Thoughts on "The Perils of Positive Thinking"

October 13, 2009

So, the other day, my mother sent me a link to this post from TIME entitled, “Barbara Ehrenreich on The Peril of Positive Thinking,” which I read just now, and am finding myself almost speechless. Lets start with the title. The PERILS of Positive Thinking?! What PERILS could possibly be associated with positive thinking? Hmm, subject may become elated beyond reason? They may find themselves blissful and happy and secure?

Ok. I am done being flippant. But really. The article states:

As the life coaches and motivational speakers have been trying to tell us for more than a decade now, a healthy, positive mental outlook requires strict abstinence from current events in all forms. Instead, you should patronize sites like, where the top international stories of the week include “Jobless Man Finds Buried Treasure” and “Adorable ‘Teacup Pigs’ Are Latest Hit with Brits.”

I believe in optimism in the face of uncertain future. This does not mean secluding yourself from the world and sealing out anything scary happening in the real world. In my mind, optimism and positive thinking means seeing what is, knowing about the reality of the world around you, and remaining hopeful. This does not mean that you are sugar coating your life and filling your brain only with touchy feely human interest stories (though I think it’s important to remember that good things ARE happening too).

Ehrenreich also bashes the concept of “learned optimism”, ie. everything I’ve ever told you about re-patterning your brain to steel yourself against negative thoughts about your body, life, job etc. While I do believe that she is correct in questioning the validity of paying thousands upon thousands of dollars for optimism training programs.  I, myself, question the commercial aspect to the self-help industry. (Though I understand inherently that my blog – while not earning me any real money, is complicit in this industry).  You can’t just pay for someone to teach you to be optimistic. True, there are techniques and visualizations and processes that make feeling optimistic easier, but you cannot buy optimism. It is a personal choice to change your attitude about your life and the world around you, and takes discipline and work. There is no quick fix.

I have been steadily working on my attitude for a VERY long time. I work very hard every day to train my brain, so that I do not dwell on negative thoughts about my body, my past, my financial anxiety, my fears about the world and the safety and security of my friends and loved ones. I think this is important, and thus, I dedicate much time to it.  And, as such, I have been able to to change my life dramatically.

I also believe that sometimes things need to go really wrong in order for the energy to be re-aligned. This is similar to the concept in yoga that when you feel pain or strain that you pull your focus to that area, breathing into it, and using your breath and belief in the ability of your body to repair itself as your muscles relax and oxygen and relief is brought to that area. This is also similar to the old adage, “when a door closes, another door opens.” Which – of course – you’ve heard a million times and usually at that moment you’re having such a bad day you’d like to pick up whomever was the deliverer of such BRILLIANT wisdom and throw them right THROUGH that new door. But its true.

Ehrenreich cites the economic downturn as her main example for calling for Americans to stop thinking positively and start thinking rationally, but I disagree. Yes we are in a time of economic uncertainty. Yes many of us are without work and food and our lives as we know it. But when there is such a downfall there is UNBELIEVABLE opportunity for regrowth and change. Maybe you hated your job anyway, and maybe you are absolutely terrified now, but you are forced to reconnect without self and ask important questions like, how do I want to live my life?

Without obstacles or hardships we would never be forced into a period of self analyzing or self discovery. Or perhaps we would, but only for small moments that quickly get brushed under the rug as we run off to work at the job we loathe.

Ehrenreich closes her article by stating,

Fortunately, the alternative to optimism is not pessimism, which can be equally delusional. What we need here is some realism, or the simple admission that, to paraphrase a bumper sticker, “stuff happens,” including sometimes very, very bad stuff. We don’t have to dwell incessantly on the worst case scenarios — the metastasis, the market crash or global pandemic — but we do need to acknowledge that they could happen, and prepare in the best way we can. Some will call this “negative thinking,” but the technical term is sobriety.

Besides, the constant effort of maintaining optimism in the face of considerable counterevidence is just too damn much work. Optimism training, affirmations and related forms of self-hypnosis are a burden that we can finally, in good conscience, set down. They won’t make you richer or healthier, and, as we should have learned by now, they can easily put you in harm’s way. The threats that we face, individually and collectively, won’t be solved by wishful thinking, but by a clear-eyed commitment to taking action in the world.

To this I reply, stuff does happen. Horrible stuff. People are dying and getting sick and fighting in wars and getting blown up and having their houses foreclosed upon and unable to feed their children. This is real life. But I feel pretty sober when I tell you that I know that tomorrow will be better than today. I know that huge changes are occurring around me, changes for the better. I know that there is a light at the end of the tunnel.  And I know that feeling this way has more positive ramifications in the world than just giving me a warm fuzzy feeling.

When I’ve talked to you before about manifestation, I have said repeatedly that I believe a CRUCIAL step is taking small steps everyday towards the life of your dreams. This could be as simple as going to the store to buy folders to put your grad applications in.  Knowing that by proactively moving from point A to point B, I was actively participating in one small step and thereby reinforcing my larger dream of getting into a grad school that I love.

Ehrenreich is right in that regard, you cannot just sit on your couch and read your affirmations over and over expecting your world to change, but I believe that she was wrong by asserting that you cannot create change by being proactive and participating in the world around you with a positive attitude.

It is as easy as this: Go out. Smile at someone. Do they smile back? You just made their day a little better. They will move on and maybe be a little nicer to someone else. And so on. You get the idea. You have just made an impact.