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Screw Positive Thinking! Why Our Quest for Happiness Is Making Us Miserable

A new book by Oliver Burkeman paints an alternative path to happiness that has nothing to do with positive thinking.

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The way Bush saw it, the happy and successful periods of his presidency proved the benefits of an optimistic outlook, of course — but so did the unhappy and unsuccessful ones. When things are going badly, after all, you need optimism all the more. Or to put it another way: once you have resolved to embrace the ideology of positive thinking, you will find a way to interpret virtually any eventuality as a justification for thinking positively. You need never spend time considering how your actions might go wrong.

Could this curiously unfalsifiable ideology of positivity at all costs — positivity regardless of the results — be actively dangerous? Opponents of the Bush administration’s foreign policies might have reason to think so. This is also one part of the case made by the social critic Barbara Ehrenreich, in her 2009 book “Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America.” One underappreciated cause of the global financial crisis of the late 2000s, she argues, was an American business culture in which even thinking about the possibility of failure — let alone speaking up about it at meetings — had come to be considered an embarrassing faux pas.

Bankers, their narcissism stoked by a culture that awarded grand ambition above all, lost the capacity to distinguish between their ego-fueled dreams and concrete results. Meanwhile, homebuyers assumed that whatever they wanted could be theirs if they wanted it badly enough ( how many of them had read books such as “The Secret, which makes exactly that claim?) and accordingly sought mortgages they were unable to repay. Irrational optimism suffused the financial sector, and the professional purveyors of optimism — the speakers and self-help gurus and seminar organizers — were only too happy to encourage it. “To the extent that positive thinking had become a business in itself,” writes Ehrenreich, “business was its principal client, eagerly consuming the good news that all things are possible through an effort of mind. This was a useful message for employees, who by the turn of the twenty-first century were being required to work longer hours for fewer benefits and diminishing job security. But it was also a liberating ideology for top-level executives. What was the point in agonizing over balance sheets and tedious analyses of risks — and why bother worrying about dizzying levels of debt and exposure to potential defaults — when all good things come to those who are optimistic enough to expect them?”

Ehrenreich traces the origins of this philosophy to nineteenth-century America, and specifically to the quasi-religious movement known as New Thought. New Thought arose in rebellion against the dominant, gloomy message of American Calvinism, which was that relentless hard work was the duty of every Christian — with the additional sting that, thanks to the doctrine of predestination, you might in any case already be marked to spend eternity in Hell. New Thought, by contrast, proposed that one could achieve happiness and worldly success through the power of the mind.

This mind-power could even cure physical ailments, according to the newly minted religion of Christian Science, which grew directly from the same roots. Yet, as Ehrenreich makes clear, New Thought imposed its own kind of harsh judgmentalism, replacing Calvinism’s obligatory hard work with obligatory positive thinking. Negative thoughts were fiercely denounced — a message that echoed “the old religion’s condemnation of sin” and added “an insistence on the constant interior labour of self- examination.”

Quoting the sociologist Micki McGee, Ehrenreich shows how, under this new orthodoxy of optimism, “continuous and neverending work on the self [was] offered not only as a road to success, but also to a kind of secular salvation.”