Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Up and Down With Positive Thinking

When cognitive psychologists started working on positive thinking, aka, learned optimism, it was a perfectly reasonable step. They were working with depressed patients who had fallen into extreme pessimism. Feeling trapped, seeing no possible positive outcomes to any action they had stopped trying and had withdrawn from the world.

It made, and still makes, perfectly good sense to try to train these patients to engage in more balanced thinking. Cognitivists never wanted people to become mindless optimists; they wanted their patients to see both sides of all issues, beginning with the issue of their own worth.

A patient who was suffering from thoughts that told him that he was good-for-nothing was not supposed to learn that everything he did was always right and good. He was taught that his failures, real as they were, should always be balanced against his equally real successes.

Cognitive therapy for depression was an exercise in balanced, even temperate judgment.

From there, under the aegis of Martin Seligman, psychology advanced into happiness studies. This took hold because the field was still haunted by the shadow of Freud's relentless negativity, his tragic vision of human life.

Where Freud wanted his patients to engage in the regressive exercise of looking backwards, cognitivists wanted theirs to redirect their focus onto the future, and to the possibility of progress.

Once these ideas escaped the narrow confines of their discipline, they went viral. They made their way into the culture at large and morphed into something called "the secret." The book and other audio-visual tools that promoted this bit of infantile thinking persuaded millions of avid listeners that they could change the world by indulging some positive and optimistic thoughts.

You want to find a parking place? Just think that one is going to open up, and lo and behold, the next time you come around the block someone will be pulling away from some prime parking space.

It was simply an exercise in magical thinking. Yet, it persuaded intelligent people that they did not really have to work to change their lives. They could think positive thoughts... and the world would transform itself before their eyes.

The ideas infiltrated the culture, and went viral. By now we have all suffered the aftereffects of this virus called positive thinking. So says Barbara Ehrenreich and it is difficult to disagree with her. Link here.

Positive thinking induced too many of us to believe in mind over matter. Worse yet, we acted accordingly. We threw caution to the winds. We were confident that if we kept thinking positive thoughts we would cure disease, become increasingly rich, borrow and spend as much as we pleased, and live in a world filled with peace and love.

Maybe I'm too optimistic, but I would like to think of it as the last gasp of the counterculture.

Here is Ehrenreich's view: "... the constant effort of maintaining optimism in the face of considerable counterevidence is just too damn much work. Optimism training, affirmations and related forms of self-hypnosis are a burden that we can finally, in good conscience, set down. They won't make you richer or healthier, and, as we should have learned by now, they can easily put you in harm's way. The threats we face cannot be solved by wishful thinking, but by a clear-eyed commitment to taking action in the world."

Ehrenreich is promoting realism, but that term is subject to misinterpretation too. Take the comments offered by Jim Selman, who offers a startling take on the question, to the effect that reality does not care what you think. Link here.

Where Ehrenreich wants us to go out and take action in the world, Selman proposes a more philosophical attitude: we should just accept reality for what it is.

In his words: "To allow reality to be whatever it is and concentrate on just Being Present to whatever is occurring in the moment."

This is all well and good unless you simply ignore the car that is hurtling in your direction and that will, if you do not take a few steps back on to the curb, will make this Present moment your last.

This to say that I object to this advice to live in the Present. Selman's attitude is pure fatalism. We cannot do anything to change the world, so we do not need even to make plans. If there is only the present, then it makes no sense to plan for the future.

If the human species had contented itself with just being present to what was happening in the moment we would still be hunter-gatherers living in mud-huts. With luck, that is.

Reality may not especially care what we think, but we do have the power, by taking action in the world, to modify some of it. We can, as I would put it, negotiate with reality. Sometimes we can even make a deal with it.

But we cannot make plans for the future without having an optimistic attitude about their eventual realization. If you plan to have dinner with friends tomorrow evening, you are going to look forward to the event. You are going to anticipate it. You will be happier if it occurs than if it is canceled.

And if your growing family is going to require that you move into a larger home, then you are probably going to increase your savings, and perhaps even work more. You are making a plan; you have a sufficiently optimistic attitude toward the future to imagine that your children will grow up and be well.

All of this to say that you cannot take action in the world unless you think positively about the future. Surely, this does not mean that you have not thought of other eventualities, or that you believe that your new home is going to appear magically just because you have been dreaming about it. But you cannot take action and cannot plan for the future if you train your mind to ignore it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very thoughtfull post on Positive Thinking. It should be very much helpfull.

Karim - Positive thinking