How Positive Thinking Ruins the World
About 2 months ago, BloggingHeads ran a fascinating 1 hr talk called The Perniciousness of Positive Thinking. Author Barbara Ehrenreich talked about her new book Bright Sided where she explores the negative consequences of the positive thinking fad.
When I was listening to it as soon as I heard the title of the talk I had an initial surprise at the topic’s seeming counter intuitiveness — followed very quickly with a realisation and a nodding of the head. Indeed, fetishising positive thinking is quite prevalent to the point of insanity. There are many belief systems where things can’t be bad almost by definition. The most obvious of these is the hokey New Agey we-can-all-control-our-destiny claptrap, which includes Deepak Chopra’s quantum physics misappropriation, Oprah, The Secret, as well as the usual epidemic of vacuous motivational speakers. Indeed these can reach quite surprising levels of respectability. I saw Anthony Robbins give a TED talk a few years ago which was very surprising. Click here if you want to chuckle at how someone can be saying absolutely nothing for so long whilst being so motivated and motivational. And this is from TED, who are usually quite good at being about substance!
The problem with positive thinking as a dogma is that it directly conflicts with a reality that sometimes really IS terrible. Of course it’s true that having a positive attitude is often beneficial. It can give you a disposition where you can achieve some things that you otherwise might not have been able to. And, even if you don’t do anything different, a positive attitude will probably make you more happier with the very same set of circumstances. But a positive attitude can’t get you to “achieve” stepping off a skyscraper and surviving.
Which is what a lot of these goo-peddlers are doing. According to The Secret, Deepak Chopra and a lot of alternative medicine, most or all of the bad things that happen to us (including specifically diseases) are a result of our negative thoughts vibrating through a circular route to somehow karmically bite us in the ass. Of course this belief is false. But it’s also positively harmful. It means that if you haven’t cured your cancer/financial problems/personal problems by positive thinking you’ve failed. The Secret is a victim-blaming worldview, in a very crude sense.
Which is exactly what triggered Ehrenreich to write the book. She got breast cancer and found the treatments to be inadequate and painful and her predicament generally sucky. And yet most of the online and offline support groups she saw argued against her view of her cancer, instead telling her she needed to be more positive, to “embrace” her cancer, to see it as a “blessing” and a way of spiritual development. No kidding.
The most disturbing aspect of this is the large-scale consequences. According to the book’s research, part of the GFC was caused by this curious fact. Many financial executives said to manangement “we’re doing something unsustainable and it’ll all come crashing down”. Instead of listening to the arguments they were often fired for spreading negative thinking and being a “downer”. From a recent interview with Ehrenreich:
I remember reading one of these crazy books on attraction — about how you can get what you want by wishing it. One of blurbs on the back was written by a guy who worked for the company that held my retirement funds. That scared me.
Are Deepak Chopra and The Secret responsible for GFC? Probably not but there are indirect connections. The corporate culture that can persist living in a ludicrous bubble and the new age culture of the Secret have this in common — being positive is seen as a virtue over and above being accurate about actual reality. Such rosy thinking (whether it’s manifested through vacuous newagism or corporate motivationalism) is just one of the cognitive biases that we all have. One that might just destroy humanity if something catastrophic comes up and we’re too rosy to take note. Yeah, IF…