Some years ago, two people lived in our neighborhood who were really "positive." Their "positive" approach to life gave them confidence and the belief that they were great people who did the right things the right way for the right reasons, and they were positive that their neighbors could be the beneficiaries of their positively great wonderfulness. They were positively two of the most irritating people I've ever met -- condescending and impractical, the embodiment of the adage "A little knowledge is a dangerous thing." Have you ever known people who are very self-confident, yet you can't figure out why they have such a high opinion of themselves? Those may have been my former neighbors.
I thought of our puzzlingly confident acquaintances recently after picking up Bright-sided, the new book by one of my favorite writers, Barbara Ehrenreich (author of the best-selling Nickel and Dimed.) The subtitle of her new book is "How the relentless promotion of positive thinking has undermined America." She's not talking about being good-hearted or cheerful. What gets Ehrenreich's goat is the idea that thinking positively will get you what you want, that the world is shaped by our desires, and that by focusing on good things, bad things cease to exist. She argues persuasively that such thinking, which she flatly terms "delusional," has hurt Americans in all walks of life, such as those who follow "prosperity gospel" preachers a la Jim Bakker or Joel Osteen ("God wants you to have a big house!"); and sales reps who, when their positive thinking doesn't produce big dollars, think something must be wrong with them.
Ehrenreich is drawing media attention for pointing out that an excessive belief in positive thinking played a part in the Wall Street meltdown last year. Numerous reports reveal that executives at huge financial service companies -- where "being positive" was a duty -- were fired for simply saying that the sale of insanely risky investments might cause big problems down the road. Employees losing their jobs for not being "positive" enough (which often merely means they raised questions) has become common in American business culture, which, over the past two decades, has bought into a "philosophy" (if you can call it that) which used to be the purview of New Agers and UFO fans.
Ehrenreich started thinking about all this when she was diagnosed with breast cancer a few years ago, and, during her treatment, was flooded with exhortations to "think positively." When she had the nerve to want to talk about being afraid or angry, she was scolded for "being negative." Just think positively, she was told, and you can change your own reality into a positive one (albeit a reality still featuring chemotherapy).
This "create your own reality" and "the universe wants to help you" line of thinking has attracted many believers among Americans, attracted by endless promotion from people like self-help guru Deepak Chopra and the ubiquitous Oprah. Enough Americans have swallowed the "positive thinking" Kool-Aid, says Ehrenreich, to create an increasingly delusional citizenry. In other words, there's nothing wrong with confidence and cheer, but there are such things as real problems that need to be dealt with realistically.
The way Ehrenreich sees it, the whole "be positive" thing also happens to be a good form of social control. Were you laid off from your job? Then your attitude needs to change -- it's certainly not your boss' fault that he/she ran the company into the ground. Do you have cancer? It couldn't be the dangerous chemicals you were exposed to at work; no, you just need to change the way you think. Again, it's not a bad thing to be able to find silver linings or stay poised in hard situations. It's when you think your "positive thinking" alone will change your situation, much less "create a new reality" that you run into trouble. As the author put it on The Daily Show last week, "Delusion is never a good thing."
But delusions are rampant today in the United States, and they create more than just bad personal consequences. It's too bad no one told the super-positive-thinking characters who sold bundled subprime mortgages and nearly sank the world economy that "delusion is never a good thing." Or the clowns at Enron who clung to their devastating, "positive" ideas as the company collapsed around them. Or the top Bush administration officials who thought, as one of them famously told writer Ron Suskind, "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality." And boy, did they ever.
My obnoxiously overconfident, positively positive neighbors didn't sink the economy or start any wars in the Middle East, but on a smaller, personal scale, they were just as delusional as any Lehman Bros. broker or Bush official. I don't know how much good Ehrenreich's book would do those two, but if I ever see them, I'll sure recommend it. But, ugh, that would entail interacting with them again. Wait a minute, I've got it: Barbara Ehrenreich on Oprah! I'd positively record that show for posterity.
Deliver Us From Weasels, a collection of 50 of John Grooms' best columns and articles, will be published in November by Main Street Rag Press. The book will cost $14.95, but it can be purchased in advance through Oct. 26 for $10 including shipping at www.mainstreetrag.com/store/ComingSoon.php.