Sunday, July 17, 2011


by Barbara Ehrenreich


The last few years we've been rained upon by self-help this, and a bunch of power-to-the-postive that.  If you've read (or watched) The Secret, you know it's a book of promises from various life coaches, positive psychology buffs, and success gurus.  Theses folks say that you can have anything you want... even all that you want... just be positive, and dream it!

It's true.  Try it now.  Close your eyes and visualize me knocking on your door with dinner and tickets to Disneyland.  Make sure you keep it real by dreaming in color.  Kay?  Ready...?  Now go dream...!

Did I knock on your door?

Hopefully the answer is an affirmative nope. (An "affirmative nope" is a "nope" with a positive spin.  Gotta keep it positive.  Also, it seems that I'll need to stay home for the next while so as to prove this here point.)

The Secret promises stuff.  Mostly material stuff.  Riches, mansions, even your very own giraffe.   All you gotta do is be positive! And it will happen!  Just like that!  It's magic!  They promise this.  If you don't believe me, read the book.  Or watch the silly show.

The Secret et al. also promises lasting health, prolonged wearing of your skinniest jeans, as well as a visit from the positivity princess herself, Oprah.  All you gotta do is be positive.  Have cancer?  Be positive and it'll go away!  Broken feet?  Think happy thoughts and you'll walk tomorrow!  In your fattest of fat jeans?  No problem!  Think about rice cakes while you inhale twelve pizzas and a diet coke.  Those jeans will finally fit!  And Oprah?  Just subscribe to her magazine and she'll knock on your door too!

But what if you are positive, and you are dreaming for all of your riches and giraffes, and you fail to receive these riches and giraffes?  What then?  You failed.  You're a pessimistic ninny!  You aren't being positive enough!  That negative thought you thought about your dirty garage?  That ruined your chance of riches and giraffes!  Drop-down and give me the reading of all of Tony Robbinses books!  Or 25 push-ups.  You decide.

Truth is, I'm a believer in positive affirmations.  I believe that being positive makes things happen.  I believe that the more positive you are, the harder you will work, and the better your life.  I also believe that every now and again, we could all use a swift kick o' motivation.  So, in fairness to the mega-motivation squad, I believe they are on to something.

However, I don't believe the dream-it-and-achieve-it bull.  I subscribe to more of the dream-it-work-your-ass-off-then-scrupiously, even critically-review-your-work-and-then-achieve-it.  That's what I believe.

In regards to sickness, I believe there's a mind-body connection somewhere.  Not sure what it is, and at this point, it cannot be proven.  Irregardless, I believe (from my own experience) that the body will heal better if you're positively hopeful.  I believe that.  Do I believe that being hopeful alone will do the trick?  That's an affirmative nope (there I go being positively negative again.)  Health requires some work too.  That work might involve rest, or restraint, or exercise, or or some help from modern medicine.

I think Barbara Ehrenreich and I could agree on some things.  This Barbara is the author of today's book report titled Bright-Sided.  While we both agree that the motivation hocus pocus is a farce, I'm pretty sure Barbara believes there isn't a place in any country on any planet for the mega-motivation squad.  She's pretty much anti-mega-motivation squad.  This Barbara is a hard-core realist who believes we should see things as they are, and review them critically.

If you do some background research on Ms. Ehrenreich, you'll find that this realist, critical thinking stuff makes sense.  She's a scientist.  Scientists need and require facts and experiments with lots of control.  Positive Psychology doesn't have a lot of facts or control.

The inauguration of this Bright-Sided book came in the form of breast cancer.  Barbara was diagnosed with cancer and Barbara was pissed off about it (seems natural to me, I mean isn't anger one of the stages?)  To help her through it all, she started reading forums of various cancer support groups.  Groups she found overbearingly positive and obnoxiously fake.

As an experiment, Barbara left a comment about her general pissed-offness, and was told by many that she needed an attitude adjustment.  One commentator suggested hat her negative thoughts would suppress her immune system which would make the cancer run amok.  Good grief, even I know that the immune system has nothing to do with cancer because cancer cells are seen by the human body as human, and the immune system only combats foreign stuff.  Logically then, with that train of thought, one could presume that positive thoughts would increase, not decrease, cancer growth.  Just sayin'.

After recovering from cancer, Barbara Ehrenreich began to research this positive thinking phenomenon and wrote this Bright-Sided book.  She has illustrated some intriguing arguments for how the positivity craze has made American delusional.  Maybe she's right.  Still not sure.  In a chapter titled, "How Positive Thinking Destroyed the Economy," she blames the subprime mortgage mess on the positivity phantasm.  You might recall that this was the same subprime mortgage mess that wiped out the nation's economy.  Barbara says that the positive people envisioned riches, had been promised these riches, and therefore paid for said riches with debt.  Credit cards became easier to obtain, and the mortgage – with  that bonus! free money! second – became an ATM on the horizon, waiting, even hoping, to make the dreamer's mega-material wishes come true.

I don't believe that the subprime mortgage mess was the fault of positive thinking.  My personal opinion is our country has been able to avoid something called the "natural consequence."  Heard of this term, "natural consequence?"  It's where YOU make a decision, and YOU are responsible for the fallout of this decision.  Weird, right?  I know!  Somehow bankruptcy wasn't such a bad thing anymore, the equivalent of a slap on the wrist.  And somehow, maybe because the word "bail-out" is thrown around so much these days, over-extension has become a welcome way to have it all.  Even the giraffe.*

*Note that I'm talking about over-extension used to buy freaky not-necessary stuff, not overextension for various emergencies, so don't send me any hate mail.  However... if your overextension emergency involves a giraffe, then gads!  You got problems!

It just occurred to me that Barbara's whole problem with positivity, is that it makes people delusional.  Delusional people don't see consequences, so perhaps she might be indirectly right.  Hmmm.  Still thinking on this one.

With that, (which is pronounced damn-it in German) I'd like to conclude with a very thoughtful remark from this talented author:
"The alternative to positive thinking is not, however, despair.  In fact, negative thinking can be just as delusional as the positive kind.  Depressed people project their misery onto the world, imagining worst outcomes from every endeavor and then feeding their misery on these distorted expectations.  In both cases, there is an inability to separate emotion from perception, a willingness to accept illusion for reality, either because it "feels good" or, in the depressive's case, because it reinforces familiar, downwardly spiraling neural pathways. The alternative to both is to try to get outside of ourselves and see things "as they are," or as uncolored as possible by our own feelings and fantasies, to understand that the world is full of both danger and opportunity–the chance of great happiness as well as the certainty of death."

That Barbara is a smart cookie.


Jenn said...

Irregardless is a double negative 'non-word' that technically means the opposite of 'regardless,' which I believe was your intended meaning. Not trying to be snarky, just a huge peeve (my Dad says it all the time).

radracer said...

I can relate to this Barbara. I'm always happy to serve up a good dose of reality, putting it in a most positive light. I also believe that one makes their own reality to a certain degree. You want to live in a good reality? Then stay off your duff and make it happen. And don't whine about it being hard.

25 push-ups will do more good than reading of all Tony Robbinses books. Make it 25 per chapter and you'd really be on to something.

I'm also tired of the positivity princesses and the self-esteem people attempting to convince us that even if you're an unemployed self-serving axe murderer that you're entitled to have good self esteem. And a giraffe.

Jenn said...

Given today's use of 'expecially,' I'm thinking that perhaps I haven't read this blog long enough to be commenting on grammar or spelling, as you seem to enjoy purposely taking some liberties. I can get behind that. I apologize. Profuciously. My bat.

rabidrunner said...

Jenn, no apology necessary. Around my parts "expecially" and "irregardless" and various other grammar flubs are quite common. I use them often(ish) because they're a peeve of mine as well.

Incidentally, expecially is a portmanteau of "extra" and "especially," which sometimes I think is legit. Portmanteaus have created some of my favorite words. 

Jenn said...

I enjoy your use of the language. "Profuciously," fyi, I obtained from a French friend who was going for 'profusely' and missed.

Unrelated...this blog is going to cost me a fortune on iTunes. I'm determined to return the favor via the comments. You're warned. :o)