Superficial Positivity

Barbara Ehrenreich is one of my favorite authors, and last week she was on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, talking about her new book which says that “positivity” and the emphasis on positive thinking in America is destroying the country.   I’m a firm believer in the importance and power of positive thinking, and believe attitude is fundamental to having a joyful, successful life.   Yet I also agreed with what she said in the interview.   She wasn’t talking about having a healthy positive attitude, but superficial or artificial positivity that leads to delusional thinking.   Learning to distinguish between the two is important.

The examples Ehrenreich gave were things such as telling people sick with something like breast cancer to embrace their illness and see the positive side the experience, or the wild new agey schemes about ‘drawing wealth through positive thoughts’ or businesses promoting positivity in order to increase profits and assure success.   The most potent example is how so many people refused to see the underlying problems in the economy due to an effort to be positive — the housing market will continue to rise, the economy is in great shape.

As readers of this blog know, I’ve been a pessimist on the economy for a long time.  Unsustainable imbalances involving debt and massive current account deficits have created the perfect storm of a deep and severe economic crisis.  I don’t think we’re anywhere near done with it, nor can it be wished away with happy thoughts.   Yet I’m also a firm believe in the power and importance of a positive attitude.   Is this a contradiction?

No.  Superficial positivity in denial of reality is nothing but delusion.   Tell a person who is upset, angry or depressed to simply ‘think positively’ is like telling someone sneezing and coughing to “think a clear nasal passage.”  You can’t do it.

Let’s say the most spiritual and extreme views on positive thinking are accurate.   Let’s assume for a second that your thoughts do form reality, your internal mood and self is reflected in external conditions, and your attitude determines which probable quantum reality you inhabit.  Even making these radical assumptions, superficial positivity is destined to fail.

If mantras,  affirmations, and thoughts directly shape reality, I should be able to, oh, grow another inch, know the winning powerball numbers, walk on water and swim through dirt.   I think it’s fair to say that I can’t do it, and it appears no one can.   Our personality is largely subconscious and contains a myriad of beliefs, thoughts, and values that we are not aware of.  If I deeply believe that “people are basically selfish” that belief is much more powerful than an affirmation that “people are good,” even if were repeated all day.    If positivity is going to work, it has to be deeply held and believed by someone, not simply used in a gimmicky way.

Our deep psychological drives, identities, and beliefs do not change on a dime.   Moreover, even as we mouth phrases and affirmations, our interpretations of reality both consciously and subconsciously constantly suggest to our minds thoughts and ideas that may be diametrically opposed to those of superficial positivity.

Consider this new age favorite: “think positively to draw wealth to yourself.”  Contained within such a suggestion are a few assumptions:  “I need money, I do not have wealth, wealth is necessary for my well being, I want wealth, wealth will solve my problems.”   All of these thoughts are, at base, negative.  The idea that wealth is necessary for happiness, meaning and well being is a fundamentally negative view on life and the spirit.  The idea that superficial positive thoughts would overcome these negative perspectives is absurd.   Even if positive thinking works to draw experiences to people, it probably would only draw wealth to someone who truly doesn’t believe they need it.    The only real positive perspective is to see wealth is irrelevant.   Few among us are that positive!

Positive thinking about the economy, a war, a business deal and the like all suffer similar flaws.   The superficial positivity masks core values and beliefs which contradict that positive view.     Even worse, efforts to push out conscious negativity lead one to embrace delusion and not only ignore but actively ridicule and reject dissonant perspectives.    Someone thinking positively about their stock portfolio has not only the host of contradictory negative thoughts (I need my stocks to rise, wealth is important to me, I’ll be happier if I’m rich, etc.), but the ego is hampered from engaging the reality principle to stop impending disaster.   The Id screams to the Ego “don’t worry be happy,” while the superego, now convinced that the correct path is positive thinking, agrees with the Id!

If you believe positive thinking is powerful, and if you believe that reality reflects internal thoughts and beliefs, the best path towards a better future is introspection, personal growth, and an honest working through issues of depression, anger, sadness and stress.   Building a positive attitude may require re-examining core beliefs, and trying to alter habits and behaviors.   It means recognizing and often rejecting the myriad of little suggestions sent to our brain about what we need or want in order to be happy and have meaning.  It requires an effort at self-liberation from cultural hypnosis.

Superficial positivity is like a fat man thinking “I will be thin,” but not changing his eating or exercise habits.  The path to positive thinking requires something akin to a work out regimen and a strict diet.  It means taking the spiritual side of life seriously, trying out what works, and learning to live with the ignorance principle — that when it comes to figuring out the nature of this reality, we have no way of knowing for sure if we have it right or not.   And that’s OK!

I don’t know if spiritual positivity is true or not; it seems to work for me in my life, and I continue to try to examine and improve myself with a love and appreciation of life.   I am convinced, however, that superficial positivity is destructive and delusional, more likely to lead to crisis than happiness.

Advertisements
  1. #1 by Mike Lovell on October 22, 2009 - 17:00

    Agreed. It’s like all the power of positive thinking books and seminars out there. They are great, for someone with an actual plan, and the book or seminar is geared very specifically towards that particualr field, but it’s amazing to see so many people who attend all these “great seminars” that get you all pumped up, and you have nothing to do with it, which with some creates an expensive addiction to the seminars or books themselves.

    Now I personally believe in a certain level of spiritual positivity, at least in the aspect of my health. Not so much the eating habits, the smoking, lack of regular sleep, etc; but in my immune systems ability to repel even the most simple cold…9 years and counting, I have refused deep in my core to succumb to such things, and so far its working wonderfully. And it all started oddly after having kids, when I couldn’t afford to be sick…it seems to have stuck.

  2. #2 by Josh on October 23, 2009 - 02:55

    This has got me thinking. Nice post, Scott!

  3. #3 by Josh on October 25, 2009 - 00:38

    I saw Ehrenreich on Book TV today discussing her book. While I didn’t agree with everything she said, there was some great points. Here are a few thoughts:

    In her talk, Ehrenreich says she is a realist. While she certainly appears to be what she claims, I wish she would have stated that it is HARD to be logical and to look at things realistically. That’s one thing I don’t like about many debates currently happening in Congress. “It’s common sense!” exclaims the politicians. Many times it isn’t. In basic logic, it can take a lot of work to prove very simple things.

    I agreed with Ehrenreich about universities. I believe academia is partially to blame for delusion in America. Universities should require students to take more math and science courses.

    She also discussed how parents nowadays praise their children too much, thus leading to today’s narcissistic culture. I agree with this. Kids should be able to feel confident about themselves without becoming prideful or receiving constant praise.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: