Saturday, January 21, 2012

The alternative to positive thinking is not despair (Books - Bright-Sided by Barbara Ehrenreich) - The Tyranny of Positive Thinking I

Barbara Ehrenreich's Bright-Sided is a feisty analysis of the American obsession with positive thinking that includes its hypothesized origins, the areas of culture that it infiltrates - big business, religion, psychology - the multi-billion dollar industry that has grown up around coaching and products to maintain that cockeyed optimism no matter what the weather tells us, a debunking of many of the beneficial outcomes claimed by proponents of positive thinking such as improved cancer prognosis or material wealth, and finally the usefulness of negative emotions, stress, and vigilance. The anecdotes as well as the facts (if you choose to listen to them) are delivered in accessible prose with a hefty dose of irony. In addition, Ehrenreich is emotionally open about the part her own experience plays with the subject she writes about as in, for example, this about her wait for test results to confirm or reject a cancer diagnosis:

Finally there was nothing left to read but one of the free local weekly newspapers where I found, buried deep in the classifieds, something even more unsettling than the growing prospect of major disease - a classified ad for a "breast cancer teddy bear" with a pink ribbon stitched to its chest.

Yes, atheists pray in their foxholes - in this case, with a yearning new to me and sharp as lust, for a clean and honorable death by shark bite, lightning strike, sniper fire, car crash. Let me be hacked to death by a madman, was my silent supplication - anything but suffocation by the pink sticky sentiment embodied in that bear and oozing from the walls of the changing room. I didn't mind dying, but the idea that I should do so while clutching a teddy and with a sweet little smile on my face - well, no amount of philosophy had prepared me for that.
and later this about treatment:
In the mainstream of breast cancer culture, there is very little anger... Positive thinking seems to be mandatory in the breast cancer world, to the point that unhappiness requires a kind of apology, as when "Lucy," whose "long-term prognosis is not good," started her personal narrative on by telling us that her story "is not the usual one full of sweetness and hope, but true nevertheless."
Ehrenreich owns up to her point of view not only as a patient, but also as a PhD in cell biology, a rationalist, and a professional skeptic. Her science credentials make her debunking of the blithely and often-repeated connection between positive emotion, immune response, and cancer survival rate particularly good. She gives a layperson's overview of a body of research spanning from the 1930s to 2007. The connection is based on the notion that a positive outlook impacts immune response, but this would only be meaningful if the immune system was playing a role in cancer, a fact for which there is no conclusive evidence. The immune system's role, as far as we understand, is to defeat outside invasions like infection, not alterations in growth that evolve inside our own cells. James Coyne, the author of a literature review of studies of the effects of psychotherapy on cancer in 2007 concludes that
There can be lots of social and emotional benefits. But [patients] should not seek such experiences solely on the expectation that they are extending their lives.
Ehrenreich's point is not merely that she derives no comfort from teddy bears and therefore neither should anyone else, her point throughout the book is that the insistence on optimism is a whitewashing of experience, and that it does not only fail to produce the results claimed by proponents but that the its ultimate outcome can actually be harmful.
But rather than providing emotional sustenance, the sugar-coating of cancer can exact a dreadful cost. First, it requires the denial of understandable feelings of anger and fear, all of which must be buried under a cosmetic layer of cheer. There is a great convenience for health workers and even friends of the afflicted, who might prefer fake cheer to complaining, but it is not so easy on the afflicted.
Well-intentioned as efforts may be to encourage benefit finding, it is generally insensitive to the "unique burdens and challenges" each patient must overcome. Indeed, some studies link increased perception of benefits with poorer quality of life compared to those who perceived fewer benefits following their diagnoses.

Ehrenreich's book doesn't focus solely on her own medical issues, in her chapter on motivational speakers and products like The Secret which promise that positive thinking will produce specific, wished-for results, Ehrenreich takes aim at the notion of the unlimited mind or that "we are the creators of our lives and of our world." Their programs involve such advice as eliminating negative people from one's life and not exposing oneself to negative news.
Of course, if the powers of mind were truly "infinite," one would not have to eliminate negative people from one's life...The advice that you must change your environment... is an admission that there may in fact be a "real world" out there that is utterly unaffected by our wishes. In the face of this terrifying possibility, the only "positive" response is to withdraw into one's own carefully constructed world of constant approval and affirmation, nice news, and smiling people.
Many of these programs claim to be based upon quantum physics, or rather, an incorrect understanding of the rules of quantum mechanics, which apply to systems that are waaaaaay smaller than the brain. The argument put forth by such speakers, mourns Ehrenreich, is that "whatever you decide is true, is true." How the hell can you argue with that?
It's a glorious universe the positive thinkers have come up with, a vast, shimmering aurora borealis in which desires mingle freely with their realizations. Everything is perfect here, or as perfect as you want to make it. Dreams go out and fulfill themselves; wishes need only to be articulated. It's just a god-awfully lonely place.
Although this paragraph is fairly dripping with sarcasm, Ehrenreich gets right to the heart of the fallacy of such claims. Such an imagined system sees the wisher as the only active member of the universe and all other objects and people in it their instruments. Think about it, if your wish involves my decision to, say, give you a job - what is the claim? That I no longer have a free will in making such a decision? That my thoughts and actions become your playthings? And what if I am simultaneously focusing my positive thoughts on employing someone else? What then?

Crackpot ministers and Oprah guests notwithstanding, I would have found the chapter on psychologist Martin Seligman and the "science of happiness" devastating had it not been so funny. By Ehrenreich's account there is little unbiased science going on in the field in which I am currently trying to earn a degree.

So obviously Ehrenreich and I are both misanthropes of the worst kind, and if we want to hate all humanity we can go ahead, by why shouldn't the rest of mankind benefit from thinking only positive thoughts if they want to? What possible harm can it do? Perhaps, cautions Ehrenreich, there are negative people who have something useful to say
...the financial officer who keeps worrying about the bank's subprime mortage exposure or the auto executive who questions the company's overinvestment in SUVs and trucks. Purge everyone who "brings you down," and you risk being very lonely or, what is worse, cut off from reality.
Here is Ehrenreich's chief caveat, if the only information you wish to take in is that which tells you everything is well with the world, you place yourself in "an artificial bubble of constant, uncritical reinforcement." Ehrenreich stresses:
The alternative to positive thinking is not, however, despair...The alternative is to...see things as uncolored as possible by our own feelings and fantasies, to understand that the world is full of both danger and opportunity.
Where were all the regulators who were supposed to be watching our financial system, sounding alarms prior to its collapse in 2008? Perhaps they were all right there, but were only willing to see unlimited credit, and the possibility of 40% annual gains. This economic depression we have gone through should by all rights have carried the message with it that the market does not possess an unlimited ability to self-correct, but both economists and politicians are still trying to bright-side us (and, no doubt, themselves). You might wish to give yourself a dose of Barbara Ehrenreich's sober thesis in a very amusing package as an antidote.

This was the first installment of a self-assigned reading project with the tentative title of The Tyranny of Positive Thinking (see my side bar) for which I also intend to read Adam Phillips's Going Sane and Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist. After this, I hope to provoke a cross-conversation among these books. Read along, if you care to join me.


Marie said...

I love Ehrenreich's books and way of thinking generally, and I think I really need to pick this up!

Ted said...

Marie - I know I have read one other book by Ehrenreich, but I don't remember which one - maybe Nickled and Dimed? There is nothing quite like her critical mind mixed with her sense of humor.

Sheila O'Malley said...

I must read this book. Have you read Martin Seligman's Learned Optimism? Bill Green gave it to me. Seligman is a cognitive psychiatrist and believes (through experiments and analysis) that "depression" is actually "learned pessimism" (which is something that REALLY resonated with me) - and also has some very interesting thoughts on the uses of pessimism and his own analysis working with so-called pessimistic people. Often pessimists have a far more accurate view of themselves than off-the-charts optimists. In the tests he gives pessimists - they are more willing to acknowledge not only their flaws, but also their strengths. Optimists often OVER-praise themselves. This is all based on years of his studies (many of which are really fascinating).

The self-help positive-thinking cult in this country (and there are cult-like aspects to it) is a sham, in my opinion. A con.

And those who "believe in it" are fundamentalists - they don't realize that these are just concepts they CHOOSE to believe in, not TRUTHS. One of the hallmarks of fundamentalism.

The tyranny of positive thinking sets you up for failure and disappointment. It is based on RESULTS. Things should "work out" because that's how it's set up. If you "put it out there", good stuff will "come back" to you.

Tell that to the people in Darfur, you privileged nincompoops.

Makes me mad. Obviously.

Ted said...

S - Ehrenreich's portrait of Seligman is not very flattering. I don't know his book - no. Learned helplessness is a theory I have read about, but not learned pessimism. I'll have to look into it. Many of the people who claim to turn positive thoughts into material gains are indeed con artists, and it is just one more way that people in this country practice "if you think it, therefore it is true." Such a dangerous practice, to never demand evidence beyond one's own feelings to reach any opinion or take any decision.

Runs Like A Gay said...

Thanks for the insightful review, will definitely be looking this book up.