Mind Matters — Positive Psychology? Get Real.

Ever get tired of yet another pop psychology book on “positive” thinking? Barbara Ehrenreich’s book, Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, is one antidote to the pap of positivism.

As a psychologist, I, of course, want to help people re-frame their situations and find meaning and hope in their lives. But to have an authentic life, we really do need to feel all our feelings and stop naming happy as positive-good, and sad as negative-bad.

There is a popular positive psychology movement afoot that Ehrenreich rightly takes to task, and not because she’s some sort of dour sourpuss. She says:

“I do not write this [book] in a spirit of sourness or personal disappointment of any kind, nor do I have any romantic attachment to suffering as a source of insight or virtue. On the contrary, I would like to see more smiles, more laughter, more hope, more happiness and, better yet, joy. But we cannot levitate ourselves into that blessed condition by wishing it. We need to brace ourselves for a struggle against terrifying obstacles, both of our own making and imposed by the natural world. And the first step is to recover from the mass delusion that is positive thinking.”

Our culture is grounded in Calvinism which is rooted in the notion of predestination. This gave us a very strong work ethic that eschewed pleasure and play. (Picture the image of American Gothic—you know, the farmer and his wife standing strong and stern.) However, Calvinism, with its predestination also promoted the idea that if you did well in this life, you deserved it and that you could expect to be well off in the hereafter too. Hence, the poor “deserved” to be poor, and the rich were simply fulfilling their own manifest destiny. Well, now we seem to have tossed out the part of Calvinism that spurns pleasure, while keeping some of predestination afloat. It’s an odd combination we have here. On the one hand, we are urged to think positively—go shopping, be consumers, that having , getting, and doing will make us happy. We are informed that we can make things happen by thinking positive thoughts. On the other hand, if we don’t pull this off, if we aren’t always “positive” because we see that there are situations in our lives that are difficult or see in the world that there is great suffering, or if we are not making it by in the grand scheme of things—well then, we’re back to the predestination of the Calvinist era—if you’re not rich or happy, it’s your fault.

Of course, we need to take responsibility for our behaviors, for our lives, but that is not to say we create our context. There is, to my mind, something subtly sinister about both the old and the new Calvinism that fosters a sense of “you get what you deserve” or “you can make your materialistic dreams come true.” It’s the loss of a true sense of universality and connection of the common good—the sense of care for each other.

Says Ehrenreich, “… the myth, fortified with bracing doses of positive thinking, persists. As two researchers at the Brookings Institute observed, … in 2006:”

“[the] strong belief in opportunity and upward mobility is the explanation often given for Americans’ high tolerance for inequality. The majority of Americans … believe they will be above mean income in the future (even though that is a mathematical impossibility).”

This misguided optimism isn’t about hope—hope implies a journey through obstacles, a struggle through adversity. This misguided optimism is a denial of reality.

In order to have hope for a better world, I would agree with Ehrenreich that we need to open our eyes to life as it is—“the full catastrophe,” as Zorba the Greek would say, and to acknowledge the suffering, acknowledge the pain, the injustices.

We don’t need to scowl, American Gothic style. We can still smile—just without denial.