Culturalism · Economic History

The Positivity Church

Probably the most frequent dispute I’ve encountered on the internet dot com is that involving the positive mindset gurus vs. realist thinkers. At first glance, it might seem as though no such disagreement should exist; after all, can’t one be positive and also embrace a level-headed posture? Perhaps, but in our modern world of incessant ass-slapping and rah-rah boosting, the very suggestion of a dissenting view can prove devastating, whether to one’s reputation or the ability to hold a job. Ridiculous? Aye. Prone to disappearing anytime soon? Chance would be a fine thing.

For a long time I have held this skeptical view of rambunctious, motivational positivity culture. My recent run-through of Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided only heightened the sentiment with its brutal takedown of the entire “be positive” regime. Throughout the text, Ehrenreich cuts at every idiotic trope in American culture, even crushing the numerous studies which purport to link health with positivity. I was especially touched by her section on back-slapping responses from people following a breast cancer diagnosis. Almost two decades ago I became exposed to the same insufferable foolishness when a soccer teammate underwent cancer treatment. Here was a young boy dealing with bouts of chemotherapy and the social stigma of losing his hair, and what was the nurse’s advice? Smile more. Even as a child the notion seemed nonsensical, darting to the heart of humanistic attempts to rationalize and empower people where solemn forthrightness would probably be better.

Other angles of the book are similarly uncompromising. She notes how the rise of life coaches and mindset experts is directly related to the economic decline of the United States since 1970, and its accompanying feelings of insecurity. People no longer have decent jobs and benefits, so they fixate on this happiness spirituality as a shield against reality. Unsurprisingly, corporate executives have aggressively pushed mindset development programs on employees, even as the same captains of industry cut firms down to the bare bones in order to help Wall Street profiteers. Stop being a victim! Just work harder and be happy! Is the ghost-like echo in our minds.

Such blind positiveness can of course lead to destructive outcomes. Ehrenreich suggests the happy-go-lucky attitude helped make intelligence officials complacent in the lead-up to 9/11, even as numerous warning signs lurked. Raising the alarm was not welcomed in an era of “the next century” and America’s seemingly invincible status with technology and the peace dividend. A similar scenario gripped Dick Fuld at the helm of Lehman Brothers, where he fired naysayers who warned of impending disaster, only to spend years contemplating what went wrong with his disastrous leadership.

Applied to the book I am writing, the positivity issue gains added steam. The immediate response of skeptics to a realist look on dating is to claim the perspective is “too negative” or even “nihilistic.” Neither of these labels actually change the underlying problem, of course. A guy who struggles with getting dates will generate meager returns from simply acting positive and repeating some contrived slogan about the power of pozzed thinking. Hope is obviously not a strategy, and often we are better served by brutally examining the facts and acting upon them, rather than floating towards Cloud Nine.

I hardly expect attitudes to change any time soon, and indeed it may be better they don’t. While the linkages between positive thoughts and healing are largely non-existent, I suppose if enough folks think they’re doing something good, at least a short-run benefit might be maximized. Longer-term however, stark fealty to the positive kingdom can easily lead to delusion and personal downfall. It’s all about reality vs. pleasant aspirations, and they don’t always match up.  

One thought on “The Positivity Church

  1. The more I knew, the better my life became, but the less I was able to appreciate it. Quite Faustian.

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