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Enough with the Positive Thinking

Positive thinking — reinforced by our Oprah-like “me power” culture, not to mention novels that suggest you can have everything if you optimize your mental powers to attract it — is delusional.

Before I decided to study literature in college, I took the typical freshman approach: I changed my major again and again, based on the whims of my current fascinations, causes and favorite professors. It’s scary looking back, considering I could have based my life’s career goals around an affinity for a class that happenstance scheduled following my afternoon latte boost.

One of my favorite diversions was a foray into sociology. My alma mater, UW-Madison, had a very interesting program full of fascinating idealists, which coincided nicely with my 18-year-old optimism and tattered thrift store clothes. Together we would change the world, one faded ironic T-shirt and clipboard at a time.

I’ve never lost my interest in this field, and I’ve found as I’ve gotten older, my interest in reading novels is oftentimes trumped by an interest in sociological discourse. I read a fascinating book a few years back called Nickle & Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich, which chronicled the author’s one-year experiment of trying to live off low-skill, minimum-wage jobs in America, including services like waitressing and housekeeping. The book was a sad and telling sign of the state of the less fortunate end of the American workforce, and I found it incredibly moving. When I stumbled upon a recent interview with Ms. Ehrenreich on her newest book, I was both amused and surprised. Here’s the basic overview:

Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America tackles the topic of our shared cultural fascination with the “power” of positive thinking.  Ehrenreich recently wrote a column on the topic in TIME and I have to admit, it was both fascinating and disheartening.

The author’s argument is based on the thesis that the trend towards positive thinking — reinforced by our Oprah-like “me power” culture, not to mention novels like The Secret, which suggest you can have everything if you simply optimize your mental powers to “attract it” — is dangerous and, more importantly, delusional.

Ehrenreich argues:

“Optimism wasn't just a psycho-spiritual lifestyle option; by the mid-'00s it had become increasingly mandatory … In the workplace, employers culled "negative" people, like those in the finance industry who had the temerity to suggest that their company's subprime exposure might be too high. No one dared be the bearer of bad news. The purpose of work, at least in white-collar settings, was to flatter and reassure the boss, who had in turn probably read enough of the business self-help literature to believe that his job was to motivate others with his own relentless and radiant optimism.”

Her argument is in favor of “reality,” a “stuff happens” approach. It has a clean, non-star-dusted feel to it. I’m all in favor of pragmatic, justified thinking, but I wonder if the optimists are doing as much damage as she suggests. Delusion is one thing, but is it so bad to be a cheerful face in a tough business environment?

“The threats that we face, individually and collectively,” says Ehrenreich, “won't be solved by wishful thinking, but by a clear-eyed commitment to taking action in the world.” That’s hard to argue with, although I wouldn’t necessarily classify optimism and wishful thinking into synonymous categories. Don’t we have the capacity to combine hard numbers, useful steps towards success, and — gasp — a leadership position of positivity that encourages our employees to look towards a better future for the industry and the company?

Looking back on college, I don’t think it was optimism that nurtured my success, but I do think the optimism helped build the confidence that allowed me to go after things I wanted.

I understand Ehrenreich’s fear of a dangerous precedent in a business environment — that positive thinking replaces more tangible elements — lest we freefall into a bed of pillowy language and platitudes. Pats on the back do not a business plan make. But I wouldn’t blame you if you smiled once in a while …

What are your thoughts? Is optimism over-rated — even dangerous? E-mail me at [email protected].