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Friday, 1 October 2010

The Weakness Of Postive Thinking

As an avowed pragmatist, I've been savouring Barbara Ehrenreich's Smile or Die, about the tyranny of positive thinking.

Barbara traces the rise of 'positive thinking' out of the misery of Calvinist soul-searching amongst people deemed non-productive by that religious movement, through 'christian science' to popular psychology and self-help books, to academic psychology and, finally, to major corporations, banks and other institutions, where critical thinkers tend to be ritually sacrificed as having a "negative attitude". Barbara patiently explains why "positive thinking" will not of itself produce a desired outcome, and how it has proved positively harmful to suppress critical thought and to avoid addressing genuine doubt and 'negative' sentiment. She also helpfully points out that 'positive' does not equate to 'good', and 'negative' does not equate to 'bad'.

All of which will seem trite to anyone who hasn't seen Up in the Air, or been subjected to the ramblings of a 'success coach' or 'motivational speaker', like Tony Robbins, or had a colleague earnestly suggest you read "Who Moved My Cheese".

Of course it's helpful to approach life positively. Committing to a particular goal is certainly enormously helpful - if not critical - to achieving it. But it is not determinative of the outcome. Similarly, to imagine or envisage a successful performance in a given scenario will contribute to your confidence when the time for performance arrives, and that should help you perform better. But that's only one factor that contributes to your performance, not the 'cause' of your success.

Otherwise, the world would be governed by repressive dictatorships that command optimism. And Kim Jong-il really would be able to control the weather with his mood.

Instead, we do our best to figure out and cope with all the variables likely to significantly affect a scenario, including all the 'bad things' that might happen, as well as the fact that the world is random and heavily influenced by surprise events, or "Black Swans". Approaching that process proactively and positively is also clearly going to be helpful but, again, not of itself determinative of success.

Ultimately, Barbara questions the effect of positive thinking on 'happiness', and it's easy to see that adherence to positive thinking does not end well - the inevitable result of suppressing and repressing all 'negative' news, thoughts and emotions. Barbara cites the Lehman Brothers top brass, Dick Fuld and Joe Gregory, who may have made plenty of money eschewing analysis and 'going with their guts', but eventually the blew the bank. Joe Stalin, too, was big on 'optimism' and a little hard on 'defeatist' critics and others who didn't 'get with the programme', and doubtless Kim Jong-il constantly curses the 'naysayers' for the under-performance of his 'optimistic' regime.

And let's not forget, among the long list of victims, all the angry and confused positive-thinkers out there who hot-desked, travelled incessantly, ignored their friends and family, slept with their Blackberries and generally drank the corporate Kool-Aid, only to discover they were surplus to requirements.

I hope they don't get fooled again.

Here's Jon Stewart's interview with Barbara on the Daily Show.
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