Wednesday, August 25, 2010


Barbara Ehrenreich (NICKLE AND DIMED, BAIT AND SWITCH) is always an interesting observer of contemporary culture. Her latest book takes on the cult of happiness in this county, and BRIGHT-SIDED: HOW THE RELENTLESS PROMOTION OF POSITIVE THINKING HAS UNDERMINED AMERICA is thought-provoking.

Ehrenreich's basic thesis is this country is caught in a relentless barrage of "put on a happy face." Upbeat is not only the new beat, it's the required one. Employers want to hire positive-thinking, upbeat employees. Churches insist that God wants you to be happy and prosperous. Self-help books as well as professional counselors tell us to shed those people in our lives who spread gloom and doom. A positive attitude, the belief goes, is an aid to health, long life, and fighting disease. Have faith in the future and you can conquer all difficulties.

One by one, she takes apart these stances. The positive-thinking employee is valued over the dour and competent one, but in the long run it's competence that keeps business moving. The nay-sayers in your life may actually be providing important reality checks. A blind faith in the future, whether assisted by God or not, is part of the cause of the current economic collapse, through all those people signing for mortgages they could not afford because "Dare to dream in the present and the future will come through." There is no scientific evidence that health responds to a positive attitude. Worse, the idea that if you stay positive you can fight off, say, cancer, means that all those people who die of cancer just weren't positive enough. It is therefore their own fault.

Ehrenreich sometimes overstates her case, but so does the other side, and she offers many studies to corroborate her views. My favorite is a 2001 study actually conducted by a proponent of positive psychology, David Seligman (AUTHENTIC HAPPINESS), which found that among older people, pessimists were better able than optomists to weather a major negative life event such as the death of a family member.

Sometimes the emphasis on positivism can turn absolutely ghoulish. Popular positive-thinking guru Rhonda Byrne stated about the 2006 Asian tsunami that disasters like a tsunami can only happen to people who are "on the same [thought] frequency as the event."

The result of this kind of thinking, Ehrenreich argues, is a culture of forced, false illusions that blames victims of illness, poverty, and -- yes -- even tsunamis for their own misfortunes. As such, it turns away from social cooperation that might change things, from compassion for others, and, finally, from reality itself. Be happy! Don't worry! Visualize good things ten times each day and they will come to you!

Sometimes they don't, and sometimes there are things out there to worry about. You can only cheat reality for so long.


TheOFloinn said...

OTOH, here we have some musings about the opposite: that we have quite forgotten what happiness is.

Not only in the sense that the word no longer means beatitudo or eudaimonia, but in the sense that it means the opposite of sloth (tristitia). When Aquinas, Ockham, and others said that the pursuit of happiness was a right, they did not mean the modern notion of an entitlement that someone must give you, but rather an ineradicable aspect of human nature. Pursuing happiness is just what human beings do; but never before were we told that we were guaranteed to catch it.

Let alone to catch it by continual self-indulgence.

Or that it was synonymous with a sort of chirpy optimism.

Jeff P said...

What TheOFloinn said above.

However, I get what you're saying re "postive thinking will make me rich, or get me everything I want!"

Also, while I understand one must be practical and level-headed, people who suffer from some sort of depressive disorder may beg to differ w/ Ms Eichenreich. Their neural wiring often only allows negative thoughts. Learning to rewire that neurochemistry by paying attention to your thoughts and turning them to more optimal thinking is crucial to many folks' recovery.

A.R.Yngve said...

This scene from the movie DIRTY HARRY perfectly sums up the "tyranny of happiness" you're trying to describe:

Everybody now, sing -- sing, damn you! "Row, row, row your boat..."

TheOFloinn said...

Or this one

KevinW said...

Funny, I was just re-reading Greg Egan's "Reasons To Be Cheerful" about a kid who loses and then regains the ability to be happy. Great story, with one of the best descriptions I've ever read of how depression feels.

Can there be a Happy Medium in a super-sized world?

I work in the corporate world, and I've always felt pressure to subvert my natural introversion. Meetings and brainstorming sessions where "it is suggested (ordered) that EVERYONE contribute or offer constructive feedback", constant dumbass elevator conversations about sports with strangers who may outrank you, "team building" and "networking" sessions where you have to put on a happy face and act enthused about meeting some asshole from another department...there is a constant demand to smileSmileSMILE!, because everyone knows that malcontents are not productive, which is why they are the first people to be downsized. Thank god that with all the expense reduction in the past couple of years we're now spared the motivational speakers...

Here's an article about the work of Andy Thomson & Paul Andrews relating how the ruminative aspects of depression might actually be beneficial:

halojones-fan said...

In general, when someone claims that they got fired for "not being all happyhappyhappy", I learn that...

A) they weren't nearly as good at their job as they claim (oh, you can figure out why the mail server crashed? Congratulations, so can anyone with an MCSE);

B) their job wasn't one where competence meant a whole lot (you don't need a degree in computer engineering to reboot servers or unjam the print queue);

C) they weren't so much "not all happy" as they were "actively dismissive of coworkers". (If someone asks how your day's going, the proper response is not (rolleyes)(sigh)"fine I guess"(turns back to computer) )

Tim of Angle said...

See John Derbyshire, WE ARE DOOMED.

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