Not So Bright

There must be thousand of titles on bookstore shelves that deal with positive thinking. Achieve your goals, get your perfect mate, advance your career… all by simply being positive. Did you ever stop to wonder how many people that system actually works for?

Author Barbara Ehrenreich did, and wrote a book about it called Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America. As evidenced by the title, Ehrenreich isn’t buying the positivity thing. Her own point of view comes from two separate situations, both of which she outlines in the book.

First, she recounts her experience with breast cancer and the seemingly constant mantra to always think positive thoughts. There is a whole industry surrounding cancer, particularly breast cancer, that hinges on people keeping positive and buying inspirational items (think of the pink ribbon campaign) to keep spirits up. When Ehrenreich admits on an online message board for cancer survivors that she sometimes feels grumpy or angry, people publicly admonish her. The belief that people are causing their own cancer, or are preventing their recovery by not being positive enough is quite prevalent.

Ehrenreich’s second experience with positive thinking – and the way in which people make money off of others’ desperation – comes when she writes a book about white collar workers who have been downsized and are trying to get back into the workforce. So much of the career counselling she writes about includes life coaches who help their clients learn positive thinking to achieve their career goals. But Ehrenreich isn’t buying it, noting that none of the positive thinking courses she took helped her to hone or improve workplace skills.

Positive people are often mistakenly desired in the workplace, though, and the author points out that a hard-working, dedicated professional employee is less in demand than a so-called “people person”.

Ehrenreich also ties the sub-prime mortgage fiasco in the US to positive thinking, particularly at the behest of churches and religious leaders, recounting stories where parishioners were told “God wants you to have a beautiful house,” and encouraged to apply for mortgages they obviously couldn’t afford. A little extra tithing for the church, to ensure God’s help, perhaps, meant that churches did well under a promise to pray for good things for their congregations, while people went bankrupt and lost their homes, bewildered at what had happened. After all, they prayed and thought positive thoughts.

I was drawn to Ehrenreich’s book because I’m rather sceptical of the premise of positive thinking. Not that I’m not optimistic, or happy. I just don’t believe that prayer, sending good thoughts or juju, or positive affirmations (“Because I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggoneit, people like me!”) make one whit of difference.

I think that people with cancer, or any other debilitating disease, have every right to be angry. Or cranky. Or miserable. Expecting these folks to be all smiles and light and positive thinking is not only unfair, it’s stupidly patronizing. Some might argue that being angry at a disease accomplishes nothing, but I don’t know if that’s true. Anger can propel us to many positive outcomes. And as Ehrenreich points out, there is no proof that positive thinking by people with diseases like cancer do anything to improve their conditions.

Likewise, telling people that they’ll get a job if they think positive thoughts, as opposed to getting them to upgrade or learn new skills for an evolving job market helps absolutely nobody except the life coaches bilking money out of those who can least afford it.

Personally, I find an awful lot of positive good in cynical pragmatism. Look at what can go wrong and prepare for it. Buy insurance, keep a savings account. Constantly assess how you can improve your skills, or the world around you, or something about yourself. That doesn’t mean being self-critical, or depressed. But be honest with yourself about what you can achieve. And take concrete steps (instead of just dreaming and wishing) to make it happen.

And especially allow yourself to feel angry. If directed properly, there’s a lot of power in rage and anger. It can certainly accomplish more than hoping for the best, or worse, prayer in which you expect some higher power to give you what you want.

I’m not against being positive – certainly, it’s human nature to want good things to hope for positive outcomes, or to want to be well and healthy. But investing our energy only in positive thought, by expecting that good things will come to us simply for the sole reason that we want them, is illogical. And I can only assume that, on the rare occasion when, coincidentally, something positive happens after someone expresses positive thoughts, the “get” can’t be nearly as satisfying as if you’ve genuinely worked for it. Directing your energy into positive action seems like it would be a much more powerful and satisfying endeavour than buying a pink teddy bear.

By all means, think positive thoughts, and hope for the best. But only if you put some action where your prayers are and make an effort to achieve that goal on your own.