comments_image Comments

Barbara Ehrenreich: Why Forced Positive Thinking Is a Total Crock

Positive psychology -- forced optimism -- is actually quite Calvinist, putting happiness to work as a means to an end.

Continued from previous page


The Templeton Connection

The Templeton Foundation, which contributed $2.2 million to Seligman's Positive Psychology Center in the first decade of the twenty-first century, as well as about $1.3 million to miscellaneous positive psychology research projects on such matters as gratitude, humility, and connectedness, is probably best known for its efforts to put religion on an equal intellectual footing with science. Founded by billionaire investor Sir John Templeton in 1972, the foundation gives out an annual Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, which was designed to fill a gap left by the Nobel prizes and pointedly pays more than they do. (In 2002, perhaps reflecting a certain lack of progress in religion, it was renamed the Templeton Prize for Progress toward Research or discoveries about Spiritual Realities.) The foundation's campaign to bring scientific legitimacy to religion has led to some dubious ventures, including funding in 1999 for a conference on intelligent design as an alternative to evolution. More cautiously, in recent years, the foundation has backed away from intelligent design and expressed its "spiritual" orientation through funding for research into the efficacy of prayer—another null result—as well as various abstract qualities like "character" and "humility." Until his death in 2008, Sir John Templeton was fond of bringing scientists and theologians together with the aim of finding common ground in luxurious tropical resorts.

Templeton might have been attracted to positive psychology's claim that positive emotions can influence physical health—a "mind over matter" proposition that can be found in just about any form of American spiritualism since the nineteenth century. But there is another, more intriguing connection. Templeton was an acolyte of Norman Vincent Peale and a minor positive thinking guru himself. According to the Templeton Foundation's 2004 "Capabilities Report," he "credits Norman Vincent Peale's book, The Power of Positive Thinking, read 70 years ago, with making him realize that Ôwhat I had become in my short lifetime was mainly dependent on my mental attitudes—a mental attitude of looking for the good will bring good to you; a mental attitude of giving love will bring love to you.'"

But Templeton was not just another positive-thinking businessman. He was something of a political ideologue, as is, to an even greater degree, his son and, since 1995, successor at the foundation. John Templeton Jr. is a major Republican donor and activist, having helped fund a group called Let Freedom Ring, which worked to get out the evangelical vote for George Bush in 2004. In 2007, he contributed to Freedom's Watch, which paid for television commercials supporting the war in Iraq, often by conflating Iraq with al Qaeda. More recently, he supported the Romney and then the McCain campaigns for the presidency and was the second-largest individual donor to the campaign for California's Proposition 8, banning same-sex marriage.

The foundation itself is, of course, nonpartisan but is strongly biased in favor of "free enterprise." Over the years, it has given cash awards to a number of conservative scholars, including Milton Friedman and Gertrude Himmelfarb, and grants to a long list of conservative organizations. In its 2006 report, we learn that the Templeton Foundation "supports a wide range of programs and research initiatives to study the benefits of competition, specifically how free enterprise and other principles of capitalism can, and do, benefit the poor." The words "and do" suggest a foregone conclusion, although the report goes on to raise the plaintive question "Why should half the world's population live in circumstances of relative squalor when it has been demonstrated that the principles of the market and free enterprise can lead to sustained economic development?" (italics in original).