By Merle Hertzler
Surely you have been told to maintain a positive attitude in life. Is it possible to be too positive? Can efforts to think positively cause one to miss oncoming dangers? Barbara Ehrenreich takes on these questions in an excellent book, Bright-Sided.
Positive thinking was not always elevated to the status it is today. Ehrenreich points out that the Calvinist mindset that dominated early America was actually quite negative. She writes:
The task for the living was to constantly examine “the loathsome abominations that lie in his bosom,” seeking to uproot the sinful thoughts that are a sure sign of damnation. Calvinism offered only one form of relief from this anxious work of self-examination, and that was another form of labor—clearing, planting, stitching, building up farms and businesses. Anything other than labor of either the industrious or spiritual sort—idleness or pleasure seeking—was a contemptible sin.
The world--and religions--we see today are quite different from this negative view. After thinkers like Mary Baker Eddy and William James introduced the "New Thought" movement in reaction to the cold, Calvinist view, positive thinking is now taught throughout America, and is now wholeheartedly adopted by Evangelicals.
There are, of course, many good things about positive thinking. Positive people fit in better in America, and are more likely to sell others on what they have to offer. After all, American society is dominated by positive thinking, so if you want to fit in, then you had best be positive. "When in Rome, do as the Romans do". Sales people know that a hearty handshake and a bright smile sells products, A cold straight-faced listing of facts leaves the customer cold. And, since the daily work of white collar workers is primarily that of selling themselves and their ideas, many of us have no choice but to match what is expected in our culture. We do what all those motivational speakers tell us to do, we jump in with enthusiasm and a smile.
Could other cultures work equally well? Could a team of serious fact-analyzers do well at presenting their ideas in a culture of stone-faced fact-seekers? If so, then the benefit that positive thinking gives to our sales efforts in America is due to the fact that this is what our culture expects, and not to an innate value of positive thoughts.
Another claim for positive thinking is that it will improve one's health. One study found, for instance, that subjects who reported being happy tended to live longer. But that begs the question as to which came first, the happiness or the healthy life. Were these people happy because they were living a healthy, productive life, or were they living a healthy, productive life because they were happy? One cannot automatically conclude that since these people were both happy and long-lived, that happiness caused the long life. Even if we should prove conclusively that happiness causes people to live longer, would that prove that the effort to stay positive is helpful? As the book explains, there are three variables that contribute to happiness: our basic genetic personality setpoint ("S"), our circumstances ("C"), and our volitional will to be happy ("V"). Self-help books deal strictly with the volitional ("V") component of happiness. They are not telling us to change our inherited personality setpoint ("S") or to wait for our circumstance ("C") to change before we become happy. Rather, they concentrate on "V", on willing to have positive thoughts. But if we were to show that the long-lived subjects were happy, and it turns out that the "S" or "C" happiness factors were linked to their healthy life, how can we be sure that raising "V" happiness will produce the same results?
If subjects in the study mentioned above were sad because they had cancer (the "C" component), their cancer would have contributed to both their sadness and their short life. Curing their cancer would have greatly improved both their happiness and their lifespan. That does nothing to prove that having a positive attitude toward their cancer ("V") will make them live longer.
The author went through a long battle with cancer, and was constantly bombarded with advice to think positive thoughts of the experience. Does the endless encouragement leave the sufferers with little chance to actually feel the physical pain and the emotional hurt of the tragedy? Is there anything wrong with feeling, not only the hope, but also the sadness of the current pain, and the terrors of the possible conclusion? Shouldn't the patient be allowed to feel and express the full range of emotions that come with being human?
Other studies show that there is no correlation between happiness and health. One study even found that mildly depressed people are more healthy than happy people. So while nobody is recommending depression, could it be that blocking out all negative thoughts has negative or negligible health benefits?
Positive thinking advocates sometimes make promises far beyond the ream of plausibility. A plausible connection can be made between positive thoughts and the way people perceive us or the way our body functions. But what plausible physical mechanism could cause money and material possessions to gravitate toward positive people? And yet this is the claim often made by some positive thinking gurus. We are told that if we visualize positive results the universe will start responding to those thoughts and giving us what our minds imagine. Such claims lie totally in the realm of fiction and have no support in science. The benefits of positive thinking surely do not meet all the advertised claims.
There is a bigger danger with positive thinking. Perhaps there is a reason people so naturally find themselves thinking about the negative things that could happen. Our distant ancestors, who may never have been sure that the path ahead was free of tigers and bears, were constantly looking out for bad things. They had to. For much of human existence, life was a daily struggle. Thoughts about what might go wrong--negative thoughts--were a very important part of the human survival strategy. Folks who walked through a herd of lions with their chin held high and a ready smile never lived to tell the story. So there are no copies of the book My Positive Thoughts Didn't Stop the Attacking Lions selling in bookstores next to Your Best Life Now. Not all positive thinkers have pleasant stories to share.
If we choose only positive thoughts to the exclusions of negative thoughts will we be prepared when things go wrong? Negative thoughts of tigers and bears may be unnecessary for you today, but what about negative thoughts that an unaffordable mortgage could lead to financial disaster? Wouldn't it have been better if some people had at least entertained that thought before buying? The book blames much of the recent banking meltdown on positive thinking. Poor people who could not afford a home praised the Lord when they were granted a mortgage beyond their means. They believed that their positive thoughts of wealth were coming to fruition through a loan that appeared seemingly out of nowhere with little money down. Investors also tried to be positive, and convinced themselves that making such loans would work out well. Surely it had to be fine, folks thought, for they had positive thoughts of the future, and positive thoughts of wealth were said to produce wealth. The resulting bubble in home prices left many devastated. Reality caught up with us. Reality has a way of doing that.
We live in a world of danger. For years we have mined and drilled for the best resources we could find, assuring ourselves that there was plenty more for years to come. Yes, there are plenty of resources left, but the remaining reserves are increasingly smaller, more difficult to obtain, or in harder to reach locations. Our efforts to supply our material wants is becoming increasingly expensive. We are facing serious future shortages. Carbon dioxide that we have released into the atmosphere is threatening the climate. Wars and intolerance between religions threaten world peace. The national debt of many nations is terrifying. What will the future be like? Many would rather not think of such things. Why talk of the bad that might happen? Can't we just turn to the bright side, and all will be well? Sadly, such utopian thoughts will not fix the problem. We are left vulnerable. Could it be that we are so blinded by the light of positive thinking, that we simply cannot see the dangers we face?
We can build a better world if we work together to face the challenges ahead. But if we bury our heads in the sand of positive thoughts we may be blind-sided by the dangers that lurk. We can enjoy the sand, sure, but wouldn't it be best to look around sometimes?\
I write these comments, not to scare or depress, but in the hope that we all might work together to face the troubles ahead. This book offers important and timely insights