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The Myths and Mistakes of the Positive Thinking/Self-Esteem Movement

By Steve Salerno

Skeptic Magazine, Volume 14, Number 4, 2009

My College football coach was the kind of guy Stanley Kubrik must have had in mind when he conceived the over-the-top drill sergeant for his classic Vietnam film, Full Metal Jacket. During one game midway in my sopho­more year, my offensive-line cohorts and I were having trouble opening holes for our ball carri­ers. Coach pulled us aside at half-time and lined us up against a wall. He then walked the line and—from a distance of maybe two inches— screamed into each of our faces in turn, "I WANT YOU TO TELL ME NOW, ARE YOU EVER GONNA MSS ANOTHER BLOCK!?" There was a pungent Anglo-Saxon gerund between another and block, but good taste compels me to omit it.

The only acceptable answer was "No sir", which we too were expected to scream at ear-splitting volume. This would assure Coach of our mettle, dedication, and worthiness to have him browbeat us for the rest of the season. But to me, Coach's question sounded unreasonable. I still had two-and-a-half seasons of football ahead of me. What assurances could I give? And so, when my turn came, I drew a breath and said, "Look, Coach, I certainly don't want to miss another block! But probably yes, I think I will miss a few. Now and then."

From the bewildered look on Coach's face, you'd think I'd just morphed into a six-foot-four-inch wombat right before his eyes. For a moment he just stared at me. Then he exploded. Labeling me "a smart-ass" who was "out to show him up," he banished me to the end of the bench. Not long after play resumed, however, he quietly inserted me back in the game. It seems my replacement—one of those players who would "never miss another block"—was missing quite a few of them.

There's no mistaking the allure of an outlook in which you'll make every block, get every job you apply for, close every sales call, and win the heart of every man or woman who catches your eye. This became clear to me many years post-college when I began research for a book about the human-potential movement. I quickly real­ized how invested Americans were in their optimism—and how irate they'd become at being challenged, or even just questioned, on it; I was encountering what essayist Barbara Ehrenreich, writing later in Harper's, would bracket as "pathological" hope. It's a world-view that's seductive and uplifting and ennobling—all of that—and yet, evidence and common sense suggest it has nothing to do with setting (and implementing) realistic goals, establishing (and observing) priorities and, perhaps most impor­tant, recognizing valid limitations and obstacles. In a culture whose unquenchable thirst for self-improvement is projected to reach $14 billion in direct expenditures by 2010 (as forecast by Marketdata Enterprises), the primacy of a "posi­tive mental attitude" (PMA) is unquestioned. Faith in the catalyzing effect of optimism, self-confidence, and the other variously labeled com­ponents of a PMA may be the defining trait of the Zeitgeist. Positivity is the touchstone, the sine qua non of successful American living.

The Rise of the Positive Mental Attitude Movement

Cultural reinforcement of all this is potent and ubiquitous. Positivity is central to many an Oprah Winfrey Show, while optimism and the general maintenance of a "can-do spirit" form the themes of every other self-help best-seller. Google "posi­tive mental attitude" and you will be rewarded with a quarter-million hits. That's not as astonish­ing as the fact that on the 20th page of hits—the point where most Google results have long since degraded into tertiary meanings—the results for PMA remain tightly focused around the core idea: improving your life through happy thoughts.

Positive thinking even enjoys the imprimatur of the psychological mainstream, thanks to Martin Seligman, author of Learned Optimism-. How to Change Your Mind and Your Life and father of so-called positive psychology. "Posi-psych" advocates a glass-is-half-full approach to therapy, and endorses the idea that upbeat thoughts are their own self-fulfilling reward. Last October, hundreds of psychologists from two dozen nations attended the annual Positive Psychology International Summit, cosponsored by Toyota.

The corporate world is fully bought-in. According to the American Society for Training and Development, increasing portions of the $50 billion or so that companies invest annually in training are earmarked for motivational speakers, off-site seminars, and "wilderness programs" designed to instill a positive, confident outlook. When Meeting Professionals International surveyed its membership in 2004, 81% preferred celebrity-delivered motivation over skills-intensive training. On the lecture circuit, Tony Robbins and his fellow motivational speakers and self-help coaches have been joined by a colorful and improbable cast of self-styled gurus including vic­tims of Alpine disasters, former gang-bangers, and confessed crack addicts; there's even room for a mob turncoat like erstwhile Colombo Family underboss Mike Franzese. All dutifully explain how they couldn't have done it without their PMAs.

Optimism or the lack thereof drives the oscillations of U.S. financial markets to a greater degree than the measurable performance of the companies listed there. Former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan certified this truism in that mem­orable December 1996 speech wherein he used the phrase "irrational exuberance" to characterize the climate of investment. Though Fortune-500 America was no less solvent the day after Greenspan's remarks than the day before, Wall Street—its own optimism badly shaken—went into a nosedive.

In politics, leaders making major policy speeches on matters of vital importance will prof­fer optimism as an IOU for actual results, and it's a currency that the American public un-cynically accepts. Former president George W. Bush voiced optimism about any number of things: that the Iraqi government could sustain itself and form the template for a newly democratic Middle East; that the U.S. could fashion out of disparate agendas an immigration policy that is all things to all people; that he could defuse those chronic nu-cu-lar tensions between the U.S. and North Korea. (If he couldn't defuse them, his chief Pentagon Star Wars expert, Lt. Gen. Henry Obering, was optimistic about our chances of shooting down any incoming missiles.)

But even politics takes a back seat to sports, where winning and losing are explained almost entirely in terms of PMA. In post-game interviews, athletes and their coaches glorify the "mental game," speaking of gut checks and emotional turning points and fire in the belly—everything but the raw physical skills that separate a Roger Federer or Serena Williams from you and me. The media, too, suspend disbelief when it comes to the putative link between wanting and winning. Given a successful outcome, sportswriters ignore obvious explanations (talent' lots of practice? "the breaks"?) and strain instead to find the PMA that presaged it. "He just wanted it more" is an oft-heard explanation for why one athlete bested another, even when it comes down to a fractional difference in points or time that could have just as easily gone the other way. When the Miami Heat bested the Dallas Mavericks in the 2006 NBA Finals, AP set the tone for the authorized media story line by keying its wrap-up to Heat Coach Pat Riley's "promise" to bring an NBA title to Florida. That Riley, himself a banquet superstar, made this promise when he first took the helm of the team in 1995 did not seem to trouble anyone; no more than the fact that a number of teams whose coaches hadn't made any promises managed to win titles in the interim. The sports-pundits followed the script, framing the Heat's victory as vindication of that dusty, 11-year-old oath.

Such tendencies have produced some exquisitely silly Olympic moments—like the day in Atlanta in 1996 when NBC's track announcers seemed determined to credit sprinter Michael Johnson's heroics to everything but his foot-speed. They hailed Johnson's confidence, his mental preparation, his inner resolve. You'd have thought the possibility that Johnson was simply faster than his opponents didn't occur to anyone.

In sum, then, it can be said that Americans want to be positive, to surround themselves with others who are positive, to entrust their destinies and very lives to those who exude positivity. What America really believes in is belief.

The irony is this: The notion that the riddle of success is more easily solved by attitude than aptitude may be one of the more subtly destruc­tive forces in American society. Not only is it a reproach to rational thought, but in a society already veering ominously towards narcissism, this "hyping of hope" also erodes reverence for hard work, patience, scholarship, self-discipline, self-sacrifice, due diligence and the other time-honored components of success.

The Secret of Self Esteem

A definitive recitation of how we came to this state of affairs is best left to historians and social psychologists. But one can safely posit that opti­mism is an American "race memory": a logical extension of the pioneering spirit and sense of manifest destiny that drove the earliest settlers. As New York Times editorial board member Adam Cohen has written: "Pessimism.. .is the most un-American of philosophies." Positivity is in the American gene. It's also subtly evoked in the founding precept of American democracy, the poetic declaration that "all men are created equal," which proponents of mental attitude have bastardized to imply that "all men [and women] are equally capable." Or, recast in the importunate language that's typical of self-help materials, "Don't let anyone take away your dreams!"

The universal appeal of that sentiment was unmistakable in the positive-thinking phenome­non of 2007, The Secret—with its reported 6 million books and DVDs now in circulation. Anchored in the so-called Law of Attraction, The Secret argues that we are "living magnets"—that what we believe in, good or bad, will find its way to us. Armed with "knowledge that has been known by the greatest leaders, discoverers and philosophers," says The Secret's creator, Rhonda Byrne, "there is not anything any human cannot be, do or have...not a single thing. No limits whatsoever." To Byrne, mind governs mat­ter. And that's that.

Like many of the touchy-feely messages that flood modern America, The Secret is about the rejection of the "inconvenient" truths of the physical world. In the broad culture, science and logic have fallen out of fashion. We are, after all, a people who increasingly abandon orthodox medicine for mind-body regimens whose own advocates not only refuse to cite clinical proof, but dismiss science itself as "disempowering." (The rallying cry that "you have within you the energies you need to heal" is one reason why visits to practitioners of all forms of alternative medicine now outnumber visits to traditional family doctors by a margin approaching two-to-one.) What I find most remarkable about The Secret, however, is that it somehow main-streamed the solipsistic "life is whatever you think it is" mindset that once was associated with mental illnesses like schizophrenia. The Secret was (and remains) the perfect totem for its time, uniquely captivating two polar generations: Baby Boomers reaching midlife en masse and desper­ate to unshackle themselves from everything they've been until now; and young adults weaned on indulgent parenting and—especially —indulgent schooling.

Indeed, if there was a watershed moment in modern positive thinking, it would have to be the 1970s advent of self-esteem-based education: a broad-scale social experiment that made lab rats out of millions of American children. At the time, it was theorized that a healthy ego would help students achieve greatness (even if the mechanisms required to instill self-worth "temporarily" undercut traditional scholarship). Though back then no one really knew what self-esteem did or didn't do, the nation's educational brain trust nonetheless assumed that the more kids had of it, the better.

It followed that almost everything about the scholastic experience was reconfigured to support ego development and positivity about learning and life. To protect students from the ignominy of failure, schools softened criteria so that far fewer children could fail. Grading on a curve became more commonplace, even at the lowest levels; community-based standards replaced national benchmarks. Red ink began disappearing from students' papers as administrators mandated that teachers make corrections in less "stigmatizing" colors. Guidance counselors championed the cause of "social promotion," wherein underperforming grade-schoolers—instead of being left back—are passed along to the next level anyway, to keep them with their friends of like age.

There ensued a wholesale celebration of mediocrity: Schools abandoned their honor rolls, lest they bruise the feelings of students who failed to make the cut. Jean Twenge, author of Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled. ..and More Miserable Than Ever Before, tells of pizza parties that "used to be only for children who made A's, but in recent years the school has invited every child who simply passed." (Twenge also writes of teachers who were discouraged from making corrections that might rob a student of his pride as an "individual speller.") Banned were schoolyard games that inherently produced winners and losers; there could be no losers in this brave new world of positive vibes.

Amid all this, kids' shirts and blouses effec­tively became bulletin boards for a hodge-podge of ribbons, pins and awards that commemorated everything but real achievement. Sometimes, the worse the grades, the more awards a student got, under the theory that in order to make at-risk kids excel, you first had to make them feel optimistic and empowered.

In the decades since self-esteem-based priorities commandeered the American educational agenda, SAT scores, grade inflation, graduation rates, America's performance in international testing in math and science, and other, less tangible barometers have demonstrated that scholastic greatness is not what self-esteem promotes. Administrators discovered that those "temporary" relaxations in standards had to be institutionalized in a systemic way after students who were shunted on to the next level couldn't—or wouldn't'—do the higher-level work, either. Over time, grade inflation trickled all the way up into secondary education. (The number of incoming freshmen who now need remedial courses in order to handle college math and other work borders on alarming—40%, in one study by the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, a Washington state think tank.)

Tellingly, when psychologists Harold Stevenson and James Stigler compared the academic skills of grade-school students in three Asian nations to those of their U.S. peers, the Asians easily outdid the Americans—but when the same students then were asked to rate their academic prowess, the American kids expressed much higher self-appraisals than their foreign counterparts. In other words, U.S. students gave themselves high marks for lousy work. Stevenson and Stigler saw this skew as the fallout from the backwards emphasis in American classrooms; the Brookings Institution 2006 Brown Center Report on Education also found that nations in which families and schools emphasize self-esteem can­not compete academically with cultures where the emphasis is on learning, period.

Today academic journals brim with revisionist articles that lament the plundering of American schools in the name of positivity. The failure is so complete that self-esteem-based education has been repudiated even by some of its most pas­sionate early voices. (William R. Coulson, for example, during the 1990s became something of a lachrymal troubadour who traversed the American landscape, confessing his error and begging schools to rethink their programs in self-esteem). The overall cynicism is perhaps best captured by the title of Charles Sykes' provoca­tive 1995 book, Dumbing Down Our Kids: Why American Children Feel Good About Themselves but Can't Read, Write or Add.

The real lesson here, though, isn't that massive doses of positivity failed to yield brilliance— it's that the obsession with cultivating optimism and "inner strength" actually proved counterpro­ductive. It is now clear that not only did self-esteem-based educational methodologies not produce excellence, they actually undermined it.

Evidence suggests there have been darker consequences as well. In falsely praising students and shielding them from failure, the educational system was also "shielding" them from the resilience and coping skills that allow the mature adult to process adversity. Raised in the protective cocoon of the school system, often with ambient reinforcement from hovering moms and dads, kids came of age unprepared for an unfor­giving Real World.

Most ominously, by creating a climate of enti­tlement, the self-esteem movement may have unwittingly helped train children to feel good about dubious, self-serving behavior. Twenge finds bitter significance in a 2002 report by the Josephson Institute of Ethics, a Los Angeles think tank that studies American mores, which revealed that "cheating, stealing and lying by high school students have continued their alarming, decade-long upward spiral." The Institute noted that almost three-quarters of students admitted to some form of cheating during the preceding year.

So it would seem that if the school system failed to imbue students with genuine self-esteem, it was more successful at fomenting narcissism. In the simplest clinical sense, narcissism can be defined as an exaggerated sense of one's place in the world. True narcissists need others only for their usefulness to feed their sense of grandiosity. And yet narcissism is a paradoxical affliction, in that narcissists are never truly secure in their bloated sense of self-worth; they crave constant validation. Is it not reasonable that such a condition might result from schooling that touts empty, unsubstantiated self-worth? That's precise­ly what psychologist Charles Elliott concludes in his book, Hollow Kids: Recapturing the Soul of a Generation Lost to the Self-Esteem Myth. And Elliott is hardly a lone voice in the wilderness.

"One of the most troubling aspects of self-esteem for its own sake is that you run the risk of producing kids who can't tolerate challenges to the facade you've built up in them," academic psychologist Roy Baumeister, a leading figure in self-esteem research, told me in a 2004 interview for my book, SHAM: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless.

This is no small matter, because narcissism is rampant today, as diagnosed by an assessment tool known as the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI). Twenge, who is also a psychol­ogist at San Diego State University, examined the responses of 16,475 college students who'd com­pleted the NPI between 1982 and 2006. She found a 30-percent jump in students who scored "above-average" for narcissism between those two end dates—a period of intense self-esteem-building activity throughout American culture.

And this, in turn, is important because of the growing body of research linking narcissism and aggression. Many of these intricate behavioral relationships have only recently been explored in depth, and one wants to avoid the leaps of faith that marked the early self-esteem movement. Still, the work of such psychology notables as Baumeister, Jennifer Crocker, and Nicholas Emler affirms that the strongest marker for serious anti­social behavior is not "low self-esteem," as once theorized, but rather \A\x?i-high self-esteem. Indeed, Baumeister's groundbreaking study, published in 1998 in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, revealed that the highest levels of self-worth and/or narcissism are often found in serial killers, drug dealers and other misanthropes.

Baumeister's collaborator in the study, psychologist Brad Bushman, told Science Daily, "If kids begin to develop unrealistically optimistic opinions of themselves, and those beliefs are constantly rejected by others, their feelings of self-love could make them dangerous to those around them."

Corporate Confidence

It bears noting that the self-esteem movement was the result of one of the most colossal logical gaffes on record. Educational psychologists had observed that children who make good grades generally scored a bit higher in self-esteem than poor students. So—they reasoned—all they had to do to transform low achievers into high achievers was "bolt on" some extra self-esteem. What the educators failed to realize, of course, was that they'd inverted causation: The kids with good grades had higher self-esteem because of the grades, not vice versa.

Nonetheless, such lessons are lost on the modern-day champions of positive thinking, who continue to breach the most basic rules of logic and evidence:

The "zero limits" subculture argues that anything is possible through the sheer and single-minded application of will. Lampooning the idea, management consultant Payson Hall writes: "The other day I broke a 12" x 12" x 1" pine board with my bare hand after listening to a 90-minute motivational talk about breaking barriers to achieve goals. [But] the inspirational message, 'you can do whatever you are committed to,' troubled me.... I suspect the session facilita­tor would have agreed, particularly if I had produced a 12" x 12" x 1" steel plate."

Then again, common sense never deterred a PMA guru intent on making his point. Nor did good taste. When parts of San Diego were engulfed in flames in 2007, self-help guru Joe Vitale noted on his blog that the inferno had spared the homes of some of his fellow contributors to The Secret, strongly implying that less for­tunate homeowners had brought the cataclysm on themselves by being insufficiently optimistic.

PMA relies greatly on argument-by-example, touting successful, positive people as proof that "you can do it, too!" From an evidentiary standpoint, it's farcical to cherry-pick successful people, ask them about their state of mind, discover that they feel good about life, then use that "research" in arguing that a positive attitude pro­motes success. How many unsuccessful people also felt positive—until their lives took an unexpected turn for the worse? Such rationales make as much sense as using Bill Gates and Ted Turner, two noteworthy college dropouts, as evidence for the theory that skipping college leads to untold wealth (or noting that Kobe Byrant has an unusual name and therefore assuming that if you give your child an equally unusual name he'll end up an NBA superstar).

Far worse is when the gurus of PMA actually use the likes of Gates and Turner as "proof of "why a college degree isn't as important as a good attitude." Gates and Turner beat the odds. The vast majority of college dropouts don't fare as well, no matter how positive they may be.

A Proven Winner: The Champion Mindset in Sports

Hoping to imbue their ideologies with a mystical panache, the PMA crowd has invented an argot of high-minded nonsense—phrases that can't truly be defined, let alone quantified or applied to real life. This fusillade of cliches and buzz­words seldom resolves into a cohesive philoso­phy. I'm watching the Beijing Olympics as I write this, and judging by the commentary from various commentators—all experts in their respective sports—the ideal Olympian is a calm yet fiery competitor who's both relaxed and driven, patient and hungry; an athlete who stays within himself' while knowing how to stretch. This supremely confident (but not overconfident) individual goes into competition with a clear mind as well as intense concentration; perceives the importance of winning but doesn't worry about losing; knows how to pace himself'but always gives 110%—and still has another gear left if he needs it. This is a competitor who leaves it all on the field while also knowing that some­times it's best to live to fight another day....

I defy anyone to find all of those disparate qualities in the same (sane) person. Clearly, at the end of the day, the so-called champion mindset is whatever works for the champion in question. Which means, in effect, there's no such thing as a champion mindset, per se. It could be an insufferable braggadocio for one athlete and an aw-shucks modesty for his chief rival. We saw this at Torino, in fact, in the stark contrast between U.S. skiers Bode (the walking ego) Miller and Ted ("I'm just happy to be here") Iigety.

Similarly, the seminar giants speak of superstar players involved in complex team enterprises as if such players can reach out, Uri Geller-like, and bend dozens of unknown variables into an orderly pattern that leads inexorably to victory. Consider: "He's a proven winner" or, more specifically, "He knows how to win," accolades often bestowed on top-tier athletes like, say, New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter. What does that mean' How could it possibly be so? Does Jeter, standing at short, emit waves of invisible energy that somehow prevent his pitcher from giving up runs? And if Jeter can motivate himself (and/or a teammate) to get that clutch hit in the ninth inning—why does he wait so long? Why not put the game safely out of reach much earlier? Moreover, how does one explain crush­ing Yankees losses? If the man can simply "conjure" victories at will, then why, in 2002, the year the Yankees swept to a pennant by winning 103 games during the regular season, did Derek Jeter permit the team to get drummed out of the play­offs by the California Angels? Did he suddenly forget how to win when it mattered most?

You Too Can Be President: Delusional Optimism

Today's most enthusiastic champions of positive thinking—not content with promising mere individual excellence—portray their quest as the rising tide that lifts all boats, supposedly enabling America as a whole to reach new levels of fulfill­ment. It's an appealing prospect, albeit an impos­sible one, because so many competitive pursuits are zero-sum affairs: For each winner, there are multiple losers. There is simply no way for this goulash of competing aspirations to reduce to an orderly society in which there must be manage­ment and labor, rich and less rich, winners and also-rans. And the absurdity begins with the cornerstone message of scholastic positive-thinking assemblies everywhere: "You can be president of the Unites States, if you really want to!" Even leaving aside the countless contextual factors that may derail a run for the White House, the simple arithmetic dearth of opportunity—the fact that at any given moment there will be perhaps 10 pres­idencies available to 150 million or so Americans between age 35 and their death—rules out the dream for just about all who dream it.

A more truthful message would be, 'You have much higher odds of being struck by lightning than of ever becoming president of the United States. But relax; there's virtually no chance that you'll ever be struck by lightning, either."

Once again here—as we saw with self-esteem—this isn't merely silly. There's a distinct downside to baseless positivity.

In the business world, positive thinking too often expresses itself as an aversion to contingency planning. Surely one of the most vexing aspects of today's PMA-driven corporate culture is the way it bullies cautious workers into remaining close-mouthed about any red flags they see in a given strategy or undertaking. Frank discussions of risk are construed as evidence of negativity, or even "laying the groundwork for failure." Employees who voice reasonable concerns may be labeled "gloom-and-doomers"—and hear themselves disparaged during periodic evalu­ations for "not being team players." In their Harvard Business Review article, "Delusions of Success"—about the current atmosphere in corporate America—authors Dan Lovallo and Daniel Kahneman are forthright: "We reward optimism and interpret pessimism as disloyalty."

Ironically, the failure to address risk—what Lovallo and Kahneman call "delusional optimism"—becomes a risk factor in its own right. One is mindful of the memorable quote from Russell Ackoff in his classic book, Management in Small Doses: "The cost of preparing for critical events that do not occur is generally very small in comparison to the cost of being unprepared for those that do."

Farther along in an ill-fated project, PMA again rears its ugly head in the form of a dogged refusal to acknowledge defeat. As consultant Payson Hall writes, the idea that "any project is possible, given a 'can do' attitude" has "proven to be a very expensive and destructive misconception." Good money gets thrown after bad, because, after all, if you truly believe.. .how can you fail?

Management consultant Jay Kurtz has a more colorful spin on the same familiar pitfall. "The most dangerous person in corporate America," Kurtz once told me, "is the highly enthusiastic incompetent. He's always running too fast in the wrong direction."

Positive Productivity v. Cranky Competence

For the record, studies of the alleged link between positivity and productivity hardly show a straight-line correlation. Though surveys do show that American workers are both highly pro­ductive and relatively upbeat, one cannot posit a causal relationship without adjusting for the myri­ad ambient variables that make American life so much more uplifting to begin with. History's most rigorous studies, like the bellwether 1985 effort by occupation psychologists Hackett and Guion, cast doubt on even the most basic correlations you'd expect to find—for example, between job satisfaction and low absenteeism. It should be noted that in Japan, the very well-spring of "5S" and other vaunted productivity programs currently overspreading Fortune 500 America, employees aren't exactly giddy. According to a 2002 study by Andrew Oswald, an economics professor at University of Warwick, UK, just 30% of Japanese workers describe themselves as "happy" on the job.

In the end, there's scant reliable evidence that a positive attitude has much to do with the result of any objectively measurable enterprise. There is, in fact, modest but intriguing evidence that a positive outlook may be bad for business. Last year a University of Alberta psychology team studied multiple groups of workers assembling printed circuits and deemed the crankier employees superior to their upbeat counterparts. The cheerful people were too invested in their cheer­fulness and devoted significant energy to perpet­uating it. Their grimacing co-workers simply threw themselves into their work—and did it better: Malcontents made half as many mistakes. (Nor, for that matter, should we dismiss the role played by undue optimism in the recent mortgage/housing meltdown—on the part of lenders and borrowers alike.)

Bodybuilder Mike Mahler, meanwhile, breaks ranks with most of those in the physical training arts by indicting today's attitude uberalles culture as "a guaranteed way to never achieve your goals... Let's say that you are broke, overweight, and have no friends. You decide to apply posi­tive thinking... You tell yourself that you are lucky to be you and walk around with a smile on your face. Is this really addressing the problem?" Sagely, Mahler notes that it is discontent that "motivates action and change."

Discontent and—just maybe?—the willingness to accept failure.

Expect Failure...But Keep Trying

Meet Dr. James Hill. He's director of the Center for Human Nutrition, an NIH-funded agency that Hill oversees from his post as professor of pedi­atrics at the University of Colorado. Hill won­dered why most folks who lose weight on fad diets soon regain it all and then some. Working jointly with counterparts at the University of Pittsburgh, Hill's team has compiled a National Weight Control Registry comprising 4500 individuals who have lost at least 30 pounds and kept it off for at least a full year. After surveying and studying that database, Hill has identified key characteristics that enabled these dieters to achieve their impressive results, and he has dis­tilled them down to a series of tips. Among the first tips is this:

Expect failure... but keep trying.

Expect failure? Not something you'd hear on Oprah, eh? Nonetheless, at least among Hill's dieters, it was the anticipation of failure—combined, yes, with the will to persevere—that paved the way for success.

A mantra like expect failure but keep trying is a perfect example of the commonsensical middle ground that has zero chance of gaining traction in today's pop culture. Americans are condi­tioned to suckle at the teat of the categorical, uplifting message. Many of us don't want to hear "maybe you can do it, and maybe you can't." Even if it's true.

We'd rather cling to the notion that "of course you can do it!" Even if it's false.


How Positive Thinking Wrecked the Economy

By Barbara Ehrenreich

The optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds, and the pessimist fears this is true.
- attributed to both Robert Oppenheimer and James Branch Cabell

(A shorter version of this appears as an op ed in the New York Times yesterday.)

Greed -- and its crafty sibling, speculation -- are the designated culprits for the ongoing financial crisis, but another, much admired, habit of mind should get its share of the blame: the delusional optimism of mainstream, all-American, positive thinking. As promoted by Oprah, scores of mega-church pastors such as Joel Osteen, and an endless flow of New Age self-help bestsellers like Rhonda (Help me Rhonda) Byrne’s The Secret, the idea is to firmly belief that you will get what you want, not only because it will make you feel better to do so, but because thinking things, "visualizing" them -- ardently and with concentration -- actually makes them happen. You will be able to pay that adjustable rate mortgage or, at the other end of the transaction, turn thousands of bad mortgages into giga-profits, the reasoning goes, if only you truly have faith and believe that you can. You just need to believe in the epistemological relativism of anti-scientific postmodernist philosophy that reality is merely a mind construct. Perhaps we ought to remember jailed mobster John Gotti who made a lot more sense by putting it this way: “It’s mind over matter; if you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.”

Rhonda Byrne tells us our lives are the “mirror of the dominant thoughts you think” and blames the victims of misfortune for their “negative thoughts.” Take the miserable skeletons in Darfur, prey to starvation and genocidal pogroms engineered by their fanatical Muslim overlords. It’s their own fault because of their inability to “visualize” their own happiness, safety and prosperity and wait for them to “manifest”. The secret is that this “secret” works when it doe and doesn’t when it doesn’t. Every human has basic needs for food, shelter, sleep and security. Until they are met, how can you afford the time for leisure, politics, sports, religion the arts and most importantly, ethics? Remember the old adage: “Grub before ethics.” I’m sure the wretches of Darfur would love to be fretting over the trivial neuroticisms of North Americans who are bending themselves into pretzels worrying about how to get that second SUV, LCD television or Caribbean cruise.

Positive thinking is endemic to American culture -- from weight loss programs to cancer support groups -- and in the last two decades it put down deep roots in the corporate world as well. Everyone knows that you won't get a job paying more than $15 an hour unless you're a "positive person" -- doubt-free, uncritical, and smiling -- and no one becomes a CEO by issuing warnings of possible disaster. The mantra of self-esteem that has plagued our educational institutions is part of the same world view. Tell yourself that you are the greatest, that you are number one – it’s a hell of a lot easier than hard work and self-doubt. And you feel so good - even though you just scored 25% on the recent math test by using the power of positive thinking in lieu of doing your daily homework and studying.

According to a rare skeptic, a Washington-based crisis management consultant I interviewed on the eve of the credit meltdown in 2007, even the magical idea that you can have whatever you truly want has been "viral" in the business culture. All the tomes in airport bookstores' business sections scream out against "negativity" and advise the reader to be at all times upbeat, optimistic and brimming with confidence -- a message companies relentlessly reinforced by treating their white collar employees to manic motivational speakers and revival-like motivational events. The top guys, meanwhile, would go off to get pumped up in exotic locales with the likes of success guru Tony Robbins, Steven Covey and Wayne Dyer who drench their messages in quasi-religious postmodernism and Eastern mysticism. Those who still failed to get with the program could be subjected to personal "coaching" or of course, shown to the door.

The same frothy wave of mandatory optimism swept through the once-sober finance industry. On their websites, scores of motivational speakers proudly list companies like Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch among their clients. Angelo Mozilo, the former CEO of Countrywide Mortgage whose subprime ventures precipitated the entire crisis, was known for his congenital optimism and described in the Guardian earlier this year as "absurdly upbeat" even as his industry unraveled. No one was psychologically prepared for hard times, when they hit, because, according to the tenets of positive thinking, even to think of trouble is to bring it on. This is the message of the inane best seller The Secret by Ronda Byrne – blame the victim for his negative vibes. In May, the New York Times reported that Merrill, caught up short, was suddenly trying to "temper the Pollyannas in its ranks," and force its analysts to occasionally say the word "sell."

For those at the very top of the corporate hierarchy, all this positive thinking must not have seemed delusional at all. They actually could have almost anything they wanted, just by expressing the desire. CEO compensation has ballooned in recent years, creating the new class of billionaires and centi-millionaires who inhabit Lear jets and four-figure a night hotel rooms, who can dispatch a private plane to pick up a favorite wine, or a pet, they happen to have left in the Hamptons. According to a new book from the UK, Unjust Rewards by Polly Toynbee and David Walker, these masters of the universe tend to be seriously uninformed about how the other 99.9 percent lives and, Toynbee told me, often uncomprehending of the financial operations -- the derivatives, CDS's, etc. -- that their wealth is derived from. If you live in a bubble of perfect wish-fulfillment, how could you imagine that, for example, some poor fellow in Cleveland might run up against unexpected medical bills or car problems that could waylay his mortgage payments?

Americans did not start out as deluded optimists. The original ethos, at least of white Protestant settlers and their descendents, was a grim Calvinism that offered wealth only through hard work and savings, and even then made no promises at all. You might work hard and still quite likely fail; you certainly wouldn't get anywhere by adjusting your attitude or dreamily "visualizing" success. Calvinists thought "negatively" as we would say today, carrying a weight of guilt and foreboding that sometimes broke their spirits. It was in response to this harsh ethos that positive thinking arose -- among mystics, lay healers, and transcendentalists -- in the 19th century, with its crowd-pleasing message that God, or the universe, is really on your side, that you can actually have whatever you want, if the wanting is focused enough.

When it comes to how we think, "negative" is not the only alternative to "positive." As the case histories of depressives show, consistent pessimism can be just as baseless and deluded as it’s opposite. The alternative to both is realism -- seeing the risks, having the courage to bear bad news, and being prepared for famine as well as plenty. Now, with our savings, our homes and our livelihoods on the line, we ought to give it a try.

Barbara Ehrenreich is the author of thirteen books, including the New York Times bestseller Nickel and Dimed. A frequent contributor to the New York Times, Harpers, and the Progressive, she is a contributing writer to Time magazine. She lives in Florida.



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