As readers may have guessed, I’ve never been a fan of positive thinking. It’s a bizarre belief system wrapped around a justification of being lazy, of fantasizing that you can magnetize good outcomes, as opposed to rolling up your sleeves and getting to work in your life. The New-Agey extreme form is just creepy, where people talk about love and light, which therefore means refusing to acknowledge all the twisted stuff in their psyche that actually runs them, as well as their routine bad behavior, like undermining their kids or being stingy.
But a watered-down version is prevalent in the corporate world. As we wrote in 2008:
“Negativity,” an awkward coinage, has widely come to be used pejoratively. Magical thinking, too, has become increasingly popular as a way to gain the illusion of control in an uncertain world. Rhonda Byrne’s motivational best-seller The Secret, for example, basically says that you get what you wish for. If you don’t have the things you want, it means you don’t have enough faith. In this construct, neither insufficient effort nor bad luck plays a role.
In the business world, we’ve moved from hardheaded to feel-good management. As Financial Times columnist Lucy Kellaway observed recently: “For people in any position of authority the ability to say no is the most important skill there is. . . . No, you can’t have a pay rise. No, you can’t be promoted. No, you can’t travel club class. . . . An illogical love of Yes is the basis for all modern management thought. The ideal modern manager is meant to be enabling, empowering, encouraging and nurturing, which means that his default position must be Yes. By contrast, No is considered demotivating, uncreative and a thoroughly bad thing.”
Readers who have done time in Corporate America can no doubt attest to this sort of thing, either the weak form (being exhorted by managers to be upbeat) or the stronger versions (being sent to motivational training and team-building sessions).
Now on the level of social skills, being cheerful generally goes over better than being a sourpuss. And in sales roles, being able to hear the objections of customers and not get defensive is essential.* But there’s a world of difference between knowing which flavor of pleasant persona to put on in a particular setting versus elevating America’s strong social preference for chipperness into a religion.
My big objection to this belief in this sunniness as a form of exercise is that it’s a form of censorship. People try to shut those who convey unpleasant truths down by claiming they undermine creativity or as Lambert likes to put it, following Vast Left, are “harshing my mellow.” And that sort of refusal to allow certain topics into conversation because they might be upsetting makes critical thinking and analysis impossible.
Moreover, there’s good reason to doubt that fantasizing beats action. I can’t name a single major Silicon Valley success story where the founders built a industry leader based on cultivating happy inner thoughts. Andy Grove wrote about how being paranoid was key to success. The Japanese auto industry (and Japanese manufacturers generally) obsess over what’s wrong, not what’s working. Goldman’s culture during the decades when it was moving into a premier position was intolerant of error and obsessed with containing risks.
Three more Rhonda Byrne bestsellers later, Adam Alter of the New Yorker confirms our reading and tells us that all that happy thinking is demotivating:
According to a great deal of research, positive fantasies may lessen your chances of succeeding. In one experiment, the social psychologists Gabriele Oettingen and Doris Mayer asked eighty-three German students to rate the extent to which they “experienced positive thoughts, images, or fantasies on the subject of transition into work life, graduating from university, looking for and finding a job.” Two years later, they approached the same students and asked about their post-college job experiences. Those who harbored positive fantasies put in fewer job applications, received fewer job offers, and ultimately earned lower salaries. The same was true in other contexts, too. Students who fantasized were less likely to ask their romantic crushes on a date and more likely to struggle academically. Hip-surgery patients also recovered more slowly when they dwelled on positive fantasies of walking without pain.
Heather Barry Kappes, a management professor at the London School of Economics, has published similar research with Oettingen. I asked Kappes why fantasies hamper progress, and she told me that they dull the will to succeed: “Imagining a positive outcome conveys the sense that you’re approaching your goals, which takes the edge off the need to achieve.” Oettingen and Kappes asked two groups of undergraduates to imagine the coming week. One group fantasized that the week would go as well as possible, whereas the other group conjured a more neutral version of the week. One week later, when the students returned to the lab, the positive fantasizers felt that they had accomplished less over the previous week.
I am at a loss to understand why this school of thought became popular. If you want to attain some better future state, like learn a language, or get good grades, or lose weight, you have to do the work. Specific forms of visualization can be useful in sports, as a way to trigger the muscle memory of doing certain move in a particular way. And in terms of mental discipline, the most effective posture is not to indulge mental chatter, which positive fantasies do, but to be present and engage with what is in front of you. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who studied happiness, creativity, and sports performance, found that people were happy not when they were amped up (the Hollywood/American pop version, happiness as euphoria), but when people are engrossed in what they are doing, which he called a state of flow. Is it any wonder that anomie is rising as more and more electronic distractions undermine attaining that state?
In the meantime, I hope those of you in big company jobs will find opportunities for subversion in the form of printing out the New Yorker article (better yet, highlighting the sections that challenge the value of positive thinking) and leaving it on the desks of any and all cheerfulness enforcers.
* There’s also a wide-spread belief in the US that successful salespeople are smiling “hail fellow well met” types. The most credible work I’ve seen suggests that top sales personnel actually aren’t big on selling. Instead, they focus first on qualifying the customer: they listen to what the prospect is looking for to determine if their company can deliver it. If they don’t see a good fit, they don’t waste their time trying to convert them; they move on.