Sunday, October 5, 2008

Happy Thoughts

Many years ago a friend was explaining the effects of Prozac on brain chemistry. If you look at primate research, he said, you see that when a male primate gains an enhanced status in the group, his brain chemistry changes in ways that resemble what happens when people take Prozac.

He concluded that we were going to have a society where everyone thinks he is an alpha male, only he isn't.

Of course, it is not just Prozac that is fostering this modern illusion. Misguided educators, talk show hosts, the media, and the therapy culture has told people to think happy thoughts, the better to auto-generate enhanced self-esteem, regardless of the evidence.

This dovetails nicely with a point that Steve Salerno made in a Wall Street Journal op-ed last Friday. Link here.

Salerno asks this question: How many business people are so pumped up on happy talk, on positive thinking, on mindless optimism that they have no sense of their strengths and weaknesses and no sense of whether their business is good or bad?

It is not entirely fair to lay this entirely at the recently burgeoning field of happiness studies. Derived from cognitive-behavioral therapy, happiness studies have become increasingly important in today's psychology. In many ways it was a change for the better.

To counter Freud's unremitting pessimism, Aaron Beck invented cognitive therapy to train his patients to engage more balanced judgment.

Beck would tell his patients to take disparaging self-judgments-- "I never get anything right," "I am worthless"-- and to write down three facts that would validate the thought and three that would disprove it.

Thus, patients gained balance. They learned to see both the good and the bad, the positive and the negative.

Now, what began as a necessary corrective to Freudian thought has been transformed by the culture into bad advice. Working their rough magic, the media, the educational establishment, and the therapy culture have brought pie-in-the-sky optimism into the American workplace.

There, it has become, Salerno said, "a crusade for all-out positivity." Employees have completely bought it. Today, most of them "prefer celebrity-driven inspiration over skills-intensive training."

Call it an escape from reality; call it mindless idolatry; it is wishful or magical thinking. Lately the guru most associated with it is Rhonda Byrne, author of "The Secret."

As Salerno says: "It is intriguing that 'The Secret' came to prominence during the same year as the mortgage meltdown. For what was the subprime lending crisis if not a large scale conspiracy of wishful thinking."

I have not read "The Secret." Nor will I ever. I am opposed to self-abuse, especially when the self in question is mine.

I am persuaded, however, that Byrne is a genius ... at marketing. For having trans-substantiated a trite piece of childish reasoning into a major fortune she deserves some grudging praise.

Better yet, she has convinced people that learning a secret that is now known to countless millions of people puts them in the company of a privileged few.

Part of her genius is to have inoculated herself against criticism. So many people have taken leave of their senses to plunge into the abyss of Byrne's mind, that if I were to say that she is peddling cretinous blather they would immediately take offense... and rush to her defense.

Criticizing the book threatens their self-esteem. Since their self-esteem, thanks to Byrne, is now based on wishful thinking, it has no basis in reality. Thus it is now hanging by a thread, which makes people very sensitive indeed.

Happily, there is no need to read this book. Any review will tell you the secret: since like attracts like, thinking happy thoughts will attract other happy thoughts and will necessarily produce happy events.

Despite all evidence to the contrary, Byrne declared that if you imagine something, if you want it badly enough, it will necessarily happen. "The only reason a person does not have money is that they are blocking money from coming to them with their thoughts." She advises: "See yourself living in abundance and you will attract it. It works every time, with every person."

Byrne is saying that if you put your head in the sand, dream a happy (and rich) thought, you need merely camp out in front of your mailbox. The checks will start rolling in.

Or take it a step further. Byrne says that it is a good thing to pretend that you are really rich: "A shortcut to manifesting your desire is to see what you want as absolute fact."

This is wish fulfillment run amok. Worse yet, people who believe their wishes are real are properly considered to be delusional.

Let us say that you decide to live by these principles. You want to be rich. You know that hard work, diligent effort, education, and training are not going to do it for you. In fact, you have always known this. That is why you are a slacker. Now you are happy that your chronic lethargy has been vindicated as a path toward the secret.

You discover that in order to become rich you need merely work on visualizing yourself as rich, and on believing that you are really as rich as you think you are.

Fortified with this pseudo-delusional belief, you go out and buy whatever your rich self needs to possess. You charge it to your American Express card.

Then, the bill comes due. You cannot pay it. What do you do?

Of course, you open up your copy of "The Secret" and it tells you that you did not want it badly enough. Buying the book was insufficient; you need to buy some notebooks and the movie version and sign up for some seminars.

You have not given yourself over completely to magical thinking; you are worrying too much. Thus, as Byrne says: "the only reason people do not have what they want is that they are thinking more about what they don't want than what they do want."

Salerno is right that this mimics, on a micro level, what happened in the subprime mess. After all, at the root of the problem is the average American who believed, despite the evidence, that he was as rich as Croesus, and who went out and bought a house that fit his puffed-up self-esteem but not his budget.

The moral of the story: never underestimate the damage that cretinous blather can do to otherwise intelligent people.

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