A Dose of Realism

It has become conventional wisdom in western society that one’s outlook can influence outcomes, particularly when one is sick. It is believed that a positive mindset can heal a patient. Indeed, physicians have taken advantage of this in prescribing placebos to patients, comforted in the knowledge that a mere belief in the medicine’s potency was sufficient to heal a patient. However, a meta-study by researchers Asbjørn Hróbjartsson and Peter Gøtzsche published in the New England Journal of Medicine challenged the efficacy of the placebo effect.

Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed, has challenged the power of positive thinking in her latest book, Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America.

bright-sidedBright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America
By Barbara Ehrenreich
Hardcover: 256 pages
Publisher: Holt/Metropolitan (2009)
ISBN-10: 0805087494
ISBN-13: 978-0805087499

Ehrenreich describes how an entire industry has sprung up around positive thinking, how a few individuals have enriched themselves, how celebrities and prominent psychologists fell for the pseudo-science of positive thinking, and how corporations have jumped on board the positive-thinking boat along with right-wing churches and universities.

Advocates of positive thinking coax terminally ill patients to overcome their affliction with positivity. Ehrenreich describes this as a “deliberate self-deception.” She writes of “a constant effort to repress or block out ‘negative’ thoughts” — a “tyranny of positive thinking.”

Positive thinking may skirt a fear of dying; in this way, positive thinking may be beneficial. However, Ehrenreich notes, “There is a vast difference between positive thinking and existential courage.”

Ehrenreich tells of self-help groups that brainwash patients to the facts of recovery from breast cancer. She tells of support groups modifying the language (no longer were people with breast cancer referred to as “patients” or “victims”); adherence to positivism was staunchly enforced to the point that women whose prognosis was fatal were dismissed from the support groups.

The author sees a linkage between positive thinking and American patriotism, and she sees a “kind of symbiotic relationship with American capitalism. ” There is money to be made in the snake oil of positive thinking, after all (Ehrenreich likens positivity hypers with “purveyors of snake oil”).

Ehrenreich finds “irrational exuberance” devoid of realism. The question hangs: isn’t there something to be said for realism?

Positive-thinking advocates not only want to guide/control the essence of your thoughts, they want to control information intake. “All the motivators and gurus of positivity agree that it is a mistake to read newspapers or watch the news.” In other words: ignorance is bliss.

It is not surprising that Christians would concern themselves, in particular, with people preparing for the afterlife. It is curious that scientists (or people posing as scientists) would enter where belief is god until one remembers that money knocks down many barriers.

The science behind positive thinking, reveals Ehrenreich, is questionable. She finds there is “no positive effect of therapy.” She debunks the positive-thinking reductionism as “loony extrapolations” and ridicules the notion of humans existing as waves and particles. She writes, “thoughts are not vibrations, and … There is no such thing as a ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ vibration.”

Magnetism and positive thinking? “As everyone knows, ordinary magnets are not attracted to or repelled by our heads, nor are our heads attracted to refrigerators.”

Positive-thinking advocates claim science demonstrates that we create our own reality … in other words, reality is dependent on the perceiver. Ehrenreich states this is equivalent to saying science depends on personal tastes.

Ehrenreich asks what led Americans into the embrace of positive thinking.

She writes of a “religious melancholy” and the grip of historical religion. One imagines the fanaticism of Renaissance reformer Savonarola reaching across the centuries.

Sometimes at odds, old religion and new positive thinking converge on the “insistence on work.”

The positive thinking industry preys on those most vulnerable: people facing illness or loss of job.

There are Orwellian overtones to how corporations seize advantage of positive thinking and book motivational speakers for their employees. Ehrenreich describes a CEO image change to that of a motivational speaker. Corporations inculcate workers to believe that their positive-thinking determines their succeed. The workers assume responsibility for what befalls them. Downsizing is their controllable fate, but with positive thinking workers can propel themselves forward on the path to success again.

Positive-thinking advocacy is prevalent among many psychologists. With psychoactive drugs prescribable by regular physicians, Ehrenreich asks “what was left for a psychologist to do?” A cynic might reply that there is work trying to legitimate torture in the American gulags.

A major proponent of the efficacy of positive thinking in the field of psychology is Martin Seligman who made a name for himself with pioneering research into learned helplessness. Seligman came up with an equation for happiness: H=S+C+V, where S is set range, C is circumstances in life, and V is factors under voluntary control.

Many psychologists have long yearned for their discipline to become a hard science, and applying mathematics to psychology was one method. Ehrenreich says to express happiness as an equation is to “invite ridicule.” And just what are the units of measurement she asks?

Ehrenreich apparently irritated Seligman by questioning his “science.” Ehrenreich does not flinch. She calls Seligman’s reliance on a simple arithmetic equation Wizard of Oz-like.

How does one interpret the correlations between positive thinking and and other manifestations? Ehrenreich asks, “Are people happy because they are healthy or healthy because they are happy?”

Ehrenreich does her research and concludes that Seligman has spun the results of selected studies.

Ehrenreich identifies one obvious barrier to happiness is poverty. She points to studies that show richer people tend to be happier. Positive thinking, however, through its connections with capitalism and corporations can be accused of immiserating people and providing a false rationale for the acceptance of the status quo. Ehrenreich points to the economic destruction wrought by positive thinking: every household in bottom 80 percent is subsidizing the top one percent with $7000/year.

What is the answer? People must think critically. They must use their minds to evaluate the veracity of information, to assess the reliability of the source of the information. To expose myths posing as conventional wisdom requires a little analysis and reflection.

Is Ehrenreich correct? Is the professed power of positive thinking a sham? Inform yourself, analyze the information, discuss with others, and form your own conclusions backed by your own solid reasoning and facts.

The lesson in Bright-sided is clear and valuable: adjure gullibility and scrutinize knowledge — new and old.

Kim Petersen is an independent writer. He can be emailed at: kimohp at gmail.com. Read other articles by Kim.

13 comments on this article so far ...

Comments RSS feed

  1. bozh said on December 1st, 2009 at 10:46am #

    As one person had said, [positive thinking or anything else] Is just a word that we believed a thing. It seems to me a bit awkward to say it that way.
    What he meant, methinks, is that a label is a label and reality is reality.
    Or to understand it better, serotonin and other neurotransmitters in ur synapes and nervous system, can be called “thinkings”, but the reality is never the word “thinkings”.I say it in plural because it indicates some process is going on and unbelievably complex!

    Perhaps we weren’t millennia ago so much label or word[s]oriented as we are now. I am not saying that words have no value. They do. But only if they come after seeing, touching, feeling, tasting, and smelling.

    Nearly all politico-sacerdotal talk rests solely on ideating-thinking-feeling and not on seeing, etc.
    So the entire wisdom may be in that old saw: show me; let me taste, and smell it. People have jumped into shallower water than they thought and got badly injured. Natch order of evaluation wld have prevente dthe jump.
    Priests and pols have taught us to reverse the natural method of evaluation which automaticly leads to peace of mind, gregariousness, cheerfulness and have supplanted it with ‘teachings’ that u first must believe and then look or not look at all. And the mess is on!

    And folks, nobody can smell or see a promise. So, when a pol, guru, or priest makes promises [both tacit and explicit] be wary. ?All may be lies! tnx

  2. brian said on December 1st, 2009 at 12:14pm #

    the placebo effect is used to deny alternative therapies any effect…Homeopathy, in particular, is treated at best as placebo.

  3. lichen said on December 1st, 2009 at 4:46pm #

    All of the “positive thinking” spiritual trash really makes me sick. These people are incapable of talking to others without criticizing the language used; as they beleive that goblins of the “universe” will come after you if you don’t lie about your emotions, your life, and everything else in order to pretend that things are what they are not. This is easily seen in many places, such as the broadway musical ‘rent’ which preaches to, threatens, and abuses aids patients into following a bankrupt spiritual path.

    It is, ultimately, completely devoid of social justice; as if “thinking” or “visualizing” things one way or another means that you deserve better things in life than people who have not programmed themselves towards subjugation and self-blame (“if only I had been more positive, I wouldn’t have been fired.) Barbara is correct about how this has invaded support groups with punitive, exclusive moralism as well; where people are seperated into “survivors” (the people who go along with the spiritualist positive forgiveness 12 step christian BS) and the “victims” (the hated people who suffered through abuse, addiction, etc but do not “follow the program” and ignore their emotions, their history, themselves in favor of “positivity.”)

    No, life isn’t decided by the false, abstract, baseless, disgusting concept of “positive thinking.” Most of it is put into place by intentional policy from the upper levels of government.

  4. cripes said on December 2nd, 2009 at 12:02am #

    “positive thinking” goes along with “individual responsibility,” “accountability” and “personal choice” as buzzwords of phony overclass propaganda designed to brainwash the slave classes into a beleif that their exploitation is their own fault.

    As long as they (we) continue to beleive we actually have any “choice” worth mentioning, then we will turn frustration inward, or perhaps, at other members of the exploited (those welfare queens!), istead of directing it at the power centers where all the significant decisions are made.

    I’m sick of hearing drivel about “personal responsibility” directed at the homeless, unemployed, and oppressed, who have no power at all. Maybe it’s time we propagated the meme that social responsibility, that is, the choices made by powerful institutions and their owners, need more accountability, cause that’s where the action is.

    We could start with, I dunno, universal health care, foreign wars, bankers bailouts, UNaffordable housing, and slave wages, to name a few.

  5. Noor al Haqiqa said on December 2nd, 2009 at 7:19am #

    It is about time this hogwash was called what it is ~ swill.

    These messages also make the beleagured feel guilty for not believing the spin and actually having the temerity to face facts which are, at times, grim.

    It is a great way to make people feel they are at fault when in reality, life is rarely fair, the odds are stacked against most of us. It also removes accountability from the true villains among us.

    I believe in accepting personal responsibility, but face it, there are outside factors. Hearing you have terminal cancer and are given a few weeks to set your affairs in order does not go away if you smile hard.

    Losing a parent and growing up in the system does not get better if you smile better.

    Can you imagine this “philosophy” cutting the mustard in AIDS inflicted Africa? or beleaguered Palestine? or what is left of Iraq?

    Purely Western idiocy.

    Thanks for the post.

  6. bozh said on December 2nd, 2009 at 8:47am #

    Cripes, yes,
    We do live in a culture of blaming the victims. It is the victimizers blaming the victimized. Such thinking is not confined to US; it is a world-wide trait.
    It has been around for at least 8k yrs.
    So, US overclasses had good teachers. tnx

  7. Don Hawkins said on December 2nd, 2009 at 9:15am #

    And just maybe the little god’s are not really in control of an out of control system but machines that are used to control said system. The black box tell’s us to do this it was almost right last time. Is it one big machine no lot’s of little machines. The little God’s are now talking orders from the little machines. Feed the system feed the system.

  8. kalidas said on December 2nd, 2009 at 10:12am #

    I don’t think, therefore I am not?

  9. Don Hawkins said on December 2nd, 2009 at 10:52am #

    I don’t think, therefore I am not? How could you write such a thing. This is the twenty first century we have I-pods, cell phones, flat screen TV’s to watch the information age in all it’s glory we have Fox New’s here in the States they are fair and balanced and CNN the wisdom is astounding not the worst of times the best of times and washing machines front load kind it’s Christmas and time to shop lot’s of stuff millions of things no billions made of plastic another miracle of the Universe and movie stars that we always’ know what they are doing oh sure a few minor problems but our leaders today are now smarter than they have ever been. I think therefore I am not what you wrote how do you come up with stuff like that and let me add brilliant. I forgot we went to the moon next Mars and beyond.

  10. Don Hawkins said on December 2nd, 2009 at 11:54am #

    Here’s another dose of reality. Just saw a commercial on TV about health care. They told me to not vote for government run health care and to stand up for patents rights. That’s government run is this where we use the S word or maybe the C word. You see people are now smarter than they have ever been and if you look the truth is out there. The private sector that’s a Wall Street term know what’s best for us that’s why there private. Of course we could think in a new way.

    A human being is part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. We experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest. A kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from the prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. The true value of a human being is determined by the measure and the sense in which they have obtained liberation from the self. We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if humanity is to survive. (Albert Einstein, 1954)

    I have a bad heart and need an operation and yes I have a preexisting condition born human to be denied just seems wrong. Many so called leaders have bad hearts I watch c-span and they aren’t denied if I get a $3,000 dollar suit and talk like a second grader will that help?

  11. joed said on December 2nd, 2009 at 3:20pm #

    yeah, that game of choices and consequences is only played when the doler of the consequnce wants to play.
    but, when are you folks gonna see that this site and the others like it are part of the masters plan for you all. this site is part of the
    FREE SPEACH ZONE the masters let you have. you feel like being here is making a difference but it ain’t. being here is keeping you off the streets. but then oh well, at least you “think” you are helping. Being here is sorta’ like the PLACIBO EFFECT isn’t it!
    “…meanwhile our children will drink filthy water for the rest of their lives…” this from, “Big Darkness Soon Come”

  12. bozh said on December 2nd, 2009 at 3:37pm #

    joed, u see it correctly,
    Instead of standing on street corners and telling passersby what is really going on, most people ost of the time preach to the right people.
    US governance and constitution allowas it precisely because what we say matters very little.
    Once the free speech wld matter, it wld be curbed or or banned.
    I have done some leafletting on the streets starting `97, when clinton anounced bombing of iraq.
    And again in late `02 or early `03. Even tho i wld say to people that no war protest ever even delayed a US aggression let alone prevented or stopped it once under way.
    But i did to for my own conscience, saying to self: not in my name!

  13. joed said on December 2nd, 2009 at 6:38pm #

    but what i find so valuable about DissidentVoice et al is that there are a few other citizens of the world–i am not so alone in my frustration. Tnx bozh, Cripes, author Petersen.
    yeah, bozh, i have held a sign at local farmers market since 02.
    sign reads, “war crimes are being committed in your name”.
    my biggest concern is that i will get suckered into a pissin’ contest with a patriot of some type. i don’t expect to change anyones’ mind. i hold sign for my self. at least i said something. didn’t just let this shit happen–i said something and i was in public on the street–i was not in the FREE SPEACH ZONE