There’s no shortage of people and institutions encouraging you to think positively. In fact, Positive Thinking has become a cult of sorts, promoting a creed that demands you remove negative thoughts and negative people from your life.
What the cult of Positive Thinking promises is that through positive thoughts you can attract whatever it is you want and stave off any problems that might arise. Want to be rich? Just visualize money. Need to be cured of breast cancer? Imagine yourself healthy.
And in the corporate world, Positive Thinking is near-mandatory. Critical thinking, doubt, the legitimate questioning of a project’s aims or methods increasingly take a back seat to maintaining a positive attitude of obedient cheeriness.
One of our most insightful and brilliant writers, Barbara Ehrenreich, explored the cult of Positive Thinking in her 2009 book, Bright Sided — How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America. Her observations are as relevant today as they were then, so I thought I’d share a few and add some thoughts of my own. I’ve included a video above which gives a good synopsis of Ehrenreich’s thinking on the matter. Here are a few highlights:
1) Positive Thinking Is Delusional
All delusions are dangerous, says Ehrenreich. To think that our attitude alone can determine events objectively out of our control is madness. In fact, it denies the existence of any reality outside our own heads. Negative thinking, she adds, is equally delusional. Believing that everything will turn out bad also has no basis in fact.
You might ask “what’s so wrong with being positive, even if it’s a delusion?” After all, you’re not really hurting anyone by thinking positively. Perhaps maintaining positive delusions is good for us?
Problem is, very often it’s not.
2) Positive Thinking Can Be Harmful
Here Ehrenreich discusses the crash of ’07 and ’08. For years before the collapse, there were objective signs that the housing bubble would burst and along with it the global economy.
But anyone who dared raise such concerns within financial companies like Countrywide were silenced or fired.
And there’s a logic to this. The stock market is built on belief. If everyone believes prices will go up forever, prices will indeed rise without end. But at some point someone with enough clout stops believing. That’s when the whole house of cards falls down, which is exactly what happened in 2007.
Theres no need to elaborate on the destruction that resulted from this delusion. We all know that millions lost their jobs and their homes, and that the repercussions of the crash are still felt today.
3) Positive Thinking Is Disempowering
The cult of Positive Thinking insists that all problems are your problems, stemming from your lack of a properly positive frame-of-mind. It is a religion of magical thinking in which you and your thoughts alone are able to exert influence over the universe and in so doing, bring you wealth and happiness. Achieving anything less is an admission of misguided thinking.
That leaves each of us totally on our own. By refusing to recognize an external world outside of ourselves, by denying that there are economic trends, for example, completely out of our control, we are discouraged from any kind of collective action that may relieve our burden. Depressed because you’re over 50 and can’t find a job? Or anxious every day for fear of losing the one you have? Well, there’s no point in protesting or forming a union or writing your congressperson. Just think positive thoughts and all will be well. And if that doesn’t work, you’re just doing it wrong.
4) Above All, Positive Thinking Is Cruel
Despite its sunny assertion that “nothing is impossible,” Positive Thinking is an ideology that silences dissent and blames the victim.
When people are at their lowest and most vulnerable, having lost a job, e.g., or battling breast cancer (as Barbara Ehrenreich did), the cult of Positive Thinking insists upon a mandatory cheerfulness, which in many cases only exacerbates the misery. Highly skilled but still unemployed? It’s your own damn fault for sending out the wrong vibes. The cancer has spread to your liver? You’re to blame for inadequately marshaling the positive energy of the cosmos.
This is cruel.
And it’s one of the prevailing ideologies of our time.
There Is An Alternative—Thinking Realistically
Ehrenreich rightly notes that the alternative to Positive Thinking is not gloom and doom. Rather it’s making a realistic assessment of the world before you. She brings up the example of our aboriginal forbears. If an early human living in the savannah heard a rustle in the tall grass, he or she would be alert to the possibility of danger. That sound, after all, could indicate a leopard or a lion ready to pounce. Wishing otherwise would lead to death.
All of us are here, right now, because we’re the progeny of creatures with enough of an accurate understanding of the world to survive and reproduce within it. The Positive Thinkers and their wide-eyed delusions were wiped out a long time ago.
Which means when we’re vigilant about seeing clearly the reality in front of us, when we question and doubt, only then are we at our best selves. A healthy dose of Negative Thinking is what’s enabled our species to get this far and it’s the key to any chance we might have of surviving into the future.