We Don’t Need More Optimists: Unchecked Positive Thinking Is More Dangerous than It Sounds
Depending on how you look at it, the mood in the United States of late has been either an overdue stock-taking — as we reckon with issues like racism, rape culture, runaway law enforcement and out-of-control income inequality — or relentlessly grim. Surely, unrelieved despair — either personally or more broadly, socially — can lead to paralysis. But despite a big Sunday Review cover piece in the New York Times, “We Need Optimists,” extolling the virtues of positive thinking, that habit without reflection can be just as dangerous, especially in our leadership.
Is our political sphere too negative? Sure, especially with the harsh noises in the reactionary echo-chamber. But it’s a symptom of a society that’s lost its direction, not a cause. If you want optimism, there are plenty of ways to find it — DVDs, motivational speakers, inspirational courses, churches begging for your money and promising riches. Here’s Barbara Ehrenreich, the author of an excellent book on the perils of optimism, “Bright-Sided,” which looks at the dangers both personally and politically:
But the question, before you whip out your credit card or start reciting your personal list of affirmations, is, What makes you think unsullied optimism is such a good idea? Americans have long prided themselves on being positive and optimistic — traits that reached a manic zenith in the early years of this millennium. Iraq would be a cakewalk! The Dow would reach 36,000! Housing prices could never decline! Optimism was not only patriotic but was also a Christian virtue, or so we learned from the proliferating preachers of the “prosperity gospel,” whose God wants to “prosper” you. In 2006, the runaway bestseller “The Secret” promised that you could have anything you wanted, anything at all, simply by using your mental powers to “attract” it. The poor listened to upbeat preachers like Joel Osteen and took out subprime mortgages. The rich paid for seminars led by motivational speakers like Tony Robbins and repackaged those mortgages into securities sold around the world.
American society can’t give in to despair. But we’ve got a lot of work to do — and we need a sober, hard-headed realism about our accomplishments and failings, not empty cheerleading.