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.