Positive Thinking is Bad for You

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.

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  1. David Vognar

    I’m a social worker and I think it’s generally a good idea to adhere to the Chinese proverb “Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.” (I think you need to engage in both.) A couple of fun audiovisual perspectives to consider on the topic of positive and negative thinking: the South Park episode “You’re Getting Old,” about Stan suddenly seeing everything as shit, figuratively and literally, http://www.southparkstudios.com/full-episodes/s15e07-youre-getting-old. And what you’ve probably already heard of, Barbara Ehrenreich’s take on the perils of optimism, in an animated form: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u5um8QWWRvo. Ehrenreich’s conclusion is that realism is the way to go, and if the definition of realism is up for debate, I submit that there are positive and negative aspects of reality, and therefore a reason to entertain both perspectives.

    1. wandering mind

      I think this series of <a href="http://therealnews.com/t2/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=31&Itemid=74&jumival=11487&quot; interviews with Code Pink co-founder Medea Benjamin illustrates what you are saying. She has had babies die in her arms, been jailed and deported from several countries, including Cuba and Brazil, so she does not have any illusions about life. However, she is also able to see that sometimes her actions can and do have an impact. So, she is not naive about the power balance in the world, but she is not so overwhelmed by it as to allow that power imbalance to paralyze her.

      1. Linda J

        I couldn’t bear to watch this series w/Medea. She was so instrumental in corralling people into the “veal pen” of the Democratic Party for sooooo long. I know she has done a number of courageous things, but they are outweighed in my opinion by the fact she didn’t have the guts to break from the duopoly when we could have had a chance to do something to stop the corporatization of this country. When Nader was running for president and the Democrats were voting for war money every 5 minutes, she gave an interview about feeling like an abused spouse who must, nevertheless, go back to her abuser (the Democrats). That did it for me.

        1. wandering mind

          Interesting that you raise that issue, because in one of the interviews she admits to having drunk the Obama Kool-Aid and, in my opinion makes it clear that she regrets her decision.

        2. Binky Bear

          Those were the choices on the menu and Nader was being funded by the Republicans to sabotage the Democrats. The abused spouse metaphor is more than a little over-wrought as well. We made a rational decision that friendly fascism was better than bull loony Christian jihad.
          Your choices were McCain/Romney or Obama. Obama’s choices are to enact the same policies as McCain/Romney because the money in both parties wants those policies. The system is fixed and will not change because as broken as it is, it is working for the people who are paying for it. The business of America is business and while we are no longer GM, or even Beatrice, we are as wealthy and powerful as we are because we are a mercantile nation throwing our armies where our oil and banking money interests command. Like our predecessors. Like those who will come after us someday.
          We are the pinnacle of human programming. We’re it until we find aliens or talking dolphins. Until the oil runs out. Or the food.

          1. John

            Suggestion: consider that 2008 and 2012 were two different situations. With Obama vs. McCain, we knew what was bad. (I personally thought that perhaps our very survival required Obama winning. McCain might have attacked Iran and ultimately used a nuclear weapon.)

            2012: With Obama vs. Romney, we now know that the policies are essentially the same, with Obama mostly continuing Bush II policies. (ACA being the primary exception to Bush policies, although it fit in with what Romney did.) Obama not only continued Bush II policies, he persistently poked his base in the eye.

            I hope one recognizes that the very conflict whether to go with Obama or against broke the base, whatever side one takes. Primary challenge? A non-starter, thanks to the mainstream media. (How many people even heard of Darcy Richardson or Aldous Tyler?)

      2. Jim Shannon

        Einstein ….”Imagination is more important then knowledge.”
        I keep imagining a world without CentaMillionaire$ and Billionaire$!!!!!!!!
        However, the masses refuse to deal with the real cause of ALL of Man’s inhumanity to Man! The Greed of those who use their wealth to corrupt ALL Governments and their laws!

        1. John

          Re: “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”

          Imagine how objects move or behave. Imagine how people behave. Imagine what claims actually mean. Then perhaps you’ll see the truth (or often the absurdity) of claims. Einstein, Feynman, Fermi, Pauli, and numerous others didn’t excel in physics by accumulating vast knowledge.

      1. diptherio

        I know, right? Everybody knows that “hope for the best, prepare for the worst” is an old Indian saying…though I can’t remember if it’s feather or dot…

        One thing I have learned from our American culture is that some people are just naturally wiser than others. As far as I can tell the order goes something like this:
        Ethnic Profundity Scale:

        1. Indians (feather)
        2. Indians (dot)
        3. Chinese (Tibetan)
        4. Chinese (non-Tibetan)
        5. Black
        6. Hispanic
        7. White

        Interestingly, if one simply inverses the order of the list, one is left with the Ethnic Political Power Scale. Strange, that…

        1. Brooklin Bridge

          You might add, 0. Fortune Cookies, so as to take the edge off any particular group getting a monopoly on this wiseness gig. :-)

        2. craazyman

          what if you have to rank 1) a fair-skinned black man, 2) an Indian without a feather and 3) a white man with a deep tan and dreadlocks?

          that could get complicated.

          but you can do it if you think positively!

        3. Kevin

          Ethnic Profundity Scale…Interestingly, if one simply inverses the order of the list, one is left with the Ethnic Political Power Scale. Strange, that…

          Not really. Wise people have in view deeper realities and values, and not the vanities of this fleeting life. Every religion counsels as much.

    2. Kevin

      Right. “Trust in God, but tie your camel.”
      Objectivity is the great intellectual virtue; after all we have an interest in registering reality accurately.

  2. Sandwichman

    Had a boss once whose mantra was “take responsibility for your own experience” and had a habit of whipping employees into a frenzy of overwork and burnout and then firing them.

    1. huxley

      The control of worker abuse is the primary purpose of labor unions. In order for those workers to ‘take responsibility’ they would need to form one to reduce such abuse. Overwork, burnout, and firing was the wrong approach for them to ‘take responsibility’.

      Adam Smith was rather explicit about it: the only way for most workers to compete in a capitalistic system is to form labor unions. Employers form similar associations and have the greater power anyway, so it’s only fair.

      1. jrs

        The responsibility meant to be taken was no doubt purely mental, unions might actually change actual external existential conditions in the workplace. Can’t have that. It all has to be Victor Frankl in the concentration camp when the only freedom left is that of thought. But things are drastically far gone when that’s the only freedom left!! Until then form unions.

  3. jrs

    I have an instinctive aversion to it as well. I guess it boils down to, on the intra-personal level it strikes me as being a form of repression. Not going to acknowledge any less than positive feelings about my life or anything, paper it all over with thinking happy thoughts. It always strikes me as being terrified of shadows. And so we are told to list 20 things we’re grateful for each night before we go to bed. How about 20 things I’m mad as heck about each night before I go to bed? 20 things I’m sad about each night before I go to bed? Ok, I don’t make lists of 20 anythings before I go to bed! But it is pretty one-sided in it’s emphasis – too one sided for emotional truth.

    On the interpersonal level it strikes me as being a form of shunning and social shaming. Justifying the ostracizing of anyone who isn’t all positivity. Censoring any expression of less than positivity. A mandate to fake happiness.

    Luckily, although I seem to run into the serious new age stuff all the time, I don’t run into it much at work. It’s hard to turn techies into new agers as they are pretty much polar opposites.

    1. Ben

      Just list 20 things you are grateful for, no need to focus on the bad stuff.

      Love The Establishment.

      ps keep up the good work :-)

    2. Procopius

      You know, I got that advice 36 years ago in Alcoholics Anonymous, except the lovely lady who explained it was more realistic: Think of ONE thing that happened to you during the day that you can genuinely feel grateful to your higher power for sending your way. Then actually pray to your higher power, giving thanks for that. Even though I’m an agnostic leaning toward atheism I gave it a try and it actually had extraordinarily beneficial results for me. After doing it for a year I suddenly realized how many good things in my life I had been ignoring, and realized that I still needed to do a lot more work, but I was really pretty happy.

      On the other hand, it’s an easy habit to break, and as Yves points out it could become an obstacle to actually doing the things that need to be done. Even now I don’t think I could find 20 things to list every day, but as the nice lady pointed out, if you have such a bad day that there was nothing in it to be grateful for, at least you can be grateful that the f*king day is over.

  4. Jim

    The real reason for all of this chirpiness and optimism in recent decades is that, ultimately, “America”, i.e. “The American Dream”, “The American Work Ethic”, et.al., is one enormous con job…hustle and you’ll get ahead, have it all, be happy, etc. However, of course, this con has become increasingly obvious, so the cultural-level reaction is “You’re just being negative.” It’s just another take on the same old snow job.

    1. John Yard

      That’s right. Hard work once got you ahead. Now you get psychic rewards instead of real ones. I worked on the Ford assembly line in 1968 for the 2014 equivalent wage of $19/hr, housing and medical care were cheap. The same job is being offered today for $14/hr. In the 1970’s I had a Teamster warehouse job that paid the equivalent of $70k for very hard work. Same job pays in the mid to upper $30’s today.

    2. j gibbs

      I agree up to a point. But, for example, those trapped in unemployment might do well to remember ‘you only need one job’. My Dad used that one on me, and he used it on himself too, when he got fired at age 47. It worked both times.

    3. Synopticist

      I reckon positive thinking is helpful if you’re a salesperson, when at work.
      Otherwise it’s bunk.

  5. Optimader

    In the United States today, we have more than our share of the nattering nabobs of negativism.
    Spiro T. Agnew

    1. KFritz

      Spoken by Agnew, written by William Safire–wordsmith, language maven, and NYT columnist. And cheerleader for the Iraq War.

    1. PghMike4

      Seeing this made me think of despair.com — well worth a visit (no, I have no financial connection with them, at all).

  6. tongorad

    OK, so positive thinking is a big con, but the alternatives discussed in the this piece seem to point in the self-same direction, i.e. an unquestioned and incurious belief in The Protestant Work Ethic as the Manifest Destiny of human existence. Because clearly our problem is that workers don’t have the right attitude, right? Better discipline is what’s needed.
    “Andy Grove wrote about how being paranoid was key to success.”
    Yeah, Andy Grove would write that wouldn’t he?

    1. Klassy

      I don’t know. I tdon’t think Andy Grove’s pessimism is misplaced here:
      The underlying problem isn’t simply lower Asian costs. It’s our own misplaced faith in the power of startups to create U.S. jobs. Americans love the idea of the guys in the garage inventing something that changes the world. New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman recently encapsulated this view in a piece called “Start-Ups, Not Bailouts.” His argument: Let tired old companies that do commodity manufacturing die if they have to. If Washington really wants to create jobs, he wrote, it should back startups.
      Friedman is wrong. Startups are a wonderful thing, but they cannot by themselves increase tech employment. Equally important is what comes after that mythical moment of creation in the garage, as technology goes from prototype to mass production. This is the phase where companies scale up. They work out design details, figure out how to make things affordably, build factories, and hire people by the thousands. Scaling is hard work but necessary to make innovation matter.
      The scaling process is no longer happening in the U.S. And as long as that’s the case, plowing capital into young companies that build their factories elsewhere will continue to yield a bad return in terms of American jobs.

        1. Brooklin Bridge

          Indeed, a well chosen marriage is often just a few inches beneath the deepest depths of the most ponderous positivism.

          1. Klassy

            Bringing this full circle, I knew my husband was the right person for me on our first date when we talked about the value of pessimism and that positive thinking was overrated. Well that and the fact that he is a cat person.

          1. Brooklin Bridge

            When it comes to that sublime indifference and cool eyed assesment that inspires people to scratch you behind the ears, cats get it.

    2. TimR

      So what does one do, tongorad, in a world driven mad with achievement and success… maybe Morris Berman’s “monastic option”? But meanwhile you have to live, somehow, amid the frenzy, and monastic pursuits don’t always pay the bills…
      Also there is Veblen’s “instinct of workmanship” to consider… Our best selves do want to be constructive, to utilize our skills as best we can. The sickness may be that the Protestant work ethic is perverted into the constant “work” of dominating, taking, pillaging; rather than creative, fulfilling work that benefits others?

    3. jrs

      Hard work can sometimes pay off individually, it’s a tool in the tool box, the problem is if I had a hammer everything would look like a nail. Collectively? If everyone worked themselves 100 hour weeks and drove themselves every minute of it (probably humanly impossible), then Wallmart greeters would be working 100 hour weeks (and many probably are – the poor work hard!) because the economic system. It’s not a solution that works at that level, and there’s where people go wrong, they generalize in the best case from actual personal experience and in the worse case from pure cliche to the social level. What works there? I’d prefer a very different economic system. Instinct to workmanship? Yea but these hours where work demands every single hour? With labor this alienated? What about all the other things a human being has an instinct to? Like companionship, love, curiosity etc.? No time for them?

      Other tools in the toolbox individually? Well one could also try stoicism as per NN Taleb.

      1. F. Beard

        It is vain for you to rise up early, to retire late, to eat the bread of painful labors; for He gives to His beloved even in his sleep. Psalm 127:2

        I guess if yall don’t want His love that leaves more for me. Thanks!

      2. TimR

        No I agree, the “instinct of workmanship” often doesn’t make sense in a capitalist system where labor is exploited. In an alienated, fragmented society, the dominators and pillagers make off with all the spoils. And to work hard at actual constructive pursuits is often to be a sucker.
        I don’t think the “instinct of workmanship” is about wanting to work frenzied 100 hour weeks though. I think it’s about sharing one’s talents and abilities with a genuine community.

  7. paul

    The briefly popular Charles Bukowski nailed most of it in factotum:
    “I couldn’t get myself to read the want ads. The thought of sitting in front of a man behind a desk and telling him that I wanted a job, that I was qualified for a job, was too much for me. Frankly, I was horrified by life, at what a man had to do simply in order to eat, sleep, and keep himself clothed.”

    “It was true that I didn’t have much ambition, but there ought to be a place for people without ambition, I mean a better place than the one usually reserved. How in the hell could a man enjoy being awakened at 6:30 a.m. by an alarm clock, leap out of bed, dress, force-feed, shit, piss, brush teeth and hair, and fight traffic to get to a place where essentially you made lots of money for somebody else and were asked to be grateful for the opportunity to do so?

    As for ‘mental chatter’ I prefer to think of it as my own in flight entertainment system.

    1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

      There is a little bit of Neanderthal in him…that yearning to be free, to roam the valley on his own or with a few close friends or clan members.

  8. F. Beard

    Ha,ha! Decades ago before I had ANY faith and was even more boorish, I came up with a theory called “selective perception” which was just an attempt to see life through rose colored glasses. You see, I had despaired of truth and decided that any ole lie would do just as well and be far more pleasant. Most (all other?) people were appalled at my theory but I could not see any logical flaw with it.

    Now my belief system encompasses truth, faith, hope and love. I KNOW I am a sinner but I keep reading Scripture which increases both my faith and my hope and I find my love increasing as well (good thing too since without love, one is NOTHING (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)).

    But here’s true positive thinking:

    But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him. Hebrews 11:6

    One can be less than diligent and still be rewarded, I’ve found. That’s the way Scripture is; the promises may seem overly demanding but that’s because they are a 100% GUARANTEE if one obeys PERFECTLY. If one obeys LESS than perfectly then the reward is not totally certain but the odds of obtaining could still be very high (e.g. 90% obedience = 90% chance of reward?) I read about a chapter a day of Scripture and it has been adequate to keep me growing – that and some attempt to apply what I’ve read.

    1. j gibbs

      Veblen: Salesmanship is promising as much as possible and delivering as little as possible. Religion is the ultimate in salesmanship: it promises everything and delivers nothing.

      1. F. Beard

        What have you got anyway that won’t soon be ashes or a moldering corpse, including your memories?

        Ya got nothing to lose and everything to gain – see Pascal’s Wager.

        1. John

          The problem with Pascal’s Wager: there’s no escaping the danger. Whatever choice you make may be the wrong one. In the real world, the best we can do is consider the evidence. We might not be in any position ourselves to know whether the fires of Hell exist, but then we recognize that those who gave us the claims aren’t either.

  9. Skeptic

    Anyone remember the song “DON’T WORRY, BE HAPPY”. It was ubiquitous around the mid 80s. I am not a pop music fan or listener but even I know a few words to that Norman Vincent Peale Anthem. My Boss used to sing it ALL the time when it was au courant. I used to cringe hearing it and realized we were all entering New Mindless Territory. That song could probably be as good a pick as any as Western Civilization Turning Point, downward.

    My song: “BE HAPPY, WORRY”.

    1. Shoto

      Though I loathed the original tune, I actually enjoyed the Billy Crystal knockoff of it. Moreover, it’s apropos of this conversation:

      I don’t feel so great.
      Who could with this prostate?
      I’m worried,
      I feel crappy.

  10. brazza

    A more accurate title may be: “Thinking is bad for you”. It is the act of strategizing (whether through the repetition of positive mantras or certainty of doom) to save one’s azz, or for one’s own personal benefit at the expense of (or in the assumption of separateness from) the “whole” that is noxious. Regardless of the mode employed … a sense of separation from the system creates unreasonable assumptions which translate into erroneous outcomes. The deliberate attempt to fashion one’s thinking “positively” (whatever that means!) is usually nothing but a refusal to consider complexity of inputs.

  11. Brick

    While personally I might agree with the “plan for the worst case scenario and you will most likely succeed” motto I can see merits and pitfalls in both types of thinking.

    Merits of Positive Thinking.
    1) Simplicity and Speed of execution.
    2) Not postponing and always starting difficult tasks.
    3) Inspiring confidence to achieve.

    Merits of Negative Thinking.
    1) Less likely to hit snags and more likely to achieve.
    2) More accurate planning.
    3) Inspiring confidence to deliver.

    Pitfalls of Positive Thinking.
    1) Fundamentally flawed execution due to lack of consideration of complexity.
    2) Late execution due to lack of consideration of stumbling blocks.
    3) Inflexibility in the face of overwhelming contradictory information.

    Pitfalls of Negative Thinking.
    1) Postponement of tackling fundamental problems because they are complicated to address.
    2) Sticking to what currently works when there are better ways of performing.
    3) Being ruthlessly honest and undiplomatic.

    I think you need the right balance of negative and positive thinking. The key problems are over confidence, inflexibility in changing views and not being prepared to delve into complexity. On a side note, can we have a law against inane corporate posters that say “We Can”, “We Believe”, or “We Deliver” instead of honest ones like “We Bend over”.

  12. Ishmael

    Well Yves, totally agree on this one. Worked for a CEO of a billion dollar company one time who at the weekly meeting we each had to deliver our good news story at every meeting. He got tired of my good news being we have not ran out of money – yet! He wanted to can me but the PE firm ended up canning him. Gave him more time to go play his video games.

  13. Moneta

    In a competitive setting, you can easily outdo a few players with that mantra… without them even noticing. Positive thinking is part of the brainwashing strategy of the last 40 years.

  14. Moneta

    Positive thinking should not about everything turning out right.

    It’s about going out there and confronting my fears. Learning, honing my skills so I can make a difference that counts. And finding the strength to see the beauty in life even if things are not going my way.

    Because more often than not, what we wanted to happen was not necessarily what was good for us and others.

    1. Chris

      Very nicely said. Without some form of positive yet realistic approach to what we hope to achieve in life, then what are we left with? Cynicism, doubt and endless introspection that can lead to despair. Life is so much more than mere work. Dickens (a man who understood and articulated base ‘market forces’ far better than most will ever realize or admit) put it best in ‘A Christmas Carol’, that the chains that Jacob Marley bore in death were forged in life. “But Jacob, you were a good man of business” said Scrooge, to which Marley famously replied “But mankind WAS my business.” It is in the nature of mankind to hope for better, yet be realistic enough to see that merely wishing for a thing doesn’t make it so.

  15. craazyman

    When negative thinking is really positive thinking in disguise it gets more complicated.

    sometimes yer head is a house of mirrors.

    1. Klassy

      Here’s what I’m thinking– this will fuel some research into the benefits of pessimism in order to increase productivity. See, if we just study something enough, and apply this research we’ll get positive results.
      We can’t get away from it in the U.S.

      1. craazyman

        If somebody gave me a $ million dollars to study the power of negative thinking I doubt I’d come up with anything worthwhile, but I might if I got lucky. That’s what you really need. Anybody can doggedly persevere or lay around doing nothing. There’s no value in either. But getting lucky! That’s where the rubber meets the road. The key is to learn how to just sit there doing what you love, whatever that may be, even dreaming up wild shit like a drooling dolt, and have somebody give you a million dollars. If somebody gives me a million dollars I’ll study the problem of getting lucky carefully. Really. But first it’s going long into GLD for a double. I’d like to be able to give the million back if I don’t come up with anything, so we’re both happy and I have a little profit for all my work.

        1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

          I think, pessimistic or optimistic, it’s important to be funny in either mood.

          Humorously pessimistic or pessimistically humorous, and humorously optimistic or optimistically humorous – two proven ways of coping with life.

          1. Emma

            Good one Beefy.
            I had a good friend who was a remarkable woman and died of lung cancer some years back (never smoked in all her life too – seemed to be genetic thing as her father went the same way) and she said in her last few months that it was the silly humor in both pessimistic and optimistic thinking that constructively lifted the burden of her pain and encroaching death.

        2. just_kate

          a boss once went on and on in a company meeting about not believing in luck “you make your own luck” blah blah blah … was one of those dudes born on third base. i’m sure the eye rolling by those who were listening remotely was epic.

    2. Brooklin Bridge

      sometimes yer head is a house of mirrors.

      That has to be the winning line of this thread unless mom was right when she said there is no such thing as winners and losers (but maybe she meant that only when one of her kids was on the loosing side) . Anyway, chapeau (for that head)!

  16. Dan Kervick

    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).

    Actually, I haven’t experienced much of this at all. But maybe my company is a dinosaur company that never got the memo on all of these positive feelies. The management of my company seems to have no trouble at all in saying “no” to most things under the sun.

    On the other hand, I think a certain kind of positive thinking is essential for any serious endeavor. This isn’t a matter of having a sunny mood all the time or bathing everything in an inoffensive glow. It’s a matter of having a clear notion of what you are trying to to achieve, clear criteria of what success consists in, an underlying belief that success is actually possible, and a determination to keep striving even when things are going to hell.

    I think it is very important for people who are on the outside and who have adopted the psychological defense mechanisms of the outsider, to try to resist the temptation of making those defense mechanisms a defining feature of their political attitudes and practices. If they succumb to those temptations, they will just participate in the continuing re-creation of their own subordination and exclusion.

    Bohemian fantasies, exquisite tirades, moralistic diatribes, and the occasional peasant revolt here and there are not sufficient conditions for enduring change.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      You don’t need to be optimistic to do that. You need to be tenacious. Big big difference.

      And the Russian and Chinese communist revolutions WERE peasant revolutions (you don’t have to believe me, go read Barrington Moore). You are saying they didn’t produce lasting change? As Ian Welsh pointed out in recent post, the rapid industrialization of the USSR was a remarkable achievement that had the West running scared.

      1. TheCatSaid

        Tenaciousness was just one aspect of Dan’s comment.

        Clarity of goals, direction and intent are important. I wouldn’t classify this as the positive thinking you’re criticizing; clarity is a different quality. The tenaciousness is needed in addition to the clarity.

  17. abynormal

    “The city was no longer the most marvelous of human creations, but the most oppressive Nothing was left to balance the horror of life. Power and money were what were to be admired as life atrophied: except at the beach, beauty was to be despised and the contemplation of the world decreed as a sickness, depression, maladies.
    Power and Money were to be all that remained, and politics was what ensured their primacy. Politics places man at the centre of life, and in permanent opposition to the universe. Love, the contrary, fills man with the universe.
    …Love is never enough, but it is all we have.”
    Richard Flanagan/The Unknown Terrorist

  18. Dino Reno

    More importantly, minimize saying and doing stupid things. If done right, this is the hardest task of all in developing personal and business relationships. We all say smart things now and then, but it’s the stupid things that get us in trouble. And trouble can be defined up as not getting what you want. Every week Harry Shearer runs down the list of apologies of the week of otherwise competent people doing or saying something terrible they have to make amends for. When I look back on the week, I’ve said or done two or three things I want to retract. The positive/negative debate pales in comparison to the bad moves we make to undermine ourselves. This is where the rubber meets the road on success vs. failure. That being said, I now wish to extend a blanket apology for changing the subject.

    1. Linda J

      Just love Harry Shearer on “Le Show.” Guaranteed chuckles from an experienced observer of this american life.

    2. TheCatSaid

      Too often I don’t recognize the stupid things I’ve said / done till after the fact. Practise and experience can be good teachers.

      This reminds me of that great poem, “There’s a Hole in My Sidewalk” by Portia Nelson.

  19. Banger

    I have mixed feelings about this subject. I was brought up in a pretty negative family situation where the glass was always half-empty so I’ve found some positive thinking to be therapeutic. I believe that the problem with the positive thinking movement is that it forces our emotions into a very narrow track. In order to live a truly positive life we need to accept the full spectrum of our feelings without over-attachment, judgement, or over-reacting.

    I think those that make huge amounts of money or mask authoritarian attitudes using positive-thinking ideology ad toxic–but some of these positive attitudes like having a sense of meaning or faith can help us as Victor Frankl convincingly wrote.

    1. JEHR

      That “glass half-empty or glass half-full” thing was responded to by, I think, Tom Waits who said he drinks from the bottle.

  20. Tyler

    I respectfully disagree, Yves. I think perception matters more than reality. For example, if people loved Ronald Reagan as president and miss him, then the reality does not matter much. If Democrats love Bill Clinton, then it doesn’t matter that he’s not a liberal. If I’m high on some drug and feel good while I’m high, the present state of my life does not matter. Being high is just positive thinking actualized. I’ve tried negative thinking – it’s no fun. :)

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      The soma is over there.

      So you are defending propaganda and delusion?

      “Being high” or euphoric is not a sustainable state. Go talk to users of Ecstasy, or even meth. With Ecstasy, no experience is like the first time. The receptors in your brain have never been hit like that before, and with every successive dose, you get a little less high.

      With meth, you burn yourself out. You fry your adrenals and alter your brain (you can actually see degradation in certain parts of the brain in meth addicts), I know someone who was a regular meth user who eventually was able to quit (which puts him in a very small minority). He said the scary part is every time you stop using it, you sleep for 15 days straight (no typo). That is how overstimulated your nervous system is and how badly it needs to recuperate.

      Americans conflate happiness with the unsustainable high of falling in love. That sets up unrealistic expectations for life, which produces ongoing dissatisfaction, which makes people easier to manipulate (someone must have that magic formula somewhere…).

      1. Tyler

        No, I am not defending propaganda and delusion. I just think it might be true that ignorance is bliss.

        I’ve taken Ecstasy. IMO, it’s not worth doing. I definitely agree that the first high from a drug is the best.

  21. vlade

    in wide terms, for a healthy person I agree. But there’s a but. IIRC, there’s some research into a positive feedback of negative emotions in depression, which “positive thinking” (as in having to find some positive in the day etc.) can help to break. Put otherwise, in depression negative thinking spirals out of control, and it appears that breaking with forcing yourself to think about some positive can help.
    One could argue that the positive thinking can spiral in a similar way, but we don’t have a word for it (well,maybe fanaticism), and it’s just as unhealthy as the negative one.

  22. allcoppedout

    It generally isn’t a good idea to pre-select defeat, though even this is something you might want to do playing games with children. 300 Spartans can make a difference. The problem is always ramping up the heroic, rather than doing proper disaster analysis. ‘In Search of Excellence’ still gets taught 30 years on, mostly by people who are unaware of severe criticism out within 6 months of he book publication.

    One in four Americans thinks the sun travels around the earth and one wonders how many could think it doesn’t matter in more complex relational science. Over here, students are asked to name the three states of matter at 16. We usually think in terms of six to twenty-odd.

    Even SWOT has notions of checks and balances and a spreadsheet of positive and negative. Science is more or less entirely negative about public opinion and bewitchment by language. Positive thinking just isn’t thinking at all. It’s merely appeal to ignorance and manipulation of it.

    Rugby teams from Bradford were so huge and vicious I thought this part of Yorkshire the land of giants. We never beat them by pre-selecting defeat and losing pay. But we never beat them because of pre-match pep-talks either, though I do remember getting off the coach there with a rousing version of Henry V ringing in my ears. My old man thought pep-talks were what you got when poor management hadn’t organised the tools to get the job done and wanted you to charge into the middle of a volcano. To believe the positive bull you have to have spent your life watching television, sitting in business classrooms and perpetual childhood. A run out against Bradford Northern armed only with a copy of ‘Chicken Soup for the Soul’ and a dose of Tom Peters (more or less the script of most underdogs to victory Hollywood) should demonstrate the power of positive thinking. We might have won that Henry V game if we’d had his archers.

    One might wonder, if thinking is allowed at all, whether we are educated only to be capable of responding to positive thinking. After all, most education takes place before the end of teenage (22), the most selfish and gullible period in human development, with the consistent message education is all about qualifications that will give you economic advantage over others. How would advertising work if we had been taught the difference between straight and crooked thinking? Good grief, even science has been perverted through various positivisms to crude Marxism and economics based on trickle-down cautionary tales.

    Positive thinking was dealt with long ago in analysis of the religious and (otherwise?) violent leader-follower dynamic of charismatic manipulation. We seem to have forgotten various dreadful warnings from history. Related to the dross end of ‘Chicken Soup for the Soul’ are recent academic explorations of argument and ‘academic abilities’ to make only the easy ones, not the best. You don’t beat Bradford Northern with positive thinking, but through a complex of selection, training and skill drills, competition rules, refereeing, evidence from action replays, courage, actually paying promised winning pay and a lot more. Now, let’s think positive on creating a green, fair society – by believing in centuries of ‘progress’ in the belief we can leave this to a bunch of already rich thugs who act against the interests of the many in order to improve the lot of the – er – many. Only an idiot wouldn’t believe this.

    Real positive thought would start somewhere else entirely. Better not go there, because such arguments cannot be made by slaves and it’s not positive to think you are a slave.

    1. F. Beard

      One in four Americans thinks the sun travels around the earth …

      The Sun DOES travel around the Earth IF one’s coordinate system is Earth centered.

      Can we finally put this to rest?

      1. optimader

        The Sun does travel around the Earth IF one’s coordinate system is incorrectly Earth centered.

        Now at rest

        1. F. Beard

          For the Sun, Earth-centered is just as valid since there are no epicycles to deal with. And for the Moon too. And for the stars.

          Ironically that 1 in 4 may be smarter than you since they won’t disbelieve the Bible over what appears to be a trap that neatly caught you, you not-so-smart-ass.

          Oh and you know what? PI does equal 3 to one significant number.

    2. Yves Smith Post author

      The Spartans all died. And you have no idea what their motivation was. It is more likely to have been duty rather than hope. The Spartans were a famously militarized culture. The idea that they were doing this out of optimism is pretty strained, since they all KNEW they were going to be slaughtered. Projecting modern thinking on to older cultures is a fraught business.

  23. Mark from California

    Since no one is speaking up for positive thinking, I guess I must. Positive thinking is ultimately founded on the spiritual belief in immanence, that is, that the divine or sacred is part of all that is, and of all beings. Some schools of Buddhism, for instance, make a distinction between “relative view,” that hard-headed realistic view of things in all their gnarly complexity, and “ultimate view,” the view of life as sacred. Both views are held as simultaneously valid. Many meditators, further, believe that practicing viewing life in its ultimate aspect is transformative, that is, that positive thinking nurtures the sacred and allows it to flower in daily life. There should be no accompanying repression of the nasty realities of life when positive thinking is properly practiced.

    1. MikeNY

      Mark, you reminded me of the disagreement MLK had with Reinhold Niebuhr on non-violent resistance: RN maintained that, for non-violent resistance to be effective, there had to be some minimum degree of conscience in the oppressor; otherwise, the appeal of the good would be inert, useless. To hold that non-violent resistance could be used in all struggles, as MLK did, was to underestimate evil and the sinfulness in man. MLK retorted that RN’s position underestimated, placed artificial limits on, the power and the grace of God.

      BTW, have you read Simone Weil’s “Draft for a Statement of Human Obligation”? If you haven’t, do — I think you might like it…

      1. F. Beard

        I agree with MLK because even the Romans got disgusted with killing innocent Christians in the arena and God IS sovereign.

        RN sounds a bit too worldly to me.

        1. The Heretic

          MLK statement, that non-violence resistance is effective in overcoming your oppressors, depends on two possible assumptions. Either there is always some among the oppressors who carry inherent potential goodness that would be activated, if they witnessed some mass attrocity against a non-violent but resisting people, OR God will act swiftly if a people abide by peacefulness and enage their enemies non-violently. Of the first assumption there is no historical evidence of its existance on sufficient scales to stop the violence. German Soldiers and Japanese soldiers witnessed large scale butcherey, and although a few individuals did not participate, and perhaps a few protested vociferously or did what they could to save a few people, there was no effective impediment to the large scale attrocities that their national armies were committing. (I am not saying that Germans or Japanese are monsters, but the conditioning and culture of the army, the action of your peers and years of ideaology are very difficult to break; their conscience would have hurt those soldiers after the war). Concering assumption #2, God is ultimately soveriegn, and He might not choose to act despite the great virtue of non-violence, because you and your people suffering and death may serve some greater purpose of His. If there is anyone on this earth who deeserves to be saved, it is babies and little children. But History is full of the innocent dead … it is a horror to say, but He did not act to save them. I am a Christian, and I believe Jesus and God, but I am with Reinhold on this issue.

  24. Dan Kervick

    The equation of positive thinking with “fantasizing” seems like such a red herring that I don’t see how any conclusions about the former can derived from research into the latter.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      The onus is on you to establish that Rhonda Byrne and her ilk, when you strip away the fluff, stand for anything other than that. I am discussing specifically, as both my post and the New Yorker article indicate, her style of magical thinking and the watered down versions that have taken root in Corporate America. The fact the The Conference Board Review ran my 4000+ word piece on this topic strongly suggests that they don’t think I overegged the pudding.

  25. NotTimothyGeithner

    Belief is the appropriate word in lieu of positive thinking which has nothing to do with human thought. In the corporate setting, positive thinking is code for the boss is perfect.

  26. Spring Texan

    Well, it has its good and bad sides and I hate people who shove it down one’s throat or think you can cure cancer or become rich by your attitude. However, even today, reading Dale Carnegie’s sensible advice in a book like “How to Stop Worrying and Start Living” and others can be very helpful — there’s a reason those books were written during the depression and they are again helpful today.

    There’s the fantasy part of positive thinking but there’s also the constructive and make-the-best-of-things part of it. And I love Yves but I know she can get down. Maybe positive-thinking-or-at-least-Dale-Carnegie-could-be-good-for-Yves. But her mileage may vary.

  27. Larry Headlund

    From the essential Kelly’s Heroes:

    Oddball: Why don’t you knock it off with them negative waves?

    Oddball: Crazy… I mean like, so many positive waves… maybe we can’t lose, you’re on!

  28. F. Beard

    Optimists are usually right but for the wrong reasons and pessimists are usually wrong but for the right reasons, given their flawed understanding of reality.

  29. Tom Hickey

    This mistake of positive thinking as magical thinking is often erroneously attributed to, “Don’t worry, be happy,” the so-called hippy slogan made famous by Bobby McFerrin’s hit song, which he got from a Meher Baba poster he saw at Tuck and Patty’s place. Actually, the quote is “Do your best, then don’t worry be happy.”

    The point is to be realistic, and seek to change what you can, accepting what you cannot. Do your best, and if you don’t succeed, don’t worry about it. Try, try again. Accept that you only have control over the action and not the consequences. Move on through life with equanimity, rather than either gloating over success or beating yourself up over failure. Life is the alternation of opposite values.

    Play whatever hand you are dealt as well as you can, and “don’t worry, be happy,” regardless of whether you win or lose that round. Some you win and some you lose. The challenge is maintaining equanimity in gain and loss rather than cycling between euphoria and depression, or unreasonable optimism or excessive pessimism. Altering John Boyd’s OODA loop slightly, Observe, orient, decide, act, and accept.

  30. Paul Walker

    Many traditional sales classics have ridden along the past-future-present-future line. No small wonder then that the power of positive thinking crew attempts to overcome the traditional social bias of seeking prospective options in improving perceptions of present and future circumstances from any other vendor besides the officially sanctioned since the current situation is, by definition, the supreme expression of rationality. Hence any attempt to moderate or eliminate triggers that may cause the pool of prospective consumers to consider any other option to the currently prescribed and defined happy-happy joy-joy as not only negative, but the very essence of undermining the age of reason and therefore unworthy of serious consideration beyond defining and treating as criminally antisocial.

  31. casino implosion

    Read Tom Frank’s “One Market Under God” Yves. He has a pretty good breakdown of the roots & history of positive thinking.

  32. John Mc

    The cult of the self is in play here. By virtue of living in a culture that delivers the corporate anesthetic and celebrates neoliberal talking points like: individualism, uncritical consumption (more is more), the TINA religiosity of financialization, the common reactive “pensieve” is to fantasize, waiting for an opportunity to act as a “winner”.

    Yves is quite correct, in that, a great deal of mobilized action is usually a response to a threat, recent loss or a chronically problematic event that will not change at all unless action is taken immediately (and even then may be unlikely to secure the desired result).

    The message should be less Zig Ziglar and more Edward Snowden. And of course, the perfect topic to study these intersections is control fraud. Either that or the rise of anti-depressant use in the US over the last two decades. Shiny Happy People (REM). The advantage we have is unpredictability (or did have until game theory and massive population data grabs).

  33. MaroonBulldog

    No one likes a complainer. (Really: no boss likes a complainer. ) Complaining wastes time and energy that could be spent doing what the boss wants done. And it interrupts the work of others who pause to listen to it. And if the boss has to listen, it drains times and effort away from doing whatever else it is that the boss wanted to do instead.

    The positive thinking imperative is just a push to minimize the complaining that the boss can’t banish from the hours and place of work. The boss doesn’t care what you think; the boss cares what you do. Complaints are not just thought–they are unwelcome action.

    1. Brooklin Bridge

      “Bosses” are just humans that have the unenviable task of being constantly within the emotional and psychological sphere of greed. I found (on two occasions only) that if you simply go along with their shallow, fake, cheap, McDonald level of “positivism”, they will frequently be the ones who dip back into “negativism” and open up about the hopelessness and cruelty of what they are asked to do and believe.

      1. MaroonBulldog

        Your bosses have bosses, too. I agree with that. And their bosses don’t want to hear their complaints, any more than they want to hear yours. But someone else’s “greed” may not be the root cause of your complaints: your complaints arise because some real need of yours is not being met; it’s likely your boss’s real needs aren’t being met, either.

        I believe the true philosophy of life reduces to this: “You can never get enough of what you don’t really want.” The complete thought is: “You can never get enough of what you don’t really want to satisfy your need of what you do really want.” The key to happiness, therefore, is to learn what you do really want, and to pursue that wholeheartedly, and to forsake the quest for all else that you don’t really want. The problem is, it takes a lot of learning through experience to find out all the things that you don’t really want, so much so that some people never get it in a lifetime.

        The imperative we call “greed” is the impulse that motivates people to acquire more and more money, not yet knowing that money can never be nor buy what they really want, that money perishes, that money is the last thing any wise person would ever think to hoard.

    2. CB

      Some bosses love complainers, I worked for one. One of the worst managers I have ever had and listening to complainers was only part of it. Listening to complainers was just another of his avoidance dodges, his essential laziness. He got a promotion just before I left, which made me wonder if his boss was another. Environment is all.

      1. MaroonBulldog

        I understand that environment, too. Bosses like that will keep on getting promotions until the organizations that employ them go bankrupt, becuase that environment can’t be productive.

      2. Brooklin Bridge

        I’ve had all sorts of bosses (and I haven’t even really had that many). I’ve had bosses who were amazing people; people who didn’t seem to “belong” to the corporate world at all and yet were having a great time of it, really enjoyed it (or else really enjoyed wherever they were). I’ve had crappy complainer bosses, like you mentioned, and even crappier gung-ho bosses that always became more “positive” in direct proportion to the depth of their failure. If there is any truth to the moronic “you deserve your boss” meme, then I have been from heaven to hell and back. I must be bad to the bone and made of heavenly stuff all at once.

        1. Brooklin Bridge

          I even had one really mean boss. Sadistic and mean; he actually enjoyed creating situations in which his “reports” suffered and he liked to call them into his office and watch as he dropped a bomb or a turd on them. He even bragged about it. Most amazing, he had a loyal crew or so they seemed. Perhaps they were just terrified. Nasty business; I just up and got out of that one and didn’t worry about consequences.

        2. MaroonBulldog

          There is no truth to the “you deserve your boss” meme. You were born into a world of objects you never made. Bosses are among those objects.

          1. Brooklin Bridge

            Indeed and for the most part I don’t worry about it and even sort of agree with you wholeheartedly most of the time sort of. Gravity is such a damn nag.

    3. Yves Smith Post author

      No, the job of a boss is to clear obstacles to employees doing their job. If he can’t hear that there are problems, he is either 1. incompetent and/or insecure 2. cares only about sucking up (as in really has no interest in being a manager save as a vehicle to get access to more powerfully placed people or 3. lazy. A smart boss will listen to complaints and say “I heard you already” or “It’s your job to figure that one out” or “You should know already that’s against company policy.” It is not hard at all to train the troops to distinguish between real issues v. whining and to make it clear you have no sympathy for whining and want to hear all day about real issues.

      1. CB

        If you had left out the opening “No” and left everything else, I could agree with you. But setting the terms of the argument on your definition of “complaining,” doesn’t wash. You weren’t there, you have no personal context, and you write as if you took the comment personally.

  34. Brooklin Bridge

    i’ve gone back and forth on this like a tennis ball during most of my adult life. It reminds me of bathroom graffiti I once saw at BU (our education came from different sources than across the river): Sartre says, “to do is to be”. Confucius says, “To be is to do”. [I think that’s the order] Frank Sinatra says, “do be do be do be do”. So sayeth the “stall”.

    The world of finance and business has bastardized the “be positive” camp to the point of being as useless as the attribution to Frank above (not to mention destructive). Their motive is money, power and glory and the crushing result of their twisted shallow “positivism” is indeed just another aspect of the pyramid game to strip from the 99% not only all material goods but even of the right of lucid observation. Political activists who insist on positivism as the only effective way to bring about change can be equally at fault of clobbering others as quitters or drags who don’t see “eye to eye” even though the motives of these activists may be far better than those of the money hounds.

    I think there is a lot to be said for the way Yves threads this needle though I’m not sure it isn’t simply a more workable “realistic” form of positivism. But whether or not I understand what she is getting at, it’s would be hard to frame the discussion more clearly than she has here. Great post!

  35. Ed S.

    From Amazon, a review of “The Secret” by Ari Bruoillette (Dec 2007):

    Please allow me to share with you how “The Secret” changed my life and in a very real and substantive way allowed me to overcome a severe crisis in my personal life. It is well known that the premise of “The Secret” is the science of attracting the things in life that you desire and need and in removing from your life those things that you don’t want. Before finding this book, I knew nothing of these principles, the process of positive visualization, and had actually engaged in reckless behaviors to the point of endangering my own life and wellbeing.
    At age 36, I found myself in a medium security prison serving 3-5 years for destruction of government property and public intoxication. This was stiff punishment for drunkenly defecating in a mailbox but as the judge pointed out, this was my third conviction for the exact same crime. I obviously had an alcohol problem and a deep and intense disrespect for the postal system, but even more importantly I was ignoring the very fabric of our metaphysical reality and inviting destructive influences into my life.

    My fourth day in prison was the first day that I was allowed in general population and while in the recreation yard I was approached by a prisoner named Marcus who calmly informed me that as a new prisoner I had been purchased by him for three packs of Winston cigarettes and 8 ounces of Pruno (prison wine). Marcus elaborated further that I could expect to be raped by him on a daily basis and that I had pretty eyes.

    Needless to say, I was deeply shocked that my life had sunk to this level. Although I’ve never been homophobic I was discovering that I was very rape phobic and dismayed by my overall personal street value of roughly $15. I returned to my cell and sat very quietly, searching myself for answers on how I could improve my life and distance myself from harmful outside influences. At that point, in what I consider to be a miraculous moment, my cell mate Jim Norton informed me that he knew about the Marcus situation and that he had something that could solve my problems. He handed me a copy of “The Secret”. Normally I wouldn’t have turned to a self help book to resolve such a severe and immediate threat but I literally didn’t have any other available alternatives. I immediately opened the book and began to read.
    The first few chapters deal with the essence of something called the “Law of Attraction” in which a primal universal force is available to us and can be harnessed for the betterment of our lives. The theoretical nature of the first few chapters wasn’t exactly putting me at peace. In fact, I had never meditated and had great difficulty with closing out the chaotic noises of the prison and visualizing the positive changes that I so dearly needed. It was when I reached Chapter 6 “The Secret to Relationships” that I realized how this book could help me distance myself from Marcus and his negative intentions. Starting with chapter six there was a cavity carved into the book and in that cavity was a prison shiv. This particular shiv was a toothbrush with a handle that had been repeatedly melted and ground into a razor sharp point.

    The next day in the exercise yard I carried “The Secret” with me and when Marcus approached me I opened the book and stabbed him in the neck. The next eight weeks in solitary confinement provided ample time to practice positive visualization and the 16 hours per day of absolute darkness made visualization about the only thing that I actually could do. I’m not sure that everybody’s life will be changed in such a dramatic way by this book but I’m very thankful to have found it and will continue to recommend it heartily.

  36. nothing but the truth

    “I am at a loss to understand why this school of thought became popular. ”

    american thought is hooked on serendipity. most movies, stories, “manifest deistiny” etc are all justifications of serendipity. “goods things will happen to me just because”.

    basically americans have a very low tolerance of pain or raw truth. let along handling it, they cant even see it in movies or TV. there is no exposure to the difficult side of life. school is supposed to be fun. you are supposed to do what you love.

    1. F. Beard

      Yet serendipity exists because one can poke a hole in the ground and have all kinds of good stuff flow out like:

      1) Clean water
      2) Oil
      3) Natural gas
      4) brine
      5) hot water
      6) cold water
      7) other stuff to with a little pumping

      My mistake in life has been to NOT recognize serendipity and be GRATEFUL for it.

    2. JTFaraday

      “american thought is hooked on serendipity”

      Ha ha. Just scrolling these, but this caught my eye. I think Americans just love a good come back story. Totally addicted.

      Perhaps, as a result, we’ve decided to create lots of them.

    3. Min

      “american thought is hooked on serendipity. most movies, stories, “manifest deistiny” etc are all justifications of serendipity. “goods things will happen to me just because”.

      Americans are a pragmatic people. They do not believe that good things will happen to them “just because”. They believe that if they apply themselves, persist, and keep their eyes open, they will be able to take advantage of opportunities that open up.

  37. Gabriel

    Granted – life can be the pits sometimes, confirming the premise of this article. It’s tough to roll out of bed in the morning if you believe that rosy glasses are a bad idea. If you’re really convinced of this premise, why get out of bed at all?

    So the question is – will believing life has a brown, rotten tinge to it get you going out of bed in the morning? Or believing something else?

    That’s the question each must ask and answer for her/himself. Pick your preferred.

    1. MaroonBulldog

      Why not just try to keep one’s mind open, rather than committing one’s mind to a belief in some proposition that is not very likely to be true? “It’s all good” can’t be true. “It’s all bad” can’t be true, either. Why should one have to lie to oneself in order to get started in the morning.
      The majority of Americans are descended from immigrants who held and acted on a belief that coming to America would get them a better deal in life than staying in their home country. They taught that belief to their children, many of whom continue to hand it on, whether it was likely to be true for them or not. That’s where the cultural imperative to be positive originated.

      They immigrants’ stories never adverted to the possibility that “Coming to America” could be a hard luck story, and would be for many who who tried it. As it turned out, my Swedish immigrant forebears who came to Iowa in the early 1900’s did not get as good a deal in life as their siblings and cousins who remained in Sweden, but still they had to teach and maintain the patriotic belief that life in America somehow was better.

      1. Brooklin Bridge

        That’s an interesting take on it, and all kidding aside (while I can) there is definitely something to it, but surely “positivisim” predates the European colonization of the Americas. Perhaps it was when that first Egyptian told his slave, “…of course you can get that 200 ton rock to the top of the pyramid, just work smarter, not harder…” Or maybe it came about during one the Genghis Khan “population” initiatives when someone complained about not having enough workers to bring in the crops. Who knows, it may even be older than the oldest profession, “Of course it was good for me, silly. Don’t be such a worrywart and that will be ten spoons of rice please”. Well, no on second thought. It still wouldn’t be older than that.

  38. squasha

    Positive thinking is a big tease, the bastard offspring of Deepak Chopra & Ron Paul’s conjugal pulpit, slutty siren in service of shearers & charlatans. In the roaring 20’s she billowed up enough hot air to set an uncanny Floridian real estate bubble aloft, along with everyman’s dreams of portfolio gold, then the helium fluttered away and all that remained was a sad saggy empty rubber and the Great Depression.

  39. sid_finster

    If positive thinking were all that is needed for material success, people with pick’s syndrome would be the most successful businessmen in the world.

    For that matter: starving children in Africa – they must just be a bunch of negative nellies. If the whole continent would just cheer up and believe in itself, they’d turn into Singapore overnight. Like attracts like and all that crap.

    1. MaroonBulldog

      If I thought I was born and lived in the Ukraine, that thought would cause to to have a worse day than I’m having because I think I was born and live in the United States???!!!

    2. Banger

      Actually, I’ve been to areas of the world that are very, very poor and people are happy or sad depending on their temperament–doesn’t seem to have that much to do with their physical condition. The book an movie City of Joy deals with this issue.

    1. MaroonBulldog

      Persons who maintain a positive outlook on life, who are generally optimistic and cheerful and said to be mentally healthy, are also generally likely subjectively to believe their future prospects in life are better than those prospects are objectively likely to be. Persons who have an objectively realistic assessment of what their future prospects are, who are most likely to be be dead-on accurate in describing them, are also most likely to be diagnosed as clinically depressed. There is something wrong with both stances.

      The whole true story of life’s future prospects is summed up in the Latin admonition: “carpe diem, memento mori”. Half the truth is a lie. “Carpe diem” is a lie without “memento mori”, but so is “memento mori” without the “carpe diem.” That’s why Optimader is correct. Choosing between “Positive Thinking” and “Negative Thinking” is unbalanced.

      1. Yves Smith Post author

        Not true. Accurate perceptions are associated with mild depression, not clinical depression.

        Mild depression can be cleared up with exercise. This is well documented.

        So I let me posit that all of this distorted perception is the result of physical inactivity, that it leads people to be moodier and most people amp themselves up with various forms of delusion (or various forms of meddling with their brain chemistry, legal or not) because they lack the time (and in some cases, the self discipline) to exercise regularly. If we were all in the outdoors and getting enough endorpins from physical activity, we could handle realistic perceptions.

        The depression-inducing potential of modern life no doubt has been amplified by

        1. social isolation, unstable personal relations, shallow networks

        2. income inequality

        3. too many gadgets and time pressure

        4. often demeaning and stressful work places

        5. for many, debt salvery

        6. general financial insecurity

    2. MaroonBulldog

      Further to my last, or another way to put it.

      If you were offered a choice to be always happy but deceived, on the one hand, or always unhappy but undeceived, on the other hand, would you freely assent to make such a choice? Or would you think that only a fool would choose either?. Or would you think that such a choice is impossible because our nature is to make one choice on one day and the opposite choice on another?

      We have little voices in our minds, that whisper what to think and what to do. Those little voices often lie. They lie to motivate us perhaps for our own good, as fables we teach children lie to children, drawing moral lessons from stories of events that never happened, but a lie is a lie. “Positive thinking” tales are a compendium of such lies from our little voices.

  40. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

    Master: ‘I am positive thinking is bad for you.’

    Disciple: ‘Meditation time already? I haven’t finished my filling, but unhealthy, TV dinner yet.’

    “It’s not that you are eating, but you are eating quality food.”

    “It’s not you have a job, but you have job quality.”

    1. MaroonBulldog

      Don’t understand which voice is saying what in your dialogue, Prime Beef.

      The little voice of positive thinking says: “This isn’t so bad!.” when it is. The little voice says, “I can handle this!” when I can’t. That is why positive thinking is bad for you. It motivates you to stay in a bad situation.

      1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

        Admittedly, it was over all the place.

        Was trying to joke about ‘I am positive (that) thinking is bad (when one meditates, trying to remove all thoughts from the mind).’

        The last 2 sentences were just free-association about quality TV dinner.

  41. Banger

    I’m really impressed with the comments on this. NC has such a wealth of interesting POVs and excellent writers particularly on subjects such as this one. I think there ought to be a NC philosophical blog-ette where the discussion could get a little deeper into this stuff and last more than a day. Again, applause to all of you who posted today.

  42. Jill

    Positive and negative are terms best reserved for discussions about physics. When applied to the social order they are tools of the man. They are thought stoppers.

    People should be allowed to think deeply and realistically about the situations we face. If we are being abused in the workplace, happy thoughts will not make it better. It may be that at the time, there is nothing one can do but endure a bad situation as best as possible. There may be a chance of taking legal action, collective action or quitting action. Thinking positive will block people from getting out of a bad situation. If getting out isn’t possible, and one must simply suck up a bad situation, then you know what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. You try to make your life better in other ways if possible.

    We need the realists; thinkers and feelers. We don’t need more people who are dead to reality. Whether reality is painful and/or joyful, we need to feel and think. God did not ordain the powerful in their positions and the universe does not want us to learn the lesson to obey. That is what human beings who hold abusive power would like us to believe.

    There is a child cancer cluster near where I live. Now the new age people will say those children choose to get cancer so they will learn a life lesson. The traditional religions of the book people tell me it’s God’s will. Thinking this way seems cruel. It sure won’t solve the problem. It’s just a good excuse for failing to look at that toxic dumping going on. If it’s god’s will and karma, there’s no need to care, no need to relieve the problem. That works very well for the powerful. They get to keep dumping and kids get to keep dying. But to care is to want the truth, not bromides. Actions to ameliorate suffering come from knowledge, not lies and denial. Feelers and thinkers are precious. We should hold those people dear, not try to stop them with idiocy about positive thinking.

      1. Jill

        Thank you and I agree with what Banger wrote above: “I’m really impressed with the comments on this. NC has such a wealth of interesting POVs and excellent writers particularly on subjects such as this one. I think there ought to be a NC philosophical blog-ette where the discussion could get a little deeper into this stuff and last more than a day. Again, applause to all of you who posted today.”

        Positively some good stuff!

  43. Brooklin Bridge

    There is something to be said for some types of positivism. The type that doesn’t berate those who can’t keep up, but can be infectious like laughter.

    I knew a salesman a long time ago that was amazingly successful for the economic period and location we were in (I was an un-succesful salesman in the same outfit). Not only was he successful, he loved what he did; he really enjoyed it. And to make matters worse, he was “truthful”. He stretched the truth into a lie about as often as he frowned which was almost never. And the orders just kept piling in. Most of all, when he was in a room, you were having fun (or at least more fun than you had been having before). It was just that simple and I have absolutely no idea how he did it or even if there is a moral here. I’m not even sure if you could call him a positivist as much as simply an unusually good natured character who was also unusually “adept”. He had been a semi-professional ball player and had a quiet sort of friendly self confidence. But I’ve never forgotten it. What really grated at my preconceptions was how truthful he was (it might be more accurate to say he naturally avoided un-truths) – and successful, the little prick.

  44. Pwelder

    We are in deep February here, Yves. You and your commenters clearly need some help.

    I recommend you borrow or rent some kids for cover, and go see the Lego movie.

    You’ll learn a great new song. Plus, there’s a cat in the story you’re sure to like.

    Best of all, it counts as work. You can say you were researching post-crisis changes in attitudes toward business-driven positive thinking, as reflected in popular culture.

  45. NotSoSure

    Positive thinking is so out of date. Like all Jedi, I use the Force instead :)
    But no in my case, Yves is just preaching to the choir.

  46. David in New York

    In his self help classic, Learned Optimism, Prof. Leonard Seligman writes that, in tests of cognitive perception, pessimists are always much more accurate in their perceptions than optimists are.
    Nonetheless, optimists are much happier and more self actualized than pessimists, because they are unfazed by setbacks. If anything goes wrong, they think that it’s somebody else’s fault, or just an aberration from a longterm trend.

    Women tend to be pessimists, which is why they ask,”Was it him or was it me?” A lot of men never ask that question; by reflex, they say, “It was her.”
    How many people on Wall Street look back on the crisis and say, “It wasn’t me! “

  47. Brad Hansen

    I am sorry but I think Yves missed the point. Positive thinking doesn’t have anything to do with fantasies, who ever said it did also missed the point. Positive thinking has to do with recognizing and concentrating on the good things about you, and not the bad thinks. Recognizing your true self, and not the negativity that you allow to creap in. I looked for a job for 6 months, finally gotta job and then got fired after the first week. You want to talk about down in the dumps. Then someone pointed out that I had not been recognizing the good things about me, concentrating on them and taking that attitude into the interview with me. I am smart, I am a kind person, I am good at what I do (PC Tech). I have held good jobs in the past where I succeeded. These aren’t fantasies, these things were true. The negatives, I’m 64 years old, there are no good jobs out there. My age, I could not do anything about, so quit worrying about it. There are no good jobs out there, might or might not be true but nothing I could do about it. Two days after getting fired, I got a call about job, I went through two interviews leaving the negatives behind and carrying the positive things about me into the interview. Three days later I had the job. Because there was no good reason why I shouldn’t have it. Recognizing and carrying the positives about you and projecting them has nothing to do with fantasies, but reality. Was I not getting hired because I was projecting a negative image of myself, who knows. But I do know that once I started projecting a positive image I got a job.

    1. Brooklin Bridge

      Let’s assume that in a given community within a do-able radius of commute there are 3 jobs and 100 people – all positivists – looking for work. So the three who get a job are convinced that their positive outlook got them the employment – and perhaps it did – and they tell their children and grandchildren that all you have to do in this country is think positive and work hard and anyone who doesn’t is a lazy dead beat who deserves the misery he or she gets. Over time this became clear to them as they heard over and over about the other 97 people until they simply didn’t want to hear about it any more. And what about those other 97 positivists who are still looking for work? What do they say? Don’t imagine that’s purely hypothetical because what we currently have in this country makes that a reality for millions of people. Does “Recognizing and carrying the positives about you and projecting them” mean that those other folks aren’t trying hard enough? If they really really – I mean REALLY – tried to think positive they would redefine how many angles are on a triangle or how many jobs are in a jobless recovery?

      Just because positive thinking may have helped you out doesn’t make positive thinking always positive for everyone.

  48. Brad Hansen

    Take it easy, “Anybody who doesn’t is a dead beat” I wasn’t impugning anyone else in my story. And I didn’t tell anyone else about my change in attitude, not even my wife. I recognize what is happening to America. That’s why After I got the job I contributed financially to stopping the TPP trade pact. Why I signed Elisabeth Warren’s petition to raise the minimum wage. All this job means is that me and my family don’t have to start living out of my car. And can work at maintaining a decent life style. My point was That real positive thinking has nothing to do with fantasizing about the things you wish to have. But about realizing what’s true about yourself and carrying that forward. I never worked for any company that really cared at all about their work force. What ever psychological twist they could put on their work force that they thought would get them to work harder and produce more they used. What ever flavor was in fashion. It was all poppycock, disingenuous, and dishonest. You either fit in or get out, and when the over head became to much they threw you out anyway. I worry about those other 97 everyday of my life. Not because I was just one of them. But because in every other industrial country around the world the citizens are treated better and more cared for than the richest country on earth and it just shouldn’t be that way.

  49. Noni Mausa

    I remember when our company first brought in motivational speakers and seminars. It coincided with their putting the brakes on wages, cutting staff and dumping the work on the survivors, etc. as far as I could tell, the purpose was to cheer us up as they pushed us harder for less pay.

    I had a button made: “Please do not try to motivate me. I am already grouchy.”

  50. Oguk

    Couldn’t agree more. I’ve lived with the corporate spinmeisters who adamantly refuse to admit when something is terribly wrong – publically and even privately – until the facade collapses. I’m also reminded of Jacues Ellul’s discussion (though I can’t place the reference – will update if I find it) of the radical, dialectical, power of “no”. Facing problems squarely, and looking for the root (radix), is essential.

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