positive attitude = belief which equals results/ social success.

  7. oldandrew on Tue, 29th Dec 2009 12:09 pm
  8. “a bit like a good private school and a comprehensive – one says yes you can the other no you can’t. if that isn’t simply defining a positive and negative attitude/thinking what is?”

    Since when do comprehensives openly say “no, you can’t”? Raising self-esteem and encouraging positive thinking is overwhelmingly the fashion.

    A good school says “yes you can, but it will be hard work”; a bad school just says “yes, you can”.

    On the face of it, the latter is more positive than the former.

  9. daniel snell on Tue, 29th Dec 2009 12:20 pm
  10. dear oldandrew,

    do you currently work in the comprehensive system?

    i believe you are mistaken, but perhaps that has more to do with the way i have set out my point than your response to it.

    easy to say positive statements are one thing – cultural, in-the-bones beliefs and attitudes are another.

    unless you think that people who can afford private school are intrinsically brighter than kids who can’t – otherwise, how do you qualify the fast difference in success – academically and career wise?

    one is seeped in a culture of success expecation and other is seeped in the expecation to failure – i see it every working day of my life.

    Daniel

  11. oldandrew on Tue, 29th Dec 2009 12:43 pm
  12. Yes, I do work in the comprehensive system.

    My point is not that high expectations aren’t a good thing, just that they are quite distinct from positive thinking. Low expectations are sold within the system as being “positive” because they can be easily achieved. Having high expectations is seen as negative because they lead to disappointment and negativity.

    The endless focus on being positive is part of lowering expectations. The higher your expectations, the more likely you are to say “this isn’t good enough”, the more negative you are.

  13. daniel snell on Tue, 29th Dec 2009 12:50 pm
  14. now that i agree with, i like your distinction…if i may, i might use that.

  15. daniel snell on Tue, 29th Dec 2009 12:56 pm
  16. i think high expectations are good if they are grounded in a real culture of belief and hard work otherwise they are just more of the same –

    i’ve noticed a cultural theme in my work – a ungrounded fantasist attitude to life and achievement. i put this down to the fact they don’t believe they’ll ever come to much, and unable to be with the bleakness that rolls out in their future, create a fantasy future (EG i want to be a professional footballer – do you play? no!)

    this i believe is also brought about by the fact that media suggests that purchase equals happiness, when clearly there is no intrinsic happiness in purchase or material possessions

  17. oldandrew on Tue, 29th Dec 2009 1:13 pm
  18. “i put this down to the fact they don’t believe they’ll ever come to much, and unable to be with the bleakness that rolls out in their future, create a fantasy future (EG i want to be a professional footballer – do you play? no!)”

    Boys have always tended to think they were going to be footballers, it doesn’t depend on low expectations. I think it comes from an assumption that life will always be much like it is at the moment. Boys think they will be footballers because they like to kick a ball around the park; girls think they will be beauticians because they like to do each other’s make-up.

    If you are finding it to be a particularly strong delusion among the students you work with, it may well be that they are particularly immature. It tends to be something kids grow out of as they get older and have to think about the future as more than just an extension of the present.

  19. daniel snell on Tue, 29th Dec 2009 1:24 pm
  20. when i first meet them, many of them are as you say immature – i wouldn’t approach it like that however, i think they are a prefect reflection of they life expierences to that point. most of the kids i work with are from socially and economically reprived backgrounds. and as a result, their awareness and development is often deeply hindered. they often have had extreme emotionally disturbing events and live more with survival than notions of the future. the future is imagined – as it is with everyone, however, experience has taught you that your experience is (i don’t know you so i’ll assume) comparatively rosie, their’s is not. and there (to compound matters) is no real path they believe in from where they are currently to where they imagine they’d like to be/go, and therefore they create fantasy to exist in.

    changing the direction of our debate

    i’m currently working on a programme about why white working class (is that term still valid) kids don’t attend school with tessy britton and karl james. i look forward to understanding my findings and sharing them with you.

  21. rhian on Tue, 29th Dec 2009 3:39 pm
  22. I studied Hegel at college but i’m afraid i’ve forgotten all that now – my brain cells have been replaced with different stuff, so I can’t enlighten you..
    However: it is important to remember the power of hope, which is in fact just another word for positive thinking.. Think about all the historical figures, freedom fighters, political movements that achieved greatness by believing that things could change for the better and looking foward..
    So many British people enjoy being cynical and negative about life. Yeah sure often there is a real reason to be; but if it gets too much of a habit Its worth forcing yourself to be positive for a while: its suprisingly refreshing ~ would you rather have spent the majority of your short life looking up at the stars or growling at the gutter? I know which I prefer so I don’t need to read this complicated book! Yes it may be mumbo jumbo but If you don’t dream and look forward, your life will stay exactly as it is…FACT!
    Happy 2010 by the way! May it be a great year for you Matthew…oh sorry is that too positive?

  23. Livy on Tue, 29th Dec 2009 4:05 pm
  24. Is the right answer.

    [...] Yesterday’s post has generated some interesting comments, particularly a debate between Daniel Snell and Andrew Old concerning t… [...]

  25. matthewtaylor on Tue, 29th Dec 2009 5:10 pm
  26. More great comments. I love the debate between Daniel and Andrew and the question of the relationship between positive thinking, expectations and aspirations. Rhian is a powerful advocate of the value of positivity, while, Catriona, I agree with every word of your comment. I have gone back to some of these themes in today’s post

  27. Glyn Jones on Wed, 30th Dec 2009 7:00 pm
  28. Positive thinking contains the grain that if we think things will get better, then they will. This is right with regard to many aspects of life and is a point broadly made by Daniel Goleman in emotional intelligence. In use though Positive thinking has its own ideology of self help where the only person to blame is you…perhaps inducing guilt and failure.

    I have just reading an introduction on Hegel, and think now that the dialectics is about progression towards better circumstances. Its sad that positive thinking is now the opiate..with the problem being ourselves. At least Calvanism introduced God! Positive thinking appears to imply the need to be positive – to always look on the bright side of life, which may mean a sense of false consciousness/wishful thinking.

    Positive thinking needs to be attached to a programme for change in a way that people value the solution. this means action and perhaps tough love and self help. Failed ‘positive thinking’ leads to victim cultuire. We have to feel these tensions to progress.

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