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.