Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The negative side of being positive

14. Brightsided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America by Barbara Ehrenreich

What could be wrong with being positive? Always look on the bright side of life, right? Well, yes and no. This book is about movements within the United States that stress being positive over anything else, which then may lead to unpredictably bad results. As an example of this are motivational speakers and consultants, who shamelessly tell big CEOs to get rid of any employees who express negative feelings and do not contribute to a very positive environment. Unfortunately this also means, that these CEOs will get then rid of anyone who says, "But um... looks like if we purchase this company, we are going to lose a lot of money and we'll be bankrupt in a year." And this is what Ehrenreich looks into: when forced positivity takes over looking at the world realistically, which may even lead to large issues such as the financial bank crisis or a war.

The other issue that positive thinking movement promotes is ignorance: many motivational speakers with whom Ehrenreich spoke said that one of their pieces of advice for people is to not watch the news, because it will have a negative effect on their lives. Could it also be that seeing in the news that those starving people all around the world are not able to change their lives simply through positive thinking might not get motivational speakers those desperately needed audiences and money?

The book focuses largely on motivational speakers and the prosper movement of evangelical churches, and how much influence these have within political parties, which in turn may make quick decisions without taking negative feedback into account. The only difference between the motivational speakers and the prosper movement is that the churches will not kick a negative person out of their company, but still the idea is the same: if you have a positive attitude toward life, life/God/higher powers/CEOs will reward you. The churches have even removed crosses from them because they upset people too much...

I have never read The Secret because it has sounded like bull from the get-go to me, and this book pretty much confirmed my prejudice: the book tells people to just "want" things enough, and the items come to them. Nothing is impossible. This has lead to people maxing out their credit cards and getting into debt, because they wanted a Gucci bag. Some people have even stolen goods because they felt like they deserved these items, thanks to The Secret.

It's an odd concept that through wanting something hard enough you will get it, because it focuses almost solely on material goods. What makes a person think that they are entitled to everything on Earth? Also, this kind of thinking puts a lot of pressure on people: what if you are a member of a minority in a minimum wage job with 5 kids, and you can barely feed them and now the youngest needs glasses and you can't afford them? Obviously, you are thinking too negatively about your life and you just need to think positively and want that money in your life, and you shall get it. Then if you don't get what you wanted, I guess it just means that you did not try hard enough. It's your own fault for failing.

It also creeps me out that the concept of prosperity and happiness in the US is, according to Ehrenreich's findings, very much tied to money. Can't people be happy without money and material? Again, no wonder people are maxing out their credit cards. If I just buy this expensive piece of furniture I'll be a better person...

This prosperity/positive thinking stuff sounds to me like something sold to middle-class, fairly affluent people who are not dealing with major setbacks in life and not surprisingly, the prosper evangelists or motivational speakers don't exactly stop at street corners to tell homeless people that if they just changed their attitude they'd get a job and a house.

There's nothing wrong in looking at the bright side of life. It only becomes problematic when one is allowed to think only happy thoughts and disregard all warning signs.

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