The Public Humanist

Have a Day

As one who once dropped out of an excellent small college in Vermont in the middle of sophomore year as a result of having to say “Hi” to everyone I passed on campus, I may be thought to be too dyspeptic to write on “the compulsion to be positive,” a subject suggested by Hayley Wood of the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities.

To the contrary: I am in fact a lifelong optimist. Item: after I moved on to a large, relatively ‘Hi’-less university in New York City, a heartless landlord cut off my electricity in the middle of studying for mid-terms. In response, I purchased a gross of Shabbat candles from down the street and studied by the light of scores of them. When, days later, he also turned off the heat, I simply wired my hot plate to a car battery, turned it on its side next to the bed and studied under the covers. The reason I had a hot plate in the first place was that I had good-naturedly turned over my tiny kitchenette to the roving droves of roaches which infested it. When they ungratefully branched out into the rest of the apartment as well, I bore up stoically until I awoke one morning to the sight of a roach crawling across a sleeping girlfriend’s angelic face. But even then I did not give in to depression. I simply built a three inch high wall of roach powder around the bed. I reckoned that even if the poison were ineffectual, the powdery wall was still too high and slippery for a roach to climb. Aided by these practical fixes, I was able to ace my mid-terms and subsequently to graduate from college, which enabled me to get jobs more to my liking which allowed me to pay my rent.

But though you can see I’m a typically optimistic, ‘can do’ kind of American, I have to add that I have developed genuinely mixed feelings about recent American optimism, which appears to rest on a kind of monolithic, flawless ignorance of facts.

Let’s take something as basic as the distribution of wealth in the United States. Michael Norton, an associate professor at the Harvard Business School, has been studying the way that Americans perceive wealth in a forthcoming paper. * His latest, rather horrifying, estimate is that that the top 20% of Americans control about 85% of the wealth in the U.S., while the bottom 40% have an average net worth of zero. But Professor Norton, in extensive interviewing among rich and poor, Democrats and Republicans, has found that the American perception of wealth distribution is at complete variance with the facts. The average American appears to believe that the distribution of wealth is much more egalitarian than it is, more like the Scandinavian social democracies whose tax policies are widely abhorred. Furthermore, when he asked those same people what they thought would be an ideal American wealth distribution, they went even further, answering on average that it would be fair for the top 20% of Americans to control about 35% of the total wealth. This is truly jaw dropping. To redistribute 50% of the country’s wealth downward would be a colossal transformation, and would make the U.S. a much more egalitarian country than even Sweden. But given the simultaneous widespread voter revulsion for, say, increasing the income tax rate of the wealthiest Americans, or raising the capital gains tax rate, a reasonable person might conclude that we are simply crazy.

Professor Norton speculates that these erroneous estimates stem from “this very strong American belief in the ability to be socially mobile… [and to believe that] even in their own life they can go from rags to riches.” In short, to American optimism. But in fact, that is “much rarer than people believe, and especially wealth transmission… money that goes from generation to generation is very flat.”

Barbara Ehrenreich has commented on the disjunction between our optimism and our actual situation in her recent book Brightsided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America.


Militarily, yes, we are the mightiest nation on earth. But on many other fronts,
the American score is dismal, and was dismal even before the downturn that
began in 2007. Our children routinely turn out to be more ignorant of basic subjects
like math and geography than their counterparts in other industrialized nations.
They are also more likely to die in infancy or grow up in poverty. Almost everyone
acknowledges that our health care system is “broken” and our physical infrastructure
crumbling. We have lost so much of our edge in science and technology that American
companies have even begun to outsource their research and development efforts….
we have the highest percentage of our population incarcerated, and the greatest level
of inequality in wealth and income. We are plagued by gun violence, and
racked by personal debt.

Her sense of the extraordinary reach of “positive thinking” originated after she contracted breast cancer. “The more fellow victims I discovered and read, the more isolated I felt.” No one, it seemed, shared her anger about the crudeness of the available treatments for her condition, or her feeling that the rising incidence of cancer in industrialized societies might be related to the ongoing poisoning of the environment. Instead, she was deluged with inspirational quotes like; “I can’t stop the birds of sorrow from circling my head, but I can stop them from building a nest in my hair,” and “when life hands out lemons, squeeze out a smile.” At its extreme, the embrace of positive thinking leads to books like Anne McNerney’s The Gift of Cancer: A Call to Awakening, in which she writes: “Cancer is your ticket to your real life.” Underlying this is the widespread belief that mood improvement can help overcome the disease, despite a systematic survey of the results of therapy and support groups in 2007 which found they had no effect on extending the lives of patients.**

Interestingly, in addition to replacing time-consuming probes into patient’s childhoods with the dispensing of mood enhancing drugs , the psychology community as a whole has come to embrace a similarly optimistic dogma, as a recent article in Harper’s Magazine (June, 2010) by Gary Greenberg makes clear ( “The War on Unhappiness: Goodbye Freud, Hello Positive Thinking.” ) One of its chief evangelists is Martin Seligman, past president of the American Psychological Association and founder of the school of Positive Psychology. “The question of what makes us happy is actually quite simple,” he asserts, and offers a series of exercises on his website -- authentichappiness.org -- to help us all achieve that state. Seligman reported being thrilled when “ the top people in the army” contacted him to help with returning soldiers whose current situation -- “unprecedented PTSD, depression, divorce, substance abuse [and] anxiety,” had led the army brass to fear it was going to lead to a ‘legacy’ of ‘more homeless veterans begging in Washington.’ “What is psychology going to do about that”, Seligman was asked? Seligman’s advice to the army was that “from this moment forward, positive psychology … [should] be taught throughout the United States Army,” a policy which is currently being implemented on a grand scale by Army chief of staff George Casey. That fact that it might be difficult to sustain an upbeat attitude when your job is to kill strangers who are in turn trying to kill you in a country whose ways are alien to your own is, for Positive Psychology, just an opportunity disguised as an obstacle.

Similarly, In the American business world, the number crunching management consulting style has given way, since the 1970’s, to a consulting style based on motivating employees. The trend can be traced through the career of Tom Peters, the “uber guru” of management consulting (Los Angeles Times). While employed by the old-line McKinsey consulting firm, Peters discovered the ‘human element’ in management, which he celebrated in his 1982 book In Search of Excellence, which NPR named in 1999 as “one of the “Top Three Business Books of the Century.” In that book, Peters made a rational case for paying attention to “motivation, mood boosting, and positive thinking” in business management. But in the hands of Peters’ followers and epigones, the concept has metastasized, and has made ”motivational coaching” a multibillion dollar business.***

Listen to the characteristically feverish rhetoric of BigSpeak, one of hundreds of motivational consultant companies: “Passion. Fire. Juice. Mojo. BigSpeak’s renowned team … are masters at not only creating but sustaining that inner drive to succeed within your organization.”


Our roster of world-renowned … experts include over 40 of today’s top 50 leading business thought leaders… whose insight on … leadership, team-building, motivation, innovation and peak performance will help you create an organization that not only withstand, but embraces and harnesses the forces of today’ volatile and competitive global marketplace.


Interestingly, Peters’ influence has extended well beyond the business world. In a recent (September 19, 2010) article in the National Center for Evangelization and Parish Renewal, a Catholic priest writes of asking Peters to speak at a “Jesus Day” conference in Chicago. It was a transformative experience. From Peters he learned “what Jesus means in the gospel today. He [Jesus] wants us to be… entrepreneurial and passionate about the work of the Reign of God, ” and to “love your customers [parishioners]. Without obsessive love of your customers, your customers will become someone else’s customers.”

This extension of the “positive thinking” movement in religion has challenged the old style televangelists like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, who regularly consigned gays, feminists and abortion providers to eternal damnation.

By any quantitative measure, the most successful preachers today are the positive thinkers,
who no longer mention sin…. Gone is the threat of hell and the promise of salvation, along with
the grim story of Jesus’ torment on the cross; in fact, the cross has been all but banished from
the largest and most popular temples of the new evangelism, the megachurches. In its place is
the promise of wealth, success and health in this life, because “God wants to ‘prosper’
you.”****

Even in the contemporary political realm, the Tea Partiers’ angry rhetoric cannot conceal their fundamentally optimistic belief that if only ‘government’ will get off our backs, American business creativity will be unleashed and will bring us unprecedented prosperity, despite the fact that there is general agreement that the absence of government oversight for the past twenty years was one of the main contributors to the current recession.

But enough: the overarching concept in the “positive thinking” movement, whether it be in economic thinking, medicine, psychology, business, religion, or politics, is the belief in mind over matter, which is profoundly irrational. It’s great to have a positive attitude, but matter is very stubborn, and we ignore reality at our peril. Remember the housing bubble and the “irrational exuberance” coined by one of its chief architects? Remember the widespread belief that we would be welcomed as ‘liberators’ when we invaded Iraq?

But it’s not just that the belief that attitude determines outcome which makes us stupid, as persons and as a culture, although it does. It has some insidious side effects as well: if you do get cancer, it’s somehow your fault; if you get laid off from your job, your fault as well. If attitude conquers all, then there is no one to blame but yourself if you fail to thrive.

This is not to say that cynicism is the answer and that we are blameless for our fates. It’s obviously good to have confidence that we and our environment can both change for the better, and the current Japanese economic and cultural malaise can serve as a warning that excessively negative thinking can be dangerous as well.

But to return to the humble example at the beginning of this essay. Yes, it was important not to be depressed by the fact that I was in a dark, cold, roach infested apartment without enough money to pay the rent. But lying in bed “visualizing success” on the coming exams was not going to get me out of my fix. I had to form a realistic plan to get the means necessary to continue studying. It was not realistic to suppose the landlord would turn on the utilities when I couldn’t pay the rent. But there were concrete, practical fixes at hand I could afford. What I could not afford was magical thinking.

But what else are we to call the widespread belief that the current distribution of wealth in this country is akin to that of Sweden; that ‘stress’ causes cancer; that “positive psychology” can save our soldiers from PTSD; that we will all succeed at our work if we ’think positive’; that God wants to ‘prosper us;’ that we need only dismantle government to end the recession.

Optimism, yes, but can we learn to temper it with realism? I wonder.
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*Professor Norton was interviewed by Skip Inskeep of NPR on October 7th of this year.
** James Coyne et al, Psychological Bulletin (May, 2007).
***In 2004, Potentials magazine gave an estimate of $21 billion a year for the market in all “motivational” products (Steven Winn article).
****Ehrenreich, p. 124.

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