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Carol Tavris on Barbara Ehrenreich’s Crusade

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Posted on Jun 4, 2010
Bright Sided

By Carol Tavris

(Page 2)

Ehrenreich is at full speed by the time she takes on positive psychology, a movement within academic psychology that investigates “the science of happiness”. She interviews one of the founders of the movement, Martin Seligman (an eminent professor at the University of Pennsylvania), who, perhaps aware of her scepticism, does his best to elude her probing questions. Ehrenreich gives him a hard time about his “Authentic Happiness” questionnaire, on which she scored a “less-than-jubilant 3.67 out of 5”, mostly because she didn’t feel “extraordinarily proud” of herself and confessed to being pessimistic about the future – “assuming that it was the future of our species at issue, not just my own”. Unlike many of the reporters who have interviewed researchers in the positive psychology field, Ehrenreich has done her homework, examining the data beneath the claims that are made and learning that many of them are tenuous or wrong. Optimism does not prolong life. Support groups do not affect the course of cancer. Among older people who lose a loved one, pessimists are less likely to become depressed than optimists. People who are grumpy and neurotic “do more complaining about angina but are at no greater risk of pathology than cheerful people”. Happy people do not have “feistier immune systems than less happy people”, as Seligman has stated. Many of the researchers in this field are careful in their professional writings, for example by noting, as one team did, “serious conceptual and methodological reservations” about the literature on positive emotions and health, the “inconsistent” findings, and even the “potentially harmful” effects of some of the research. Yet when most of them speak to reporters or to a general audience, or write popular books, they admit that they often get “ahead of the science”. They oversimplify, smoothing away the inconsistencies and negative findings. (Both the media and the major funder of research in positive psychology, the conservative Templeton Foundation, want positive results about positive thinking.) Seligman says that within a decade “we’ll have self-help books that actually work”. Given that he has already written one, this curious remark suggests he is practising some positive thinking himself.

 

book cover

 

Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America

 

By Barbara Ehrenreich

  

Metropolitan Books, 256 pages

 

Buy the book

Ehrenreich may be forgiven for not knowing the origins of positive psychology within the field, but Seligman and his colleagues should know better. They rarely acknowledge their debt to Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers, who, in the 1960s, argued that it was time for a “third force” in American psychology – humanism, an alternative to then dominant world-views of psychoanalysis and behaviourism. Humanists wanted psychologists to pay more attention to the positive aspects of life, including joy, humour, love and the rare moments of rapture caused by the attainment of excellence or the experience of beauty. The humanists were not scientists themselves, but they spurred research on such admirable attributes as empathy, courage, resilience, altruism, the motivation to excel and self-confidence. This was the kind of positive psychology Ehrenreich would welcome; as her own book Dancing in the Streets: A history of collective joy suggests – she is certainly not opposed to joy.

Like all warriors with a take-no-prisoners approach to a problem, however, she occasionally sweeps some innocent civilians into her net. For one thing, the basic premiss of “positive thinking” is neither new nor American: the Stoic philosophy that negative, destructive emotions are created by our thoughts and errors of judgement flourished 300 years bc. The modern practice of cognitive behavioural therapy is based on this notion, and it has been supported by hundreds of empirical studies. Further, decades of research in social psychology have shown that the attitude Ehrenreich finds so saccharine and typically American – the remarks that many cancer patients make to the effect that “I’m a different and better person now” – reflects a universal human need to make sense of negative experiences.

But what is uniquely American is the way that motivational entrepreneurs, religious hucksters and psychologists who are willing to jump “ahead of the science” have packaged and sold positive thinking as a commodity, as if it were a tonic that can bring us safety, security and health all on its own. “The threats we face are real and can be vanquished only by shaking off selfabsorption and taking action in the world”, Ehrenreich writes. And that requires thinking critically as well as positively, as this fine book exemplifies.

Carol Tavris is the co-author (with Elliot Aronson) of “Mistakes Were Made (but Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts,” which appeared in paperback in 2008.


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Night-Gaunt's avatar

By Night-Gaunt, June 23, 2010 at 11:32 am Link to this comment

I like optimism but not the kind that sees a silver lining in every nuclear cloud. That is dangerous. A smiling, beaming kind of dangerous that would murder you for their own good while they tell you it won’t hurt and that we would feel better for it!

I may be considered dour, morose, and melancolian but I am and can be happy. Just not in the way they demand I must be or with the reactions and frequency they would consider to be normal. That is a problem that permeates our society and many others.

***News flash, the containment vessel has been pushed off by the gushing oil and methane gas pressure. Oh happy day! Or maybe not!! Now what? #@!%~!!! To start.

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By Tobysgirl, June 7, 2010 at 12:22 pm Link to this comment

What a great discussion.

No one seems more naive than educated, urban people. I overheard a discussion at the chiropractor’s about a woman who spent her time in meditation class visualizing the Dalai Lama hand-in-hand with George W. Bush and Saddam Hussein—how wonderful! how constructive! how meaningful!

HOW UNBELIEVABLE! How stupid! How naive! How egotistical.

Lexicron wrote: “I share Ehrenreich’s perceptive view of this “optimism” movement as fundamentally cynical, even dangerous, at its core. Even today, we’re seeing the deleterious effects with the BP oil spill: unhampered, uncritical technology, fueled by a “can-do” magical belief that ANYTHING we can think about is possible, and anything can be done or undone—nothing is impossible.”

Hasn’t this been the hallmark of technological humankind? It is rife with magical thinking: If we don’t know what to do with nuclear waste today, we will tomorrow! As long as we continue to worship ourselves, a fundamental tenet of unthinking religion of whatever stripe, on constant display on popular science shows such as Nova, we are doomed.

However, a caller to a liberal talk radio show suggested that if we immediately seized BP’s assets, it would be interesting to see how quickly they could get the gusher under control.

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By SusanSunflower, June 7, 2010 at 9:14 am Link to this comment

Several years ago, I was watching a PBS “American Masters” segment on, irrc, Lorraine Hansberry, discussing why “A Raison in the Sun” was so controversial in its time. (If not Hansbury, another black female author and work of that era).

What was so shocking within society at that time was the “unhappy” or ambiguous ending and the suggestion that the “game is rigged” against minority and other “little guys” ... that pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps or, literally, winning the lottery was not—for regular folks—going to lead to the promised land.

It struck me then how even-more “treasonous” such a point of view is today, in our nation of careerist, conformist, consumer culture.

We all (most of us anyway) learn in kindergarten (if not before) to stifle our tears, whining and other complaints to gain approval. Certainly, we learn to be discrete in criticising our teachers and then our other “bosses” to avoid retaliation from those who hold power over our lives.

The punishment for even suggesting collective action in most arenas is ostracism.

Yes, heaven forbid anyone suggest that the game is rigged, even now well into another generation which has little prospect of doing better materially than their parents (or grandparents)—etc.

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CJ's avatar

By CJ, June 7, 2010 at 7:55 am Link to this comment

The astonishing Barbara Ehrenreich is one of my heroes, one of at least three. I wish there were more but penetrating intelligence has become seriously scarce. (Well, she’s one of about three still living, I should qualify. There are many others but all long gone.) With Barbara, it was love at first sight or rather first hearing, one time when she spoke at a nearby meeting of Democratic Socialists, and then ever since as she’s continued to get to the damn point! Every time!

Once again, she’s taken on American culture (and economy of course)—right where it lives, by now more and more in dire straits at the same time as the nickel and dimed are more and more are blamed for their own plight. Now also for not maintaining a cheery outlook, like those granted 30 seconds to pitch themselves on CNN from time to time, the ever-cheerful (and giggly) Kyra Philips seemingly always in attendance.

Hedges has been assailing this culture too. He’s one of the other two. One doesn’t have to agree with Christianity to benefit from and by a Chris Hedges.

So? Therapy anyone? Never mind since only for the—apparently not so positive/happy—wealthy. For you less than well heeled don’t look for mental healthcare coverage, not even after dismal “reform” sets in. But then maybe you wouldn’t need it were those around you not so perpetually f-ing buoyant! Or at least trying to pretend as much both to themselves and to those not themselves. Assuming now that any can still distinguish between themselves and other selves what with the practice of self-love so rampant. Thanks indeed in no small part to these positive-thinking types, Oprah, et so many al.

Hey, don’t get me wrong: I’m for almost ANY kind of attack on the fraud that is Calvinism, yet one more handy hypocritical weapon still wielded by the well fed against the emptier of belly and far, far harder-working than any among the well fed, who are the same pols and other forms of bosses, not to mention yappers, constantly employing such tactics that, as pointed out, incorporate slavishly happy “acceptance” in conjunction with an ought feel (socially?) guilty for worrying and not being so happy.

I know Ehrenreich is driving more at this phenom as it manifests itself in the health arena in the form of what amounts to a cult. “Cult” is the word, and Robert Altman made much fun of it in an underrated movie entitled, “Health.” Albeit that dealt more with one form of New Ageism, but all this is part and parcel of the same life-denying credo. These boneheaded credos are always ironic.

Yes, an industry by now founded in this particular credo with its target market the deindustrialized/dispossessed of the earth. Maybe Marx wasn’t wrong; maybe it’s just that the proletariat, where its not disappeared, has simply been reduced in consciousness by this doctrine (and doctors of) too—of “positive thinking” and “clean living,” whatever that is. (Mercifully, Veganism is finally under assault for the damage massive agriculture does to land and thus the planet as a whole.) But talk of opiates! I think religion never held such sway. But then religion is more complicated, not quite so given to blaming victims (Protestantism aside) and sometimes, happily enough, extremely depressing.

Course I have to admit that I’d score about 1.2 on that test, if that high.

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Railbird's avatar

By Railbird, June 6, 2010 at 1:08 pm Link to this comment

Lexicron appears to be reaching a bit when suggesting that Seligman makes claims that research does not support. It is significant I think that Seligman has embraced criticism.

Tavris doesn’t seem (to me) to connect Seligman and the “motivational entrepreneurs, religious hucksters and psychologists who are willing to jump ahead of the science,” nor does she represent positive psychology negatively, rather she takes Seligman to task for not crediting Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers who promoted a “‘third force’ in American psychology” one that promoted “positive aspects of life.” 

Sure, “Ehrenreich has long been a tireless fighter against the purveyors of silliness and self-deception” but she’s also, found a niche in the market for righteous indignation. 

To imply that corporations only discovered motivational speakers during bad times is spurious but not as much as linking the “optimism movement” to the BP oil spill and modern technology.

For pure science backing up opinions with regard to what we BELIEVE affecting our bodies there are good sources available.  “The God Part of the Brain” (Breakthrough Findings from a Leading Neuroscientist) is a good example. 

From a review:

“The authors conclude that meditation and other spiritual practices permanently strengthen neural functioning in specific parts of the brain that aid in lowering anxiety and depression, enhancing social awareness and empathy, and improving cognitive functioning. The book’s middle section draws on the authors’ research on how people experience God and where in the brain that experience might be located. Finally, the authors offer exercises for enhancing physical, mental and spiritual health. Their suggestions are commonsensical and common to other kinds of health regimens: smile, stay intellectually active, consciously relax, yawn, meditate, exercise aerobically, dialogue with others and trust in your beliefs. Although the book’s title is a bit misleading, since it is not God but spiritual practice that changes the brain, this forceful study could stir controversy among scientists and philosophers.”  [end quotes]

As for hucksters, preachers, psychologists and those who would save us from them, it is ALWAYS buyer beware.  wink

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By SusanSunflower, June 6, 2010 at 8:26 am Link to this comment

... Yes, “start chanting” .. anything to avoid confronting the grief and the helplessness that is the reality of the situation.  Focus on yourself, because, because, because “you can only change yourself” and it’s not what happens, “it how your react” except of course when it’s not that simple.

Joanna Macy has written extensively about using grief and injury to find a broader compassion and a broader context and a broader community—but then she’s a Buddhist. IMHO, Socially engaged Buddhism is worth exploring if you find yourself overwhelmed with “negativity” when approaching social change.

“Working on yourself” is well and good, but it’s not an excuse to avoid the world. Too much of the New Age (which was largely old wine in new bottles - but included natural remedies, organics etc.) because narcissistic consumerism as people found new things to do and buy in their efforts to “heal” themselves—physically, mentally, “spiritually”—classic buddhist Empty ghosts wanting to consume the magic potion that would get them to some happy state—bliss even—not as “mudane” as chop wood, carry water

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By lexicron, June 5, 2010 at 8:11 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

As a recent psych grad student working on a thesis, I first approached the “optimism” movement promoted by Martin Seligman, which was being embraced fully and unquestioningly at my university. Like Ehrenreich, I discovered that research did not support Seligman’s claims, though that hardly seems to matter to true believers.

I share Ehrenreich’s perceptive view of this “optimism” movement as fundamentally cynical, even dangerous, at its core. Even today, we’re seeing the deleterious effects with the BP oil spill: unhampered, uncritical technology, fueled by a “can-do” magical belief that ANYTHING we can think about is possible, and anything can be done or undone—nothing is impossible. But in this real world, bad things happen sometimes, and it’s not always possible to turn them around, as people seem to believe Obama (or BP) is capable of doing.

I wish Ehrenreich’s book were more widely read and discussed. Thank you, Carol Tavris, for bringing it to light again, many months after its publication date.

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By ofersince72, June 5, 2010 at 6:05 pm Link to this comment

I believe you have a great understanding of the world
we live in.

Peace..and Good Luck, we all are going to need some

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By MeHere, June 5, 2010 at 5:38 pm Link to this comment

Offersince72:

Yes, the internet is another thing that has put distance between people and
human reality. Instant communication has not built better communication -
often quite the opposite. It doesn’t mean that the internet is bad, that spiritual
practices are bad, and the same with other activities. It is that much of what
has become extremely popular is being used in a self-centered way distancing
people from any reality other than their own. Half the country doesn’t believe in
evolution. The increase in superstition has been mentioned.  The general idea
is that it’s not up to us change or influence anything. Doesn’t all this fit very
well with the business-political alliance that rules the country, the world? 

A true story that struck me as humorous even though it’s not: A woman was
sharing the misery of her marital relationship -a very destructive situation-
with a friend.  The friend, an educated, urban person responded: “You must
start chanting.”

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By ofersince72, June 5, 2010 at 3:59 pm Link to this comment

McHere,

I also believe that is also what the internet serves,
same thing.

The internet has been up long to judge if it has made
one bit of difference in American life, we are even
more consuming, just as politically ignorant, and have
the same tendencies to keep voting criminals into office.

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Railbird's avatar

By Railbird, June 5, 2010 at 2:55 pm Link to this comment

Tobysgirl,
MeHere refers to the comments of bogi666 noting early that there is “not much more to add to it.” 

What bogi666 alluded to is what I commented on, adding the suggestion that Marx and Adam Smith (economics and human nature) are the true villains.  Note that bogi666 ends with mentioning “going shopping.”

I also desire (not wish) to “see the world realistically” and not through some upbeat haze,” so I don’t buy into religious dogma and/or the silliness of fire walking, blame the sick and such.

Recent brain research proves (the obvious?) that we NEED to believe, NEED meaning, spirituality and truth.  Unfortunately, that creates opportunity for hucksters, some of whom no doubt BELIEVE what they are preaching.

http://tinyurl.com/yk2dco

I find that it is helpful to remind myself now and again that paying attention to the world around me and having an abundance of empathy is good but also dangerous because there is always the inclination to slip down the slope into co-dependence and rescuing and losing touch with knowing the difference between what I can change and what I can’t, what I am responsible for and what I am not.

As always, mileage varies.

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By Tobysgirl, June 5, 2010 at 1:22 pm Link to this comment

Railbird, I know EXACTLY what Me Here meant. The very crap I wrote about—choosing our parents, etc—is espoused by people who claim they are following Eastern philosophy. Yes, it might not be Eastern philosophy recognizable to Alan Watts, but many of these people call themselves Buddhists, etc. There are many people who think they can buy enlightenment; see, e.g., the enormous sums charged by some “Zen masters” for sessions.

Rfidler, there is some ground between Pollyanna positive thinking and bitchin’ and moanin’. I practice gratitude for my life—gratitude for hot clean water to bathe in, gratitude for my disability income, gratitude for my four-legged friends—but I want to see the world realistically and not through some upbeat haze. I don’t want to befuddle my brain with any religious dogma, and I see the positive thinking movement as essentially dogma.

One of my women’s magazines asked experts what they thought of The Secret. One physicist replied that there is no such thing as the law of attraction of similar things, as The Secret insisted, but there is the law of attraction of opposites, which would mean that thinking pessimistic thoughts would bring us good fortune!

Night-Gaunt clearly explains why I call this junk New Age Calvinism. Blame the sick, the poor, the imprisoned, the marginalized (hmmmm, weren’t those the people J.C. hung out with?), for just not thinking positively enough. And for not choosing well-heeled, white-skinned, American parents.

You know, if we all put our pointed heads together, we could stop the obscene catastrophe in the Gulf just through positive thinking.

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Railbird's avatar

By Railbird, June 5, 2010 at 9:08 am Link to this comment

I think Me Here missed something in bogi666’s observations. 

What does being forged into narcissistic, consumerist, gluttonous mindlessness that is legitimized by governments, business and Christian churches have to to with “Eastern philosophies in the West?”  Nothing.  For the answer see Marx and Adam Smith.  wink

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By phreedom, June 5, 2010 at 8:56 am Link to this comment

Wonderful Piece Carol,

Basically a kind of economic evangelicalism, this
positive attitude productivity model. It has been
nothing more than a human production strategy,
manager, enforcer. Matched with 20 years of laissez-
faire business policy, well, you got, “selfishness-
incarnate”, the devil en masse.

I heard an educator say not too long ago, while
teaching young people, that “thinking of your
thoughts was nilism”. To me, this teaching is an
attempt to undermine the development of the much
needed aspect of human identity, a conscious. Is not
the promotion of, “only the positive”, truly the
definition of nilism? I wonder how this teacher
defines contemplation or thoughtfulness, etc… hey,
how can I do math or physics without considering the
former part of an equation, or problem. Is the former
part of the equation to be considered only a bad or
negative memory, holy molly!!

This is not an isolated incident, this is widespread.
The other day I wanted to make friends with a fella
that I saw each day, as we walked our dogs, I
broached our routine passing with a friendly, and
silly statement, something about some political
issue of the day, and he answered me, “are you
happy”. I felt I was just hit on the head by an evil
zen master, and his stick had spikes in it!!

How does that work, that, “we can get to the whole
person by working through a small aspect of what
makes human beings, people”.

If human beings aspired and evolved “robotically”,
well, “positivity” would be the perfect software or
operating system.

It has not been surprising to me, that such an
extremely leveraged society, would need to simplify
the human consciousness to compensate for the
excessive needs of its’ people to survive, the price
or cost of living/fundamental happiness. 

It is in the positive attitude culture, and/or
strategy, that the right wing has triumphed the most.
Though anyone who has survived the one dimensional
onslaught, intact, would see this special interest
victory as the people’s defeat. 

Much of the confusion, in terms of the people’s
reaction to the failure of corporate America to lead
us to the promised land, is based on the devastating
“success” of the positive attitude movement.

Unwinding this trend in human consciousness
truncation, will alleviate much suffering, and
hopefully cause the appropriate sling-shot reaction
of a society “fooled en masse”. Imagine people living
fully again. As a current version of the Who song
might go today, “got fooled again, oh yes”.

So much to say, so much obvious, but let me just
finish with an aspect of this that should be examined
very carefully and thoroughly, think for a moment,
what it has been the consequences of the
psychological trades having been in bed with
corporate America for the last twenty years. This
relationship needs to be usurped people. There is a
natural conflict of interests in the profitability of
the psychological trades and well-being.

Thank you again carol, very important book, it is an
iceberg under the tip, not to be avoided. The
positive attitude movement has been a titanic
mistake, which must get sunk.

Rhuen Phreed

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By MeHere, June 5, 2010 at 7:56 am Link to this comment

re: bogi666’s comment:

It says it all, not much more to add to it.  The popular adoption of Eastern
philosophies in the West is another symptom of reality avoidance: don’t dwell on
social injustice and political corruption, just chant/pray and seek enlightenment to
evolve spiritually. Then you can go shopping, watch TV trash, and vote for
criminals.

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By Caro, June 5, 2010 at 2:51 am Link to this comment

>>By SusanSunflower, June 4 at 10:40 pm #
...I’ve noticed an increase in general superstitious
behavior in general

Yes, as witnessed by so many TV series where the
protagonist has super powers.

The lesson? You can only right wrongs if you’re a
super special person, so just don’t try to fight the
system. Let the elites continue to steal from you
without your protest.

Carolyn Kay
MakeThemAccountable.com

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By Maani, June 4, 2010 at 9:54 pm Link to this comment

SusanSunflower:

“Well, part of the problem isn’t thinking good thoughts or hoping for the best—it’s the superstitious or magical thinking that “thinking good thoughts will change your future” ...”

Oh no!  You just gave away “The Secret!”  LOL.

“Which places an immense burden on people undergoing cancer treatment…”

Actually, studies have been done which show that positive thinking (including humor) can, and does, have positive effects on cancer therapies, including both remission rates or, in cases of non-remission, length of remaining life.  Admittedly, some of these studies are anecdotal, though others are based on actual stats.

Peace.

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By ofersince72, June 4, 2010 at 8:19 pm Link to this comment

Kathy, I am not a practicing Christian Scientist, but
I have read the whole of the Key To The Scriptures and
Ms. Eddy’s Prose Works.

I started to make the same comment you made when I
posted this morning,  it was very ill thought and either
out of ignorance or prejudice that the reviewer threw
Ms. Eddy in with the new age power of positive thinking
books that litter Wal-Mart.

One of the worst new age positive thinking books I have
ever seen was given to me as a gift…titled
When You Can Walk On Water, Take A Boat…
what fun reading that was,  my sides still hurt.
I wasn’t going to come back to this thread but when
I saw a name like Susan Sunflower, I had to see.
Brings back great memories of my old organic gardens.
I used to grow them all around the perimeter of my
garden,  many of them reached ten foot high, the smallest
were eight foot, the heads were all at least a ft and half
diameter, I would let the birds eat the seed, it kept
them from eating other things in the garden. Cheers!!!

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By SusanSunflower, June 4, 2010 at 6:40 pm Link to this comment

Well, part of the problem isn’t thinking good thoughts or hoping for the best—it’s the superstitious or magical thinking that “thinking good thoughts will change your future” ...

Which places an immense burden on people undergoing cancer treatment (which may have been diagnosed late or be of a particularly virulent kind) or, for instance, someone undergoing in vitro fertilization, where again the actual medical odd are influenced by any number of factors.  To suggest that treatment failure was influence by failing to “keep the faith” is both absurd and terribly unfair.

Actually, I’ve noticed an increase in general superstitious behavior in general—not necessarily “positive” thinking—if I, for instance, comment that we missed the big snowfall that was predicted. I started noticing this about 10 years ago. Beyond the usual lighthearted “knock on wood” (don’t tempt fate) reaction, people have really begun to get antsy, agitated, fearful.

Having a positive attitude—in general—and compartmentalizing and/or setting limits on how much you’re going to cogitate and about what, it all well and good and, imho, healthy—even if you spend serious time worrying about negative but real issues like death, illness, aging, bad finances, etc.

It’s the STFU tyranny and implied “not okay-ness” of interacting GENUINELY including the whole spectrum of human existence and emotions.

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By gerard, June 4, 2010 at 3:44 pm Link to this comment

Huge question—What kind of attitude best serves to help us get on with our lives in this crazed and deliberately saddened world?  Shall we ignore the suffering of millions?  Or work ourselves into a melancholy sweat trying to do more than we reasonably can to help them?  What does “in between” mean?  How can we remain sane, healthy and effective?
  No wonder people are willing to believe anything if it offers relief from anxiety, depression, insanity. They seem to worry less if they are working to improve the lives of others.
  Western religions have no reasonable answers, medical science is silent, aloof, more or less doubtful of saying more than “Of course mind influences health.” 
  And at the end of all struggle there is—the end.
Impossible to imagine,  yet totally real and inescapable. 
  I wake up every night remembering the simple Brethren faith of my grandfather who barely had eight years of formal education, yet grew wise in spite of it.  I hear his voice singing—yes singing!  “Rock of Ages, cleft for me, Let me find my soul in Thee.” 
  There must be a Rock of Ages somewhere, and I must find it—alone and in the dark.  Impossible?  Maybe not.

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By SusanSunflower, June 4, 2010 at 3:43 pm Link to this comment

I don’t think it’s quite so simple—I think some of the relentless positivivity has always been part of the “American Psyche”—Sky’s the limit—Gold Rush—Land Rush mentality and all—always expanding and accelerating into the last century was a rejection of older dour religious models and then rejection of the Freudian “determinism” (with some still shaking off the horror that was the civil war).

In the second half of the last century, there was a lot of rejecting the old and embracing the new, not just because it was new, but because of our national “religion” attached to science and technology—the sky’s the limit and if we just look hard enough, look in the right places with an open mind—like Thomas Edison—all sorts of innovations would revolutionize our lives.

In the mid-1950’s for all the Jetson’s seemed silly and idealized, their modern lives seemed somehow “possible.”  The discovery/understanding of DNA was seen as a potential fountain of youth and still is. Space exploration was believed potentially yield extraordinary innovations (which oddly enough it has, though more of the dull engineering kind than some Eureka game-changing new understanding of the nature of things) ....

All concurrent and under the shadow of the nuclear bomb and the impending Red Menace .... A very real schizophrenic double-bind—much like our own— Then people took Miltown and Valium—now it’s Ativan and Xanax ...

It never ends, people seeking something to hold onto, some better alternative theory in which they aren’t quite so helpless ...

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Night-Gaunt's avatar

By Night-Gaunt, June 4, 2010 at 2:55 pm Link to this comment

Just as with “Social Darwinism” this pseudo science is designed to aid the elites and damn the rest of us. Same with the Dominion form if Christianity protects the elites (blessed) and the rest of us (not so blessed, most cursed) as the be-all-&-end-all of self aggrandizement. It is specifically designed to show we should remain where we are and they where they are. A nice tautology for them isn’t it Tobysgirl?

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rico, suave's avatar

By rico, suave, June 4, 2010 at 1:55 pm Link to this comment

Yeah! Why have a positive outlook when you can spend your life bitchin’ and moanin’.

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By Kathy, June 4, 2010 at 1:54 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The comments about “Bright Sided” have one thing in common, which is references to positive thinking, which is what the book is about - right?  However, the book does make a huge mistake in its inclusion of Mary Baker Eddy.  This author’s book Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures has not one mention of “positive thinking”. Its teachings are God-based and speak about the spiritual nature of man and the infinite allness of a supreme being.  Eddy’s approach to health is one based on the teachings and healings of Christ Jesus, and while one may or may not believe in God, religion, or even spirituality, it would not be accurate to say that Mary Baker Eddy and Christian Science are just about happy positive thoughts.  Christian Science does not ignore human problems, it just approaches them from a different viewpoint and there are 140 years of healings that attest to its effectiveness.

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By Tobysgirl, June 4, 2010 at 1:51 pm Link to this comment

The one thing I didn’t see mentioned here (limited space, of course) is New Age Calvinism. I find the positive thinking movement closely linked to a belief that we “choose” our parents, our economic status, etc. This is, of course, very comforting to someone who is bourgeois and well-off (I “chose” my parents who left me a trust fund).

The most obscene example of this thinking I have yet to come into contact with concerned a dog I tried to adopt. Before this, I had a woman tell me my foster daughter “chose” her drug-addicted, abusive mother.

The dog was four years old, not spayed (“I thought puppies would be fun,” said her guardian), and emaciated, which I find many vets think is healthful. The dog attacked one of her guardian’s children, biting her face. When we tried to take the dog into our home, she attacked our dog, who was very submissive to her. I realized that the dog was resource guarding, which means she saw the person who fed her as her resource and would attack anyone who came between her and her source of food.

I had to return this poor dog to her guardian, who tried to keep her, though she did nothing such as positive reinforcement training, a thorough medical checkup, etc. The dog attacked the neighbor’s dog, and then her guardian decided to euthanize the dog. When I spoke with her about it, she actually said, “Talullah made her choices.” I felt sick. This dog’s spine stuck out from her ribs approximately two inches, which was disguised by her long coat. The woman had made HER choices, which were irresponsible and stupid, and the DOG paid the price.

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By Night-Gaunt, June 4, 2010 at 12:19 pm Link to this comment

From my own experiences I find that what Positive Psychology has been turned into by the hucksters as a form of behavior modification kind of process. You screw the pooch then get the pooch to jump to a conclusion that it isn’t you as the cause but someone else like themselves. [It was all their fault not yours.] Or that the screwed pooch must think of other happy things and go away to do them leaving the screwer alone to move on to other conquests unscathed. A nice racket as long as it is universally used. Which it seems to be. It has become as common place and as believed to be real as the polygraph test as a means to prove veracity.

That along with those damned Personality Tests geared to see if you are of one type and one alone. Gregarious, work with others and is out going. Not everyone is. I can work alone or with others but I am not gregarious nor outgoing. It is based on the same skewed ideas used in this positive psychology scam being used against us right now. So you must learn to answer the questions the right way to pass it. I don’t like lying but when I need to live I shall do it and do my job as well as possible. Wouldn’t any of you?

Comrade Phi such actions are on a quantum level but haven’t been observed on a larger level. Hence the positive person who still dies from cancer like my mother did even though she was so positive I found it pathological. So is the rest of my immediate family which is hard for me because I am one of those who might be called “dour” or a “pessimist” but the word I prefer is melancholic. Though “realist” also fits my outlook as I see it. Or we can go to the song at the end of Monty Python’s Life of Brian which illustrates the positivists into a nutshell. “Look on the bright side of life…” while they are crucified hanging on crosses.

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By Comrade Phi, June 4, 2010 at 11:36 am Link to this comment

Extremes in either orientation of a philosophical polarity are almost certainly wrong.  The “pie in the sky, just think positive and all will work out in the end” polarity is as silly as the “Clockwork Mechanism Universe.”  Pessimism is just as much a belief as is Positivism.  Modern Quantum Science has pretty much demonstrated that there is a relationship between observation and outcome.  Consciousness does influence whatever attention is placed upon.

I agree with Ms.Ehrenreich that the blame the sufferer cancer recovery industry is evil and self-serving.  This indictment doesn’t invalidate any other potential for health to be influenced by the interaction of individual and group consciousness.

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By WriterOnTheStorm, June 4, 2010 at 10:28 am Link to this comment

I once knew a mediocre writer, who, upon learning that James Joyce was an inveterate drinker, hunkered
down for a two year marathon with a laptop and a whiskey bottle. The result? The former mediocre
writer was newly born as a drunken mediocre writer.

Successful people have a great deal to be positive about. Maybe that’s why they are often appear more
positive than others. But just like the scribe who found he couldn’t drink his way to literary fame, a lot
of us are going to learn that hard way that we can’t think our way to success.

It should come as no surprise that positive thinking movement has gotten so much traction in America.
After all, we grow deluded, willfully ignorant adults like China grows rice. Our primary delusion,
packaged and sold as “The American Dream” is so seductive, some of our most critical intellectuals buy
into it.

Convinced of the unquestionable superiority of our mythic constructs, we have become the world’s
principal purveyor of what I want to call ‘bright makes right’. In this sense, positive thinking is not the
disease, but a symptom of a more dangerous delusion—American Exceptionalism.

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By JNWesner, June 4, 2010 at 8:32 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

A minor point, perhaps, but one I’d like to make: The use of the term “humanist” to mean a psychological movement to get people to act happy, even when they aren’t.  That term, used that way, is stolen!  Humanists are people who, without believing in supernatural forces, try to improve the world, not by saying it’s already just dandy, but by helping those who need help and recognizing, not avoiding, unpleasant realities.  We (of course I’m one) believe, not that everybody is nice, but that all people are capable of good.  Bringing out the good in oneself and in others is a primary duty of humanists—and humans in general.  We do this through education, science, and truly making change.  So giving that other use legitimacy is an error.

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By Caro, June 4, 2010 at 8:05 am Link to this comment

I’m no fan of the positive thinking people, but I have
no interest in reading anything by Barbara Ehrenreich,
either, not since her vicious attacks on Hillary
Clinton in 2008.

Carolyn Kay
MakeThemAccountable.com

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By Railbird, June 4, 2010 at 7:37 am Link to this comment

As a Jewish psychologist Tavris ought to have a clear understanding about the need to believe and the value of finding comfort in those beliefs.

Instead, she hitches a ride on Barbara Ehrenreich’s victim making. Positive thinking “became a big business” with ‘big business as its principal client’ decades ago.  Hell, even some psychologists jumped on the bandwagon.

To tie the suffering of the unemployed in this collapsed economy in any way to the Zig Ziglar’s of the world only provides a smoke screen for the greedy corporations and economic theories that brought it all about. People will grasp for comfort and alternatives as they try to survive.  So it goes. 

I used to kid my mother about her religion until it dawned on me that if I didn’t have something to offer her in its place I should just keep my thoughts to myself.

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By Steve Blank, June 4, 2010 at 7:17 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Thanks, Carol, for this well-written piece. I thoroughly enjoyed Barbara’s book, and appreciate the last two paragraphs of your review which add some important perspective. Now I will look for a copy of your “Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me).”

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By ofersince72, June 4, 2010 at 6:28 am Link to this comment

I am glad someone finally wrote a book about all
positive thinking messeges, I"ll read it. Thanks Barbara.

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By godistwaddle, June 4, 2010 at 5:42 am Link to this comment

A quick, easy, and fun read, “Bright Sided.”  Positive thinking, of course, is of a piece with the christ-tards bearing this dreadful life because someday they’ll have pie-in-the-sky-when-they-die-by-and-by with “jesus”™.

Well, as W. C. Fields pointed out, it’s wrong to let a sucker keep his money.

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By bogi666, June 4, 2010 at 4:40 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

What a great article, thanks. I think the reference to self absorbtion is significant because this fosters narcissism and Americanhavebeen forged into being narcissistic, consumerist, gluttons which can be attributed to the mindlessness of Americans, the inability to discern thought, including the thoughts of others,into facts. The importance of this mindlessness is that businesses, governments, pretend christian churches have institutionized mindlessness which legitimizes it. The evidence can be viewed daily on TV.

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