Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Bright-sided (or How Positive Thinking Will Let You Down)

A few years ago (okay, more than a few), Barbara Ehrenreich wrote an excellent book, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, about the near impossibility of making it as a single person trying to live off of a low wage position (like Wal-Mart). She did this by actually spending a year herself, a prize-winning novelist, trying to live solely off of what she could make from "entry level" positions. It's a fascinating book and one I would highly recommend. Intellectually knowing some of  the things she talks about in the book before reading it still did not prepare me for her recount of the reality of the situation. Even having gone through some of the experiences she did (I worked at Toys 'R' us in two different states), her book still opened my eyes to the reality she talks about.

I mention Nickel and Dimed, here, because I think it goes well with her latest book: Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. But I'll get to that in a moment.

I have been fed up with the whole positive thinking thing for years and years. A large part of the reason my wife and I no longer attend church is because of the prosperity doctrine (the religious take on positive thinking) and its prevalence in  the modern church. It actually makes me sick. Entering the writing world, now, I'm experiencing the positive thinking movement from a whole new angle, and it's not making me any happier than previous brushes with it in other venues. From that perspective, I think this may be an important book for writers to read. Despite claims from popular psychology that if you just stay positive, you will get what you want, most research actually shows that having a realistic view point is healthier and more likely to get you where you want to go.

Let me just say, though, that, if you are someone that believes  in positive psychology, you will hate this book.

She starts with her own eye-opening experience with positive thinking. As a cancer patient. There is a notion in the cancer community, especially the breast cancer community, that the way to beat cancer to is "stay positive." If you stay positive, the cancer can not win. And, if it does, it was because the patient allowed in enough negative thoughts that the cancer was able to win. From there, she details the original rise of positive thinking back in the 1800s and how it has evolved to what it is today.

Now, I relate Bright-sided to Nickel and Dimed because of the recent (by recent, I mean the last 30 years) rise of positive thinking in the business world. Back in the 80s, when companies realized they could make money from down-sizing their employees, they needed something, anything, to keep the left over work force not just working for them but happy to be there working for them despite the fact that they no longer had any job security. The answer? Positive thinking. Large companies began bringing in positive thinking coaches to affirm the remaining employees that they were there because they were "worthy." The way to get ahead was to be a bigger fish and to work harder. The people that had been down-sized were down-sized because they just weren't good enough (of course, the actual truth of that is that most often the choices of who would stay and go were completely arbitrary, completely unrelated to performance).

All of this positive thinking in the work place resulted in the people at the top completely buying into it  themselves. Good things, and only good things, come to those who stay positive. Some of the business scenarios she talks about are truly, truly frightening. And all of this positive thinking lead directly to the economic collapse we are all currently wallowing in. The direct tie-in to Nickel and Dimed? In the 60s, the average difference in pay between the lowest paid employee and the highest paid employee in a company was a mere ratio of 1:24. Yes, I say mere, although, to me, that seems a bit staggering. That difference today? Greater than 1:300. I can't even comprehend that. But the people at the top not only don't see anything wrong with this, they think they deserve it. By the virtue of their positive thinking.

There's a section on the rise in the prosperity doctrine in the church, too. The idea that God is nothing more than a vending machine. You put in your positive thoughts and God gives you stuff you want. I could rant about this for a while. How none of this is Biblical. How it's all just more life coach non-sense to raise money. But, you know, you can read the book. Or watch it on TV. There are any number of prosperity preachers you can tune into.

The last section deals with the rise of popular psychology. Also a money making scheme. I have always, since I was a kid, held science as something close to sacred. Scientists were objective. They looked at the data. They didn't make emotional decisions about the data or try to skew the data to prove their point. They didn't hold those kinds of beliefs. Because science isn't about what we believe, it's about what is. Right? I wish I could still believe that. However, we continue to get news about how this scientist or that research team falsified data to support various claims. This goes back decades. As it turns out, positive psychology has no data to support any of its claims. Some data may suggest correlations, but there is no research that actually shows that any of what positive psychology says is true is, actually, true. Because I don't have the book in front of me (it's out on loan), I'll paraphrase what one positive psychologist said to Ehrenreich: "The research/science hasn't caught up to the claims (of positive psychology)." In true positive thinking form, though, they fully believe that some day their research will bear fruit and prove their claims.

Writing is a tough field, especially today when the publishing industry is slowly imploding and seems unwilling to do anything about it. I imagine the guys at the top are caught in the same positive thinking bubbles that the guys responsible for the economic implosion, especially the housing industry, were caught in. I think it's important that we, as the writers, not get caught in that same bubble. In a field where only 1 in 1000 make it (in the traditional sense), we need to be realistic, not cling to positivity. No, I'm not saying to give up. I am saying that the way to make it as a writer is determination and perseverance. Thinking happy thoughts will not get you published. Keeping at it will.


  1. I agree with everything you've said here. I have co-workers that are flabbergasted when something unfortunate happens to them or someone that they know that is active in church or effectively does "good" to the world. They say, "How could this happen? I mean, she's such a good person? It's stunning that God would allow so-and-so's son to get sick with cancer"...etc. My point is that there is no karma bank and positive thinking is simply a lie to hide from the truth. I prefer truth.

  2. Nice post. I have read Nickeled & Dimed, and her other book, Bait & Switch, so I will have to pick this one up - she is a great writer. I can think all the happy thoughts I want but that doesn't make me any more money or get my book written... I've always thought these ideas of positive thinking are a crock of BS - but we'll see what she has to say, too.. maybe I'm thinking too negatively lol!

  3. Yeah, the whole "health, wealth and prosperity" deal in the church is really sad. :( And when it goes hand in hand with the charismatic chaos, it's downright scary.

  4. I want to agree with you, and I guess I do for the most part. But I do think there is a real, physiological effect that can come from how you think about things. The placebo effect is well documented, and is related closely enough with the 'positive thinking' for me to expect to see some real results, from it - It can't force cancer into remission, or regrow a missing limb. But it can probably do a lot for a mysterious headache.

    On the flip side, I don't know of any empirical data, but I know of lots of anecdotal evidence that thinking negatively can have horrible physical manifestations. I know witch doctors and shamans that were amazed when their 'death curses' didn't have any effect on white explorers or missionaries, when it did have power of the locals.

    Or, in the case that Carl Sagan recounted about European explorers in the Americas were traveling down the coastline (in modern day Mexico I believe), and were thought of as gods by the inhabitants of the places they would visit. Someone reported a miracle after encountering them and spread the tale to other villages. As they continued traveling they were met by larger and larger crowds, holding up sick children and lame loved ones. When the constant touching and praying got to be too much, one guy got angry and cursed at a local... who dropped dead on the spot.

    Again, the power of belief at work.

    So, positive thinking is probably a big bunch of phooey when it comes to stopping a tornado or keeping you from getting downsized, but it might make you submit your novel just one more time when a less positive person would quit.

    Speaking of corporate evilness though, I've read that a disproportionate number folks in upper level management in huge corporations tend to be sociopaths because the very things that tend to define their disorders also make them terrific businessmen and women.

    I've not heard it stated, but I'd wager the same is true for politicians.

  5. Actually, I would say people that are really into positive thinking will be less likely to push through and submit that manuscript just one more time. The research does show that people that ascribe to positive thinking have a much harder time handling adversity. The realistic view says, "if I keep working at it, eventually, I will find someone that wants to look at my work." The positive thinking view says, "If I keep a positive attitude, it will happen." When it doesn't happen the positive thinker gives up.

    Positive thinking has also been shown to have negative consequences for cancer patients, because they will not take all the steps they should because they believe their positive attitude is enough to bring them through.

  6. I'm starting to wonder if we're even talking about the same thing. You speak of positive thinking almost like a formalized sort of belief system, and in that case I'm on board with you all the way.

    I am a firm believer that the universe is more or less indifferent towards me, it doesn't care if I have a flat tire, a billion dollars, or bad case of indigestion. To believe that I have a power over the universe by thinking positively is setting me up for a miserable end. I'm totally agreed with you on that point.

    However, I stand by my previous comment on the subject too, I just may have been a wee bit off on a tangent.

  7. Yeah, I'm not talking about just having a good attitude. I'm talking about positive thinking as put forth in books like The Secret and somewhat formalized by the positive psychology movement which started in the mid-90s. There's thinking positively and, then, there's positive thinking.

  8. I think being positive is a good thing but thinking all of your hopes and dreams will come true just because you think positive is a bit unrealistic. I had this long comment I wrote but then it wouldn't let me post it....I don't remember what they heck I wrote. But anyway I like this post its interesting and I enjoyed reading your other followers comments.

  9. Evidently, you weren't being positive enough, Jennifer. If you had been, blogger would have circumvented whatever technical glitch was happening and posted your comment, anyway. >grin<

    I'm sorry I missed your other comment. I must not have been being positive enough either.

    I suppose I ought to say, at this point, that I am not espousing negativity. However, I do think, in the positive thinking camp, that if you are not at a constant 10 on the positive scale, you can be seen as being negative.