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On positive thinking

April 23, 2010 / CC BY-NC 2.0

“The world of the happy man is a different one from the world of the unhappy man.” –Wittgenstein

Positive thinking–the culture/industry of Oprah and The Secret and the prosperity megachurches and Get Motivated! seminars guaranteed to increase your income and productivity–is surely a cultural disease of one kind or another. Something, we know, has gone terribly wrong for so many of us to entrust ourselves to this hucksterish neo-shamanism. The moralistic response is to set one’s face against it and preach its opposite, which is hard-headed realism. But those seeking a scientific cure should look more closely into whether positive thinking can–or should–be so straightforwardly opposed.

Barbara Ehrenreich’s most recent book Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America is a call to arms against positive thinking. Positive thinking, she says, makes us unrealistic and uncritical. It is an abdication of autonomous thought in favor of pseudo-science and cheap sentiment, an opiate for the consumerist masses that leaves no time for asking hard questions and owning up to hard truths. It makes us vulnerable to con men selling their secrets to success and to CEOs and politicians who prefer people not trouble themselves with ‘negative’ thoughts about injustice, war, and financial collapse. George W. Bush: brutal optimist.

Positive thinking has a weirdly compelling, self-reinforcing logic. Want a fulfilled life for yourself, professional success, happy family, comfortable house, etc.? The best way to get there, it says, is to feel good now, no matter your other miseries. As if by a law of the universe, good things follow pleasant feelings, bad things follow unpleasant feelings. The best way to give yourself pleasant feelings is to force yourself to think thoughts that make you feel good. Of course, one of those thoughts is precisely this: ‘by feeling good now, I will achieve my goals later.’ This is magical thinking in the service of hedonism and materialism.

It’s easy to beat up on this sort of thing. Obviously: thoughts exert no quasi-magnetic force on material reality. Obviously: there is such a thing as blind optimism. Obviously: there is more to life than wealth and productivity.

It’s even easier to beat up on the Tony Robbins’s and the Joel Osteens and the Deepak Chopras, the utter kitsch of it all.

But this is just inflamed wheel-spinning. Sort of like the New Atheism of people like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, it refuses to address its opponent in open ground. It considers only the silliest, shallowest, most crass forms of positive thinking, only its most glaring weaknesses, and only its most ludicrous practitioners. More broadly, when we talk about ideas, we need to able to separate an idea and its implementation. The mere fact that an idea has been used, viciously, to immiserate people does not show for a second that it’s not true. The conviction that good ideas are always put to good use is itself a bit of unfounded optimism.

Take the case of religion, where we can have two debates. We can talk about the practices of the people who carry the banner of religion. We will then talk about the crusades and jihad and papal indulgences and the subjugation of women, along with the good works of religious charities. When we debate ‘God’ we will be debating how far to endorse these practices. Alternatively, we can address the truth of religion directly, as something that the practice of religionists may reflect only dimly or not at all. This is the harder but immeasurably more important of the two.

Analogously, we can talk about the good and bad practices of the positive thinking industry or we can set that aside and try to talk about what truth, if any, there is in the idea of positive thinking. The task is not to validate positive thinking, but to separate as far as possible, what is true in it from what is merely a mental analgesic. Ehrenreich ignores this task.

She says at the outset that by ‘positive thinking’ she is explicitly not talking about deeper things like hope and ‘existential courage.’ She means something shallow, like forced sunniness. But what if forced sunniness is, at least sometimes, a necessary step on the way to hope? What if it’s possible to break through and come back around to a point where sunny affirmations are invested with a higher meaning? What if the deepest existential courage is sometimes held up by the most ungraceful, nonsensical talk about self-actualization?

This is supposed to be how AA works, even for skeptics. Beyond all belief, going through the ritual motions eventually delivers what those 12 steps gesture at so clumsily.

The closest Ehrenreich gets to the inner life of a positive thinker is this dispiriting encounter:

In 2007, I got to know Sue Goodhart, a realtor who was showing me houses, and I happened to mention that I was doing some research on motivational speakers. She smiled ruefully and gestured toward the backseat of her car, which I saw was piled high with motivational CDs. When I teased her for being ‘a motivation junkie,’ she told me that she’d come from a working class background and had never been encouraged to set high goals for herself. Then, at some point in the 1990s, her agency brought in a motivational firm called the Pacific Institute, which provided a five-day session on ‘goal-setting, positive thinking, visualization, and getting out of your comfort zone,’ and she began to think of herself as a self-determining individual and potential success. But that first exposure was hardly enough. She continues to listen to motivational CDs in her car from house to house, both because ‘sales is a lonely business’ and because the CDs help her get ‘to the next level.’

For Ehrenreich, this is simply an illustration of the economics of positive thinking, in which businesses dangle visions of wealth to motivate other businesses’ beleaguered employees. All true, but it keeps Ehrenreich from asking whether there are other dimensions as well. The quoted phrases in the last sentence are offered as if as proof that the only forces at work are economic. The use of ‘ruefully’ to describe Sue smiling is also odd. ‘Rueful’ can either mean pitiable or regretful. Does Sue realize, on some level, how she’s been tricked by the whole system? Or is her smile sincere and a sign of how deeply she has been tricked? Either way, it leaves out a third possibility, which is consistent with the exploitative nature of positive thinking: that it is not just a necessary expedient but an important source of meaning in Sue’s life.

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