Positive Thinking Is Good For America

As a Psychology major, I tend to love books about how the human mind works. I’ve read hundreds of books on psychology, self-help, positive thinking, motivation, communication, etc. — and not all of them were great books.

A few books steer people in the wrong direction. Some of them are trite. Some of them tend to be rehashes of other books. But, all in all, they’re a helpful force in people’s lives — particularly the best books, which can utterly transform people’s lives for the better.

Of course, not everyone agrees with that. Barbara Ehrenreich certainly doesn’t and she’s written a book called, “In Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America.”

It’s not a terrible shocker that the author of Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America and Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream would despise positive thinking. After all, if you see America as a hapless mass of victims who don’t realize how bad they have it and how much they need the guidance of elites, then positive thinking can seem like a ruinous concept.

To give you an idea of what Ehrenreich is saying, here’s an excerpt from a sympathetic review of her book by Kerry Howley:

So it’s more than a little refreshing to know that Barbara Ehrenreich doesn’t care whether you smile. Indeed, she’d rather you not. In Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, she accuses positivity-freaks of corrupting the media, infiltrating medical science, perverting religion, and destroying the economy. She believes that life coaches and their ilk discourage critical thinking among credulous Americans. In her attempt to link starfish-shaped “reach for the stars” beanbags and global economic devastation, Ehrenreich gets ahead of herself, but along the way she pushes back against a kind of cultural pressure so totalizing we sometimes fail to notice its existence.

All the Oprah-ready gurus you would expect to populate this polemic show up to share some advice–here’s Joel Osteen warning us never to “verbalize a negative emotion,” there’s Tony Robbins exhorting us to “Get motivated!” In turning the United States into a 24-hour pep rally, charges Ehrenreich, these professional cheerleaders have all but drowned out downers like “realism” and “rationality.” Their followers are trained to dismiss bad news rather than assimilate or reflect upon its importance. Motivators counsel an upbeat ignorance–the kind of illusory worldview that might, say, convince a president that his soldiers will be greeted as liberators in a foreign state, or a mayor that his city’s crumbling levees can withstand the force of a hurricane.

But Ehrenreich seems less worried about what positivity fans value than what they ignore. Her idea of a life well-lived, as she repeatedly tells us, involves storming into the world and demanding progressive political change. Positivity’s decidedly inward focus–in which the solution to every problem lies in a mere attitudinal shift–thus seems troubling, a “retreat from the real drama and tragedy of human events.” When a Kansas City pastor declares his church “complaint-free,” Ehrenreich sees a demand that Americans content themselves with their dismal lot. When companies hire motivators to boost morale in the workplace, she sees “a means of social control” by which disgruntled employees are brainwashed into acquiescence. “America’s white-collar corporate work-force drank the Kool-Aid,” she writes, “and accepted positive thinking as a substitute for their former affluence and security.”

Rather than shoot holes in this — and there are plenty: to be shot — let me tell you a little bit about positive thinking.

Positive thinking is certainly not going to give people talents they don’t have or change reality. For example, no matter how much positive thinking I do, I’m certainly never going to play in the NBA. What positive thinking can do is help someone reach: his potential.

Although there are exceptions to the rule, success for most people is a long, arduous process. It’s a result of years and years worth of meeting difficulties, challenges, and hardships, keeping going, and finding a way to succeed any way. Positive thinking is often the difference between success and failure along the way.

There was a book, a pretty lousy book, by the way, one that I actually tossed in the trash after reading a couple of chapters. That book had a single concept in it, however, that I absolutely loved. It’s “where the mind goes, energy flows.” What does that mean? It means that if you focus on difficulties, upsets, and how miserable you are, you’re going to feel like you’re in difficult straits, upset, and miserable. If you focus on where you’re going, how you’re going to get there, and why you’re going to make it, you’re going to be a happier, more successful person.

So much of life comes down to doing exactly that. You can be in a wonderful situation and sad or a terrible situation and happy, based almost entirely on what you’re focused on. Barbara Ehrenreich would probably tell you that you’re better off being miserable and waiting for the government to swoop in and save you. I’d say you’re better off being happy and doing what you can to make your own life and the lives of people around you better.

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