Saturday, December 19, 2009

The "positive thinking" panacea

I'm reading a new book by Barbara Ehrenreich (author of "Nickel and Dimed") called "Bright-Sided," in which she points out the silliness, mendacity and outright economic and human damage caused by the gurus of "positive thinking." It is a refreshing debunking of claptrap that is pervading the country.

While certainly not against being happy or cultivating a positive, can-do attitude, she gleefully pops the balloons of mega-church "preachers" who ignore traditional theology to stress that God wants you to prosper (heck, that's what He's for!), CEOs who require self-help optimism exercises for their employees in an attempt to patch over their angst over massive downsizing, so-called academic psychologists who join the snake-oil "motivational" salespeople who say you only need to imagine getting what your want in order to get it, often with arguments from quack quantum mechanics or other pseudo science, and how the "only think positive" attitude toward baloney like derivatives and subprime mortgages torpedoed the economy.

Particularly powerful was her scorn, as a person who had breast cancer, of the pink-tinted insistence that happy, positive thoughts will make you well. Pink Teddy Bears, anyone?

But I knew this stuff. What I learned from Ehrenreich's research was that the whole "positive thinking" thing actually began in this country in the mid-1800's with a (partial) rejection of the Calvinism that was brought to our shores by the Puritans and devastated so many subsequent lives. Calvinism, of course, damned most people to hell even before their birth, and commands believers to spend most of their time contemplating their own sinful ways, such as ever having a good time. This old-time-religion was making people sick, most often middle-class women denied any meaningful work by the culture they lived in and left to do little but ponder their own worthlessness. It turns out, she says, that the "New Thought" movement, soon to be Christian Science, could help these people simply by telling them to get out of bed and ignore the disease of Calvinism. Ehrenreich traces this beginning to the current cults of positive thinking, which still requires that people monitor their thoughts (as Calvinists were required to do), but now in order to guard against "negative" thinking. After all, if you don't find success - if you lose your job, you don't get that big new house or cool new car - who do you have to blame but yourself for not being positive enough?

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