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"Anybody who ever built an empire, or changed the world, sat where you are now," says George Clooney’s "termination engineer" to just-fired employees in the comedy Up in the Air. Satire? Hardly. "We Got Fired! ... And It’s the Best Thing that Ever Happened to Us!" declares one book title. There’s a cottage industry built around convincing canned workers that they just won the lottery.
A whole chapter is devoted to it in Barbara Ehrenreich’s brilliant exposé of our smiley-faced culture in Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. It’s "an ideological force in American culture," she says, "that encourages us to deny reality, submit cheerfully to misfortune, and blame only ourselves for our fate."
Ehrenreich traces the roots of our nation’s pathological positivity, ironically, to the dreariness of New World Calvinism and its fire-and-brimstone and pre-destination teachings. Society reacted to these by shooting off in the opposite direction.
First, many sought to take their health destiny into their own hands via Mary Baker Eddy, Christian Science and those ubiquitous reading rooms. Having done it with health, they tried it with wealth—the "Think and Grow Rich" movement that enthralls us. Beginning with Napoleon Hill’s 1937 classic of the same name, it sometimes means just that: Envisioning something brings it to you.
In a subtler form it says that a positive outlook leads to positive circumstances. There’s nothing that can’t be solved with a bright smile and a grand effort to "Cheer up!" OK, so your wife left you for the young stud who also took your job, and the bank just foreclosed on your house. Just sing and whistle along with Monty Python: "Always look on the bright side of life!" After all, "There is no kind of problem or obstacle for which positive thinking or a positive attitude has not been proposed as a cure," Ehrenreich observes. "Positive thoughts are even solicited for others, much like prayers."
Ehrenreich notes 60% of female breast cancer patients attributed their continued survival to a "positive attitude," yet studies repeatedly show no correlation between developing or surviving cancer and mental attitude. No, you can’t smile away a tumor, says Ehrenreich, who survived both breast cancer and the optimistic pink ribbony milieu that’s now spilling over into prostate cancer. (One researcher writes the disease is "an opportunity" and a way to "evolve to a much higher level of humanity," rather than a ticket to incontinence, impotence and death.)
As far as success and riches go, yes, studies of both individuals and nations do link greater wealth with a more upbeat attitude. But our pathological positivism thrusts the cart squarely before the horse, insisting that attitude leads to circumstances. Evidence that suggests positive attitudes lead to positive results—like cheerier people being more likely to get a job or promotion—could merely reflect societal prejudice against those with negative or merely realistic attitudes, Ehrenreich points out.
We sunny-side up Americans have a suicide rate ten times higher than poor countries like Peru.
Certainly America’s exhortation to always look on the bright side hasn’t actually made us more cheerful. A 2009 ranking of world happiness has Denmark leading the way with the U.S. three notches below the top 20. For suicides, the U.S. ranks in the middle—with more than double the rate of Mexico and above poverty-stricken Nicaragua and El Salvador. I’ve been in European cities and towns where joie de vivre is so thick it sticks to the roof of your mouth. If I saw that in the States, I would have thought the pod people had invaded.
Unhinged optimism is pervasive, but the real culprits are those who profit from it: motivational speakers and writers, "life coaches" and various gurus, as well as the "pastorpreneurs" of the "prosperity gospel" movement. These chuck aside Christ’s teachings to declare that "God wants us to ... have plenty of money to fulfill the destiny He has laid out for us."
Yet all these scoundrels themselves admit positivism is a mass delusion, describing it variously as "self-hypnosis," "mind control" and "thought control." In other words, says Ehrenreich, "it requires deliberate self-deception, including a constant effort to repress or block out unpleasant possibilities and ’negative’ thoughts."
If it isn’t obvious to you why blissful ignorance isn’t a good goal, Ehrenreich provides numerous reasons.
For the cancer patient who’s told malignancies can be eliminated with cheerfulness, "failure" weighs "like a second disease," she says. Indeed, while you constantly hear that you can have it all if only you believe that you can, Ehrenreich says, "there is the darker message that if you don’t have all that you want, if you feel sick, discouraged, or defeated, you have only yourself to blame."
Likewise, in our moral system, says Ehrenreich, "either you look on the bright side, constantly adjusting your attitude and revising your perceptions—or you go over to the dark side." As Anthony on the Twilight Zone would have put it, "You’re a very bad man!" Next thing you know, you’ve been whisked away to the corn field.
You see, negative attitudes not only drag you down but are contagious, hence the advice of many motivational speakers and writers and "life coaches" to, as one book exhorts, "GET RID OF NEGATIVE PEOPLE IN YOUR LIFE." But eschewing realists and pessimists is dangerous because they act as a brake on irrational exuberance. Maybe your mood should be deflated.
Speaking of which, Ehrenreich goes a bit far in blaming the housing bubble burst and the ensuing Great Recession on American optimism. But she’s right that too few economists and others warned of what, in retrospect, was a Ponzi scheme. Yet at the time it led to such books as "Dow 36,000" and "Why the Real Estate Boom Will Not Bust and How you Can Profit from It."
Since when are irrationality and self-delusion ever useful—aside from when you’re a condemned murderer and it’s 10 minutes till midnight? Mankind didn’t make it this far through the power of positive thinking, but rather through what Ehrenreich labels "defensive pessimism."
A bandage with a smiley face slapped onto a wound cures nothing and obscures everything. It’s skepticism and critical thinking that’s required. We should strive to see things as they truly are, as uncolored as possible by perceptions and feelings.
Life for most of us isn’t sugar-coated and believing otherwise leaves us ill-prepared. Not surprisingly there’s research showing that pessimists are better able psychologically to handle bad events, while one study found that women who perceive more benefits from their cancer "tend to face a poorer quality of life." Whaddya know? A malignancy isn’t like winning the Publishers Clearinghouse Sweepstakes!
The Serenity Prayer’s invocation to have "courage to change the things I can" and "to accept the things I cannot" is a much better guide than anything Dale Carnegie ever wrote or that your life coach has to offer. Just remember that while life can be beautiful, pretending it is doesn’t make it so.