The Tyranny of Positive Thinking

Could it be that “thinking positively” is contributing to our blindness and inaction around energy issues, environmental degradation and economic devastation? I’ve hammered this point home in a number of posts, the most widely read being “Do You Have a Panglossian Disorder?.” Now, a trenchant social observer provides a clear outline of how that may well be so, elaborating on the ‘dangers of positive thinking.’

Americans are “positive” people.”

So goes the first line of Barbara Ehrenreich’s most recent book “Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America

(Metropolitan Books, 2009). This book points out the dark side of optimism. While Americans have crafted and embraced “happiness” ideology, arguing that a positive outlook can lengthen lives and improve health, Ehrenreich examines this “research” and finds its evidence flimsy and motivated more by financial success than scholarly rigor. What function does the evolution of “positive ideology” play in a nation that, even in prosperous times, ranks 23rd in self-reported worldwide happiness? Why do we embrace the ‘happy face’ while swallowing two-thirds of the global market’s supply of antidepressants, making them the most widely prescribed drug in the United States? Are we depressed because we aren’t happy or does the constant demand for happiness lead to depression? To address these questions, the author begins by defining her terms:

Elements of Positive Thinking

While we American citizens believe that an optimistic “can do” attitude is part of our national character, Ehrenreich concludes that being “positive” and maintaining a “positive outlook” is an ideological mandate. She defines “positive thinking” as having two elements:

“One is the generic content of positive thinking—that is, the positive thought itself—which can be summarized as: Things are pretty good right now, at least if you are willing to see silver linings, make lemonade out of lemons, etc., and things are going to get a whole lot better.” While often confused with hope, optimism is a cognitive stance, a conscious expectation, which presumably anyone can develop through practice, while hope is an emotion, a yearning, and not entirely within our control.

The second meaning of “positive thinking” is the practice, or discipline of trying to think in a positive way. The author points out that researchers on positive thinking aren’t content to argue that positive thoughts lead to happy feelings. Why isn’t it enough to simply “feel happy?” No, the act of “accentuating the positive” must actually lead to happy outcomes. Optimism promises to improve health, heighten personal efficacy, boost confidence, and intensify resilience, making it easier for us to accomplish our goals. If you expect things to get better, the argument goes, they will.

While psychologists have attempted to prove this is so, through research, a far less rational theory also runs rampant in American ideology—the idea that our thoughts can, in some mysterious way, directly affect the physical world. Negative thoughts somehow produce negative outcomes, while positive thoughts realize themselves in the form of health, prosperity, and success. The explanations may vary, but the message is the same: whether by “reading the relevant books, attending seminars and speeches that offer the appropriate training or just doing the solitary work of concentrating on desired outcomes—a better job, an attractive mate, or world peace” can be ours if we put the effort into learning how to think positively.

A History of Positive Thinking and Modern Links to Consumer Capitalism

Ehrenreich traces the history of positive thinking, from the mavericks that inspired Mary Baker Eddy onto modern day ‘mega-church’ preachers. Dale Carnegie published the first great text on how to act in a positive way in his book “How to Win Friends and Influence People, published in 1936, and still in print. Born “Carnagey” he changed his name to “Carnegie,” apparently to match that of the industrialist Andrew Carnegie.

Carnegie’s book did not assume that his readers would feel happy if they took his advice, but that they could manipulate others to their own advantage by putting on a successful happy act. It was no accident that books like “How to Win Friends” and Napoleon Hill’s book, “Think and Grow Rich” were written and heavily promoted during the last Great Depression, because there was a lot of propaganda about the importance of having a “positive attitude,” a “pleasing personality.” The “right attitude” could overcome the massive structural and economic problems the USA was facing. Then, like now, what’s now thought of as “consumer confidence” would pull the country out of its morass once people “believed” that “prosperity was right around the corner.” We now call the anticipation of this prosperity “green shoots.”

While the early “positive thinkers” were reacting to the harsh judgmentalism of Calvinist thought about sin and damnation, modern day “positive thought police” maintain many of these same rigid features. Ehrenreich still sees the preservation of Calvinism’s more “toxic features—the same harsh judgmentalism, echoing the old religion’s condemnation of sin, and an insistence on the constant interior labor of self-examination.

The American alternative to Calvinism was not to be hedonism or even just an emphasis on emotional spontaneity. To achieve positive thinking, emotions must remain suspect, and one’s inner life subject to relentless monitoring. While the Calvinist searched for signs of laxness, sin and self-indulgence…the positive thinker is ever on the lookout for “negative thoughts” charged with anxiety or doubt.” Such efforts are, according to Ehrenreich, “a form of ‘secular salvation.’”

It is no surprise that “think and grow rich” should blend the notion of positive thought with the accumulation of material wealth. Hundreds of self-help books since the start of positive thinking have talked about how the right thoughts can “attract” money. They’ve also framed practical problems such as world-wide unemployment, low wages, or medical bills as “excuses.” If you can free your mind of the “real” obstacle to wealth—such as the harboring subconscious revulsion for “filthy lucre” or deep resentment/jealousy of the rich, you can have it all. It is not social class or larger institutional structures that limit the average person’s success but “negative self-talk” that impede your progress toward wealth accumulation.

Consumer capitalism is, according to Ehrenreich, “congenial to positive thinking.” It promises that we deserve more, and can have it, if we really want it, and if we are only willing to make the effort to get it. While she agrees that the notion of perpetual growth is absurd, a belief in positive thinking makes ‘having it all’ seem, “possible, if not ordained.” p.8. Think –the right way–and growing rich is yours.

Play-Acting Happiness to Happiness as a Predisposition

Happy shoppers, according to Les Slater, spend up to 20% more, and therefore one avenue to making customer’s happy is to have happy salespeople.

During the last Great Depression, workers were expected to ‘fake it ‘til they make it.’ Today, it is no longer enough to simply act happy. Employers now expect their workers to be happy. A reader of Ehrenreich’s work wrote to her about her experience working at a call center for Home Depot:

“I worked there for about a month when my boss pulled me into a small room and told me I “obviously wasn’t happy enough to be there.” Sure, I was sleep deprived from working five other jobs to pay for private health insurance that topped $300 a month and student loans that kicked in at $410 a month, but I can’t recall saying anything to anyone outside the line of “I’m happy to have a job.” Plus, I didn’t realize anyone had to be happy to work in a call center. My friend…refers to [simulating happiness] as the kind of feeling you might get from getting a hand job when your soul is dying.” p. 54.

Happiness: From State to Trait

“You can’t hire someone who can make sandwiches and teach them to be happy,” says Jay, “So we hire happy people and teach them to make sandwiches.”

“GET RID OF NEGATIVE PEOPLE IN YOUR LIFE. Negative People SUCK! Avoid them at all cost. If you have to cut ties with people you’ve known for a long time because they’re actually a negative drain on you, then so be it. Trust me, you’re better off without them…”

The message is clear: go with the flow, or prepare to be ostracized or fired.”

Read this advice from a ‘management expert:’

“We knew what to do about increasing sales and cutting losses, but the morale problem had us stumped. We decided we really didn’t know what “morale” meant, or why the employees seemed down in the dumps. In true Machiavellian fashion, we had made the needed personnel cuts early and all at once. The deadwood was gone. The people remaining were the survivors, in for the long haul. They knew that. They should have been happy they still had jobs. Not everyone was unhappy, though. There was a solid core group of people who were up-beat and supportive. … [so] we decided to watch those positive, upbeat individuals more closely to see if we could get a handle on what made them that way.
After a couple of weeks… the answer hit us: The individuals in our upbeat group were just plain happy people, on or off the job. They had stable, fulfilling family lives, they had interests outside of work, they were confident in their abilities. Ups and downs were a part of their lives too, but in general they liked themselves. It was just that simple. [W]e had a disproportionately large share of basically unhappy people who were dragging the company down. Morale, being a group dynamic, was low because of all those unhappy people…Our solution was to hire happy people…
The [previous research study’s] assumption was that morale is determined by the conditions of the workplace–the “work environment” The reports of such studies routinely and dutifully concluded with suggestions to employers about what they could change in the workplace to increase the general level of job satisfaction. Implicit in such admonitions was, first of all, that job satisfaction actually needed changing, and second, that making the specified changes would indeed have the effect of raising morale. We now have reason to believe that, for any given person, job satisfaction is …accounted for by what is in, as opposed to what is around, the person.”(emphasis added)

In other words, people are not made happy by decent working conditions, fair wages, or good benefits. Happy people are hired. Happy people are happy regardless of how miserable their jobs are, and as early as the teen years, “cheerful” adolescents, as rated by their guidance counselors, have job satisfaction 30 years later, regardless of their type of work.

The message is clear: ‘hire the happy’ and rid your company (and your life) of “negative people.”

But what about that “downer” auto executive who questions the company’s overinvestment in SUV’s and trucks? Or that worry-wart financial officer who says the bank is overexposed in subprime mortgages? Get rid of them! In a world of positive thinking, “if you cannot bring good news than don’t bring any.” Reality checks or negative predictions of any kind become evidence that someone is ‘unwilling’ to be nourishing, full of praise, or affirming and therefore is a downer and must go.

The Business of Being Happy

Clearly if the reader walks away with one unfaltering message from Ehrenreich’s book, it is that positive thinking is big business. After laying off “deadwood,” most large companies are still faced with the task of shaping the thoughts of its remaining workers in a positive direction. In 1994, the same day that AT&T announced it would lay off fifteen thousand workers, it sent its San Francisco staff to a big-tent motivational lecture by Zig Ziglar who told the crowd:

“It’s your own fault, don’t blame the system; don’t blame the boss—work harder and pray more” p. 115.

Businesses were willing to pay big bucks to the “power of positive thinking professionals” who promised to emotionally prepare the remaining workers who were facing increased pay cuts, fewer benefits, longer work hours, heightened work loads, and decreasing job security. Corporations could boost a book to the best-seller list by purchasing tens of thousands of copies to be distributed to their remaining workforce.

This “happiness” industry produces an “endless flow” of books, DVDs, and other products and provides corporate employers with tens of thousands of “life coaches,” “executive coaches,” and motivational speakers” as well as the cadre of psychology profession willing to train them.

Quantum Flapdoodle
Positive thinking had now become so ubiquitous and virtually unchallenged, that it became the stuff of runaway best sellers like the 2006 book The Secret. What’s the secret? It has an unmistakable resemblance to traditional folk magic—that like attract like. Like a fetish or a talisman, the ‘thought’ brings about some desired outcome. But no one in this industry would be happy to be linked with the word “magic.” They prefer to link their efforts to “real” science such as quantum physics. In Bright-sided, Ehrenreich goes on to list a series of assertions about how this “scientific” principle works; theories Nobel physicist Murray Gell-Mann calls “quantum flapdoodle.”

Happiness Academy
Fortunately, for this industry, the lure of lucre has motivated even the crabby halls of mainstream academia, to entered the fray, with courses in “positive psychology” designed to help students “pump up their optimism and nurture their positive feelings”–no doubt as an antidote to their soon-to-be-faced dismal job prospects and inescapable student loan debts.

Ehrenreich is perhaps, particularly hard on my own profession, psychology, because she sees it as having sold out true research in favor of fad and fashion. Arguing that while insurance companies have gutted incomes for clinical psychologists, the corporate role of “positive thought coach” and “trainer” offers a new avenue to financial stability.

She quotes from a 2007 article in the New York Times, describing the course “Happiness 101.” It has “the sect-like feel of positive psychology” and suggests that “the publicity about the field has gotten ahead of the science, which may be no good [science] anyway.” “Poor science” worries its leading advocate, Martin Seligman, also, according to this same article: “I have the same worry they do,” states Seligman. “That’s what I do at 4 in the morning.”

Ehenreich continues her brutal critique:

“At a late afternoon plenary session on “The Future of Positive Psychology,” featuring the patriarchs of the discipline, Martin Seligman and Ed Diener, Seligman got the audience’s attention by starting off with the statement “I’ve decided my theory of positive psychology is completely wrong.” Why? Because it’s about happiness, which is “scientifically unwieldy.” Somehow, this problem could be corrected by throwing in the notions of “success” and “accomplishment”—which I couldn’t help noting would put the positive psychologists on the same terrain as Norman Vincent Peale and any number of success gurus.”

Seligman suggested a new name, –“positive social science” capturing a ‘plural theory’ embracing anthropology, political science, and economics,” but this statement “created understandable consternation within the audience of several hundred positive psychologists, graduate students and coaches.” Changing the name was a mistake, argued Diener, because “positive psychology is a brand.” Besides, he argued, he ‘hates’ the idea of ‘positive social science,’ since social science includes sociology and sociology is “weak” and notoriously underfunded.”

The gathering agreed that despite the fact that the science wasn’t “keeping up with the applied work like coaching,” it was “meeting a need.” “Application,” it was argued, “sometimes gets ahead of science, and science later follows.” Despite the weak research supporting the field, ‘people want happiness’ argued Seligman and Diener (and apparently ‘positive thinking psychologists want income…)

While attempting to differentiate themselves from the motivational industry, Ehrenreich argues that “positive psychologists” are still attempting to corner a market in the corporate world. “The subject [positive psychology] she argues ‘seemed to have veered away from science to naked opportunism…When one audience member proposed renaming positive psychology “applied behavioral economics,” because “it’s popular in business schools and goes with high salaries,” nobody laughed.”

Thinking Your Way to Health
Positive Thinking as the new American theology is also now a ‘medical prescription’ for life-threatening illness. It reframes what is life-threatening, as a “gift,” that clarifies priorities, strengthens family ties and heightens spiritual connection. What a positive way of framing a disease that has a lifetime prevalence of 1 in every 2 men (killing 1 in 4) and 1 in every 3 women (killing 1 in 5).

As a result of treating her own breast cancer, Ehrenreich became intimately familiar with a culture that “had little tolerance for the expression of anger, discussion of environmental causes, or the fact that much of the immediate illness and pain was induced by the treatment.” She quotes Cindy Cherry in an article published in the Washington post who stated:

If I had it to do over, would I want breast cancer? Absolutely. I’m not the same person I was, and I’m glad I’m not…

“Cheerfulness is required, dissent a kind of treason” p. 31. “Never a complaint about lost time, shattered sexual confidence, or the long-term weakening of the arms caused by lymph nodes dissection and radiation. What does not destroy you, to paraphrase Nietzsche, makes you a spunkier, more evolved sort of person.” “If that’s not enough to make you want to go out and get an injection of live cancer cells..[another cancer survivor insists] “

Cancer will lead you to God. Let me say it again. Cancer is your connection to the Divine” p. 28-29.

Positive thinking in cancer support groups were once thought to lead participants to cure, but this previous compelling evidence no longer stands up to scrutiny. In May 2007, in an issue of Psychology Bulletin, James Coyne and two coauthors systematically reviewed all the literature on the supposed effects of psychotherapy on cancer and found it full of “endemic problems.” A few months later, David Spiegel, an early researcher on support groups and cancer survival rates, reported in the journal Cancer that support groups conferred no survival advantages after all. “It might improve ones mood, but they did nothing to overcome cancer.” There are emotional and social benefits “but they should not seek such experiences solely on the expectation that they are extending their lives” p. 37.

Nevertheless the bias favoring a link between emotions and cancer survival persists. When asked why, Coyne believed that it was because cancer-related grants to behavioral scientists were riding on it. Skeptics, like himself, tended to be marginalized. “It’s much easier for me to get speaking gigs in Europe” he told Ehrenreich.

With regards to her own struggles with breast cancer, happening a decade before writing this book, Ehrenreich reflects:

What [cancer] gave me, if you want to call this a “gift,” was a very personal, agonizing encounter with an ideological force in American culture that I had not been aware of before—one that encourages us to deny reality, submit cheerfully to misfortune, and blame ourselves for our fate.”

“He didn’t like pessimism, hand-wringing or doubt.”

Some would argue that political and business leaders set the tone for what attitudes and beliefs are acceptable to hold. Among American Presidents, while it has always been “Morning in America,” this mantra reached a “manic crescendo” of optimism at the turn of the twenty-first century initiated by Bill Clinton, and later George W. Bush who “took his presidency as an opportunity to inspire confidence, dispel doubt and pump up the national spirit of self-congratulation.” For George W., the key adjective was “optimistic,” and this demand for positive thinking shaped his advisers profoundly. According to Condoleezza Rice “the president almost demanded optimism. He didn’t like pessimism, hand-wringing or doubt.”

Bosses Drank the Kool-Aid
This same “Yes we can!” attitude led to delusional optimism and a demand for “bright thinking” on the part of bankers and a large part of the investment industry. After demanding that their work force digest positive thinking, the CEO’s themselves “drank the Kool-Aid,” with disastrous economic consequences. The image of a CEO changed from being a capable administrator to a leader—a motivating, flamboyant leader”—very much like a motivational speaker, in fact. Many business leaders, “developed a monomaniacal conviction that there is one right way of doing things, and believe they possess an almost divine insight into reality…they are charismatic visionaries rather than people in suits.” “Corporations are full of mystics,” a 1996 business self-help book declared. “If you want to find a genuine mystic, you are more likely to find one in a boardroom than in a monastery or cathedral” p. 112.

Both on a political and corporate level, this “reckless optimism” pervaded every aspect of American life, from the invasion of Iraq, to the mortgage and banking industry, as well as the delusional capacity to “dismiss disturbing news” about the levees breaking in New Orleans. While the tragedy of September 11 was blamed on a “failure of imagination,” Ehrenreich argues that there was, instead, plenty of imagination, but the type that imagined “an invulnerable nation and an ever-booming economy—there was simply no ability or inclination to image the worst.”

Avoiding the Misery
What’s the best trick to staying happy according to Happiness Gurus: don’t read or watch the news. Why is the news such a bummer? According to one theorist:

“The great majority of the population of this world does not live life from the space of a positive attitude. In fact, I believe the majority of the population of this world lives from a place of pain, and that people who live from pain only know how to spread more negativity and pain. For me, this explains many of the atrocities of our world and the reason why we are bombarded with negativity all the time.” p. 58-59

Starvation. It’s a bummer, man.

Ehrenreich argues that this fear of taking in bad news stems from a deep believe in one’s own helplessness, which she believes is at the core of this positive thinking: “It causes you sadness and you can’t do anything about it.”

Giving the Universe a Boost of Optimism

If things are truly always getting better, if we live in the best of all possible worlds and if the arc of the universe slants toward happiness and abundance, why are we required to put forth the effort to maintain a positive outlook? Because, apparently, we don’t believe that the universe can truly function on its own without our help. And this egocentric perspective leads us to believe that we are, truly, the center of the universe, G-d’s ‘special creatures’ and that therefore the universe, and the little planet we operate from, will remain a forever giving ‘Mother Earth,’ because of our positive thinking.

When we are confronted with so much contradictory evidence like the polar ice caps won’t stay frozen “because we say so,” or oil depletion continues unabated, our anxiety demands that we pump up our thinking. We run for the help of therapy, workshops, tapes and self-help books, given by the preachers, gurus and seminar leaders more skilled than we at “self-hypnosis,” “mind control,” and “thought control” who can instruct us. How else can we hope to maintain the constant effort required to repress or block out so many “unpleasant possibilities” and “negative” thoughts?

Those who are truly self-confident, or those who have in some way made their peace with the world and their destiny within it, do not need to expend effort censoring or otherwise controlling their thoughts” she argues. “It has become an American obsession because we are a terribly insecure nation.”

Massive Empathy Deficit
And just as “purely positive thinking” can allow us to deny the environmental, economic, and energy calamity happening all around us, it encourages us to reject and distance from the very same people who are most likely to call our attention to the plight that befalls us.

“Negative people have to go, even, presumably, the ones that you live with: “Identify the situation or person who is a downer in your life. Remove yourself from that situation or association. If it’s family, choose to be around them less.”

Keep away from victims and “Debbie Downers!” Their fate will become yours, as if by magic, should you allow yourself to be influenced by them.

Those that cannot help but be impacted to the core by deep fears of rain forests destroyed, species extinctions, or the dramatic impact of a fossil fuel-free future feel the depression and despair. They panic or are filled with immobilizing anxiety. They refuse or are unable to “put on a happy face” and their sensitivity is rewarded by job rejection for not being optimistic.

By logical extension, why should we tolerate the “whiny toddler, the colicky infant, or the sullen teenager?” How could we put up with the depression of our unemployed husbands or the chronic pain vocalized by our dying parent? Rather than promote tolerance of the challenge, present in any family or group, to empathetically read and respond to the moods and messages of others, “accommodate to their insights and offer comfort when needed,” we are told to dump them and seek out the winners. Instead of becoming more closely connected to our bodies and to our emotions, we face the stress and emotional depletion when forced to remain ever cheerful and insensitive to the environment that surrounds us.

This is a horrible message for a difficult time.

But perhaps Ehrenreich gets at the heart of the matter when she says that:

“If the power of the mind were truly “infinite,” one would not have to eliminate negative people from one’s life; one could, for example, simply choose to interpret their behavior in a positive way—maybe he’s criticizing me for my own good, maybe she’s being sullen because she likes me so much and I haven’t been attentive, and so on. The advice you must change your environment—for example, by eliminating negative people and the news—in an admission that there may in fact be a “real world” out there that is utterly unaffected by our wishes. In the face of this terrifying possibility, the only “positive” response is to withdraw into one’s own carefully constructed world of constant approval and affirmation, nice news, and smiling people” p. 59.

And so, as we achieve success at positive thinking, achieved through discipline, we tolerate no possibility for planetary collapse, job loss, energy depletion or business failure that we cannot control. Refuse to let in such negative thinking, or the failure will be your fault. You are the world, and your thoughts require you to take full personal responsibility and to exert the necessary power of will to not allow the possibility of failure. If you should fail, only the “whiners” or the “losers” are disappointed, resentful, or downcast.

“Winners” make cancer a gift and a dead ocean a “unique opportunity.”

She ends her introduction stating her wish for:

more smiles, more laughter, more hugs, more happiness and better yet, joy…but we cannot levitate ourselves into that blessed condition by wishing it. We need to brace ourselves for a struggle against terrifying obstacles, both of our own making and imposed by the natural world. And the first step is to recover from the mass delusion that is positive thinking….Why should one be so inwardly preoccupied at all? Why not reach out to others in love and solidarity or peer into the natural world for some glimmer of understanding?…Why spend so much time working on oneself when there is so much real work to be done?

Thank you, Barbara, for being MY Peak Shrink.

About Kathy McMahon

Kathy McMahon Psy.D. is a clinical psychologist who is internationally known for her writing about the psychological impacts of Peak Oil, climate change, and economic collapse. She's written for Honda Motors, and has been featured in American Prospect, Greenpeace International, the Vancouver Sun, Freakonomics, Itulip, Ecoshock Radio, and Peak Moments Television.


  1. Brilliant, and might I add your most simultaneously satiric and scientific contribution to the peak oil blogosphere. Now that you’ve highlighted it, I admit to finding a similar tyranny within the Transition Town movement. This is the indefatigable optimism that “growth opportunities” presented by energy depletion must inevitably catalyze a more wholesome world moored in community value, despite all regional indications to the contrary and our own seeming incapacity to effect that change beyond the household level.

    Keep it comin’, Kathy.

    Humbly yours,

  2. “If the power of the mind were truly infinite, one would not have to eliminate negative people from one’s life; one could, for example, simply choose to interpret their behavior in a positive way, maybe he’s criticizing me for my own good, maybe she’s being sullen because she likes me so much and I haven’t been attentive, and so on.”

    Or, you could just fuckin’ shoot ’em….like Stalin did 😉
    It’s amazing what kinds of pistols that the infinite power of the mind can devise…

    Great essay again, Kathy.

    Here’s one of mine:

  3. Kathy Handyside says:

    This positive tyranny is the kind of simplistic thinking the right uses to keep ordinary people so miserable. “Not enough money? Well, quit complaining and go get a job!” “No health insurance? Save up some money!” “Dangerous UV rays because of the thinning of the ozone layer? Just put on some sunglasses!”

    Any more “positive thinking” and I’ll go commit suicide!

  4. Thanks for posting about this book. I had never (and so it seems few others) considered the entire ‘happy thinking’ trap.

    I don’t think many of us have the opportunity to choose to ‘drink the kool-aid {kook-aid?!}’. Instead it has been forced on us without our recognition. I can readily see the instances in my own life where this line of thinking has been inserted into situations, instead of a more useful analysis of the reality of the situation and a more appropriate response than just be ‘happy’.

    I am continually brought back to the idea of a middle path that allows for a balance of outlook, on both life and “stuff”. Not too much sadness nor too much happiness. It seems Gautama had a few wise words on this subject… :)

    Best Regards

  5. One key question is, is it more effective to work to influence the world coming from a mental state of misery and depression, or from a state of happiness? Is someone a better activist for the environment or human rights because they are angry or depressed at the state of the world? Why can they not pursue happiness inside their own mind and ALSO be an effective activist working for positive changes in the external world?

    No “happiness gurus” that I am aware of are saying “don’t bother working to improve the environment” or “who cares about the energy crisis?”. They tend to focus on their specific professional area – namely, teaching techniques to improve the typical moods and feelings of their clients.

    What those clients do, and how they take action to improve and contribute to the world, is strictly up to them. I suspect that they will be able to do so MORE effectively when they do it in a happier state of mind!

  6. I’m afraid, Jack, that this type of dichotomous thinking is a problem, from my point of view. There are activists who are sometimes angry and sometimes depressed and sometimes happy. These are “states,” not permanent “traits” in average people. A variety of moods and emotions get people motivated to take action. The key point here is that all sorts of people make up this world, but the ones we interpret as being “unhappy” are seen in some circles as some kind of “contagious disease,” to be neutralized. It is “mandated” “happiness and not happiness itself, which is at issue here. The other point, of course, is that being “unhappy” about the state of the world isn’t the same as being universally an “unhappy person.”

    I also share Ehrenreich’s concern that much of this “new discipline” is based on correlation and not causation. Are wealthy people healthier than poor people? Sure. Are healthy people happier than sick people? Probably the stats would say “yes,” as illness contributes to things like chronic pain and depression. So, can we now conclude that the happiness of wealthy people makes them healthier? Ah, I’d say “hold on there…” The “research” is weak, but the cultural demand for the ‘happy crappy’ is very strong indeed.

    Thanks, Cecil.
    Looking forward to reading it, Antiegrav.
    Kathy, it isn’t just the right that pushes this stuff, we see it on both sides of the isle. It is a ubiquitous form of social control that those in power can use to “punish” descent.
    JD, I agree that people who aren’t happy with the state of the world (or their life situation) are often told to “snap out of it.” Perhaps maturity comes, as you suggest, from a recognition that life brings brilliant highs and painful lows, and mostly in-between. If we are lucky, we can accept all experiences for what they are, instead of insisting that they be “gifts” we’re given. One can learn from anything, and its wonderful if you do. But that’s not the same as being “lucky” you got laid off or got a horrible illness.

  7. czander says:

    Happiness coaches are part of the great conspiracy that began 15 years ago when CEO’s , hedge fund managers and bankers discovered if they outsourced jobs to China and India it would increase the bottom line and they would all get rich. If they could not outsource they discovered another way. They terminated half the workforce and piled the work on those who remained. They followed this by bringing in the happy coaches to put smiles on these overworked underpaid miserable employees. Remember “smile or your fired”. Executives, bankers and hedge fund managers who took over the once proud manufacturing industry in America and destroyed it for profit while destroying the lived of millions of employees don’t need happy coaches. I wonder why?


  8. It would be too easy to grasp at this article as a vindication of the negativity I feel, but it really is more complicated than doomers vs. panglossians.

    One of the reasons people like Kunstler or Derrick Jensen get on my nerves is that their whole shtick is to be negative. That negativity can feed on itself to the point of misanthropy or worse. See the unabomber or Joe Stack for instance.

    And it certainly leaves little room for engagement with the opposition. People dig in their heels and before you know it, we’ve got molotov cocktails thrown at Hummers with GLBLWRMR license plates. There has to be a better way forward than either violence (rhetorical or physical) or wallowing in a pit of depression.

    So it’s not that there aren’t things going on worth being negative or angry about. It’s that negativity needs to be channeled into a positive direction otherwise it consumes you.

    And the things you can’t control you have to somehow go through all the stages of grief towards acceptance. That’s something I still struggle with constantly, but I’m aware of what’s going on enough to exercise some restraint. Other people, like I said, just get drawn along by their emotions until they find themselves flying a plane into a building or being alone in a bunker with a stash of guns and ammo.

    I had some other thoughts on this post on my blog.

    Sorry for plugging it, but I didn’t want to use up too much comment space.

  9. The positive thinking attitude of the last century was a perversion of the older directive: head toward what you want [positive], rather than away from what you don’t want [negative]. The older form works. People are happy and satisfied working toward what they want and are fatigued and demoralized by constantly running from or fighting what they don’t want. It was unfortunate that the surface was substituted for the source. I guess it sold more books.

  10. Thank you, thank you, thank you – for this post, and for this blog.

    I only stumbled across your blog quite recently, but I can honestly say that your earlier post “DSM Trilogy: Framing the Insanity” changed my life, and this latest post resonates very deeply with me.

    I am 35 now, and for as long as I can remember, I’ve been the type of person who is regularly advised to “lighten up” because I take things (such as environmental issues, etc etc) “too seriously”.

    For as long as I can remember, people have criticised me for being a “miserable” and “unhappy person” – and I foolishly *believed* them (to the extent that I spent years of my early adulthood taking anti-depressant medication).

    Your post “Framing the Insanity” led me on a journey of discovery. What finally dawned on me is that *I* am not the problem, and my way of *thinking* is not the problem. The problems that I see in the world around me (environmental devastation and resource depletion being just two) are *real*. And furthermore, profound concern is an entirely appropriate – in fact necessary – response to such real and pressing problems.

    What I have woken up to is the simple fact that it is appropriate to feel sad about certain things (like, for example, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch). Furthermore, I would argue that it is only when you allow yourself to feel the enormity of such a problem, and the appropriate emotions – such as anger, sadness, fear, and so on – that you will take appropriate action.

    I recently wept like a baby while watching a video on Youtube about the probably-extinct Ivory-billed Woodpecker. I felt the terrible enormity of the fact that humans had utterly destroyed this fascinating bird’s habitat.

    I can’t bring back the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, or the forests of giant sycamore trees, but I can *learn* from that past destruction, and I can take whatever action is within my power to prevent its continuation. I can make my own ecological footprint as small as possible. I. CAN. DO. SOMETHING.

    These days, I can allow myself to cry, to feel profound sadness, to experience poignancy – without fearing that I’m “a miserable person”, or clinically depressed … or crazy.

    And by the way, I’ve never felt happier than I do now – living a simple, frugal, and relatively rustic lifestyle, in a tiny strawbale house that my partner and I are very proud to have built with our own hands. My friends and family haven’t “got it” yet, though. One family member recently described my chosen lifestyle as “reduced”. To me, my lifestyle has been enhanced beyond measure.

  11. This was an excellent article, and I have pointed this out on many internet communities though not as detailed as Kathy, but I have said often that due to this “like attract like” attitude, I have noticed many being persecuted openly; with great hostility if you do not go with the flow and dare to be a free-thinker and one who wishes to observe all sides and angles of life. What is more strange is it comes from who I call Love and Lighters. I feel that many have lost their humanity due to this type of thinking. I have watched on very large groups and forums the lack of empathy and love for others who refuse to conform to another form of fundamentalism known as “happy thinking”. I’ve noticed that if a person brings up an event that has taken place in the news or to a neighbor, then others jump in and say to them that they created their reality. Then I or another will point out in defense of a person who spoke, that then you created the global issue of lack of food and clean water for you live on this earth as well. Or then you create the issue with the death, because we all die and you live on this earth. Now don’t get me wrong, I do believe in being able to create reality to a point only. I use music and meditation and do believe in intentional praying and I also do believe in the power of the mind and spirit to heal through energy. But I still say I only believe in this to a point due to there is a smorgesboard of energy out there, some of which are negative and some of which can and will enter into a persons creational space, I call them “usurpers” who dont play fair and are the truly negative ones that need to be addressed, however, we can create, pray, or meditate for positive energy and I do believe it does work again only to a point, but there is a thing called “karma” that many like to throw out with the baby and the bath water and what ticks me off is how so many think that we will wipe out thousands of years of Karma and abuse that we have done to one another and this earth just because we hold positive thinking, or because the 100th monkey is reach, as if to eliminate a Creator who is full of it and they know best, but simply intending and positive attitude does not eliminate it, and so you have those that just go into denial about everything in society and I have seen family “dump” family and those Love & Lighters threaten folks openly on large forums just because some there are asking folks to “face reality”..Instead of denying it. Even though you face reality, you can still stay centered spiritually but in the majority of them on the net, they dont see it this way, nor do they seem to have the capacity to do it because they are frankly lazy in their Spiritual attitude of love. They say so what if the other half of the world is falling apart, so long as you or I are NOT on the side that is.. And to me that is lower then pond algae. Because we not only have a responsibility to view all as it is, but we need to go the full steps to View It, Feel It, Know It and have Empathy from it so problems can be solved. If they are NOT strong enough to do something about our earth and issues, then MOVE OVER and let those of us do so who face all angles of society and life for anyone in denial is not capable to get the job done because now they have turned into pacifist complacent robots who dont think or feel to do it. Despite them having their heart initially in the right place it just plain keeps Earth in its issues with a rather cold hearted attitude. We have to use our entire might and soul to change it and change cannot happen unless it is fully viewed. Another thing that is so idiotic is that there are folks that write beautiful stories such as Gregg Braden who even states himself in the Lost Mode Of Prayer, that a prayer will be answered when you have thought + strong emotion + intention = Prayer Answered…. but then he is very New Age and also states about positive thinking and so sometimes you will get contradictory statements in many writings. I find that the New Age Fundamental Movement is the most harsh of all towards their fellow human beings, and believe me I am into numerology, astrology, herbals, meditation and the whole bit but never call myself New Age, besides its very Old Age if the truth be told, but when you point out that Emotion is part of Gregg’s equation, they blow it off, or blow up at you, or pretend you didn’t say it because I point out that in order to FEEL emotion you have to view your enviornment and all that’s in it, NOT by sticking your head in the sand but by having deep empathy for the situation at hand. That is a True Spiritualist. Its almost contradictory when you listen to many of the Happy Guru’s speak and yet it is a form of magic in itself for too many have somehow lost all reason and heart through this and it has spread like wildfire globally. It’s no wonder the planet is not doing so hot, they blame those that view all sides as being the problem or negative, but I say its the ones that refuse to feel and view that are. Could you imagine if you took all the positive thinkers and taught them how to have emotion and love for another what they could all do to change the planet, but instead they lose their humanity and ignore even their sick neighbors just to avoid negative emotions, but really its through deep empathy that positive things happen and not with “Zombie” trance. Kathy your a wonderful writer and thank you for this awesome post

  12. Tommy Tolson says:

    As an organizer of still-nascent Transition Austin (, I can testify to the tyranny of positive thinking. Peak Oil, climate change, the final collapse of the global economy, and the resource depletion of a plundered planet do not make for lives remotely resembling the taken-for-granted ecological parasitism that stands in for a real lifestyle in the US. We must begin the work of transitioning to symbiotic lifestyles in order to regain basic ecological support – and avoid species extinction.

    Knowing this, and staying psychologically and spiritually operational in order to continue the work, is what Transition’s “Heart and Soul” is about, and Joanna Macy’s work fits into this. The focus of our upcoming Training for Transition will largely be on Heart and Soul because one trainer’s work is in this area.

    We no longer have time to wait for the positivists to transform into fitting the reality staring into our faces.

    We must get on with the work of transitioning into radical energy descent by creating community off the capitalist paradigm, communities with localized, locally controlled economies that restore ecological resilience in the ecosystem that is the life support system, communities that, through the high quality, sustainable lifestyles they create, sequester huge amounts of carbon from the atmosphere.

    This is how we reclaim the future for our species – and for Gaia, aka Earth’s biosphere – if our action is in time to prevent the loss of our planetary life support system.

    Perhaps the biggest hurdle Transition faces is integrating the positivists so, if we survive, we don’t have to deal with their corpses. It will be tough enough without that, as a lot of these folks (like my wife) are the beloved ones in our lives.

    But it’s like recovering from any addiction, in that one first has to admit there’s a problem in order to begin the healing process. Addicts live lives of denial. Dealing with this denial is the hardest part of Transition, for me, a sober alcoholic and drug addict for 23 years. No one in denial admits it, until the miracle happens. I don’t yet know how to force that miracle to occur. So I organize in my Transition Initiative, when I’m up to it, as, most of the time, I’m mourning yet another loss.

  13. Wow, I love this article…I mean what it’s about, and for reasons that have nothing to do with resource depletion. And also for tuning me on to what looks to be a must read book. Thanks!

  14. Richard Laverack says:

    Thank you very much for your wordcraft Kathy, I read this post from EB and then found The Panglossian article, both affirming and real.

    Unlike Ed I think Howard Kunstler is a hoot, a bit monotone but very amusing and more to the point, correct.

    The one thing I feel is missing from this debate is the word confidence, which Kunstler has heaps of. As you mentioned just above Kathy, there is a certain scientifc “reality” which is beyond doubt and should give confidence to all who care to take note, not in their fellow man, but in what they are advocating and personally feel.

    I have convened a community group for 10 years near Melbourne Australia and occasionally have guest speakers, but in the main show films during the winter months. Peak Oil, consumersim, global warming etc.

    I am often asked if I am not “preaching to the converted”.
    My response is that I do not preach, I show films from those better qualified than I who will confirm that which resonates within the audience.

    This is most necessary because the confidence in our convictions is daily shattered by shear weight of numbers of the “be happy” sector. The whole point is not to spread negativity, but to show confirmation and allow confidence building of what is scientifically correct. This hopefully will continue on to acceptence of the reality of the situation.

    Conversions happen one by one, there can be no mass redirection from “be happy” through despair et al to acceptance, it is a very long, detailed and personnal process. Yes something can resonate in many people but circumstance, responsibilities, relationships can all provide convincing distractions from the message. The only thing that is certain is a seed is sown.

    Your articles are extremely well written and understandable, which add to the affirmations so necessary for those swimming against the happy current.

  15. Ed Straker – I don’t see Kunstler and Jensen as negative: they both have a vision of a better tomorrow, a much better tomorrow. True, they see a period of transition during which those in thrall to the paradigm criticized by Ehrenreich will come to see that their world was a fantasy. As for anyone, they will experience the shattering of their dream as unpleasant, so to that extent they might be seen as negative. But I see them as positive. Kunstler is very specific about features of the future world he envisages and these are all improvements on our present plight. But rather than dwelling on these two popular writers, I suggest you read John Gray’s “Black Mass” for a philosopher’s view of the future and his analysis of utopian thinking – even the utopia of James Kunstler. A few years ago Derrick Jensen wrote a piece on “hope”. Kathy refers to hope up in her third paragraph, but only there. I found Jensen’s take to be empowering, but needing tweaking to make it clearer, so I put my edited version of it up on the web.

  16. <>

    @kathy Makes sense. I don’t think people should be labeled as “tainted” because they are occasionally (or even frequently) in a negative state of mind. I do believe however, that when anger or grief are an frequent or chronic state, some amount of meditation, self-treatment, therapy or other techniques for releasing of the emotion are useful.

    The reality is that most people prefer to be around others who appear to be mostly happy, most of the time. It’s not all-or-nothing obviously, but I definitely feel myself withdrawing from people who seem to spend more of their time in negative states. Not because I don’t love or care about them, but because they bring my moods down, and I’d rather spend my limited hours per day with those who raise my mood.


    I agree. The positive feedback cycle is an important point. Wealth -> better food / health care -> fewer health problems -> increased happiness and well being.

  17. Thank you, Samantha. Getting that feedback from you keeps me believing that the time I spend isn’t wasted. Really nice to hear that you’ve been helped in significant ways. I appreciate you for saying so.

    Ya, Richard, confidence. I find it a curious thing that sometimes confidence goes before competence,and sometimes it goes after. My daughter, in the second grade, complained that she thought the boys in her class had a bit too much: “They raise their hands right away, even if they don’t have the answer, and when the teacher calls on them, they don’t even care!”
    I’m come across those with enormous unfounded confidence who appear to get by mostly on this feature alone, and others, sometimes painfully shy, who have tremendous talent that few know about. I guess I’m glad both types are in the world.

    Tommy, perhaps you can email me with more information on your work with Heart and Soul groups in your community. I’d love to hear how you are walking this very delicate line.

    Richard, you are pointing out a very significant issue that most of us miss: The lull of “normal” is so strong, we need to be awakened over and over from our trance. This is why having friends who “get it” and can truly keep each other sharp is so important–as are the movie nights you mention. We do that in our Hilltowns, too, and I agree that it is so important.

    Keith, I’ve written about the limits of hope in other articles. We don’t “hope” the car won’t crash when the driver falls asleep at the wheel, we try to wake them up! I’ve been excluded from entering anthologies of “hope,” because apparently, I wasn’t “hopeful” enough!
    Jack, you write:
    “I definitely feel myself withdrawing from people …in negative states, [n]ot because I don’t love or care about them, but because they bring my moods down, and I’d rather spend my limited hours per day with those who raise my mood.”
    I have two thoughts I’d like to share here: First, differentiation is the ability to stay connected to someone, while not being so vulnerable so as to be susceptible to their emotional state. It’s not the norm, I do agree, because it takes a level of emotional maturity neither prized nor taught in this culture.
    My second point is that I don’t see people ‘instrumentally.’ They aren’t put on this Earth to lift up my mood and keep me happy. When I love someone, I’m concerned about whatever is happening that impacts THEIR mood, not how this mood is going to impact ME. Their purpose in living is not to keep me in an upbeat, elated state. Therapists help people with techniques to deal with problematic states. Friends, however, are (hopefully) willing to hang in with others throughout the life cycle in periods of great sadness, anger and joy. Man, I pity your friends or family who become clinically depressed. Who do they go to when they’ve lost a job, become terminally ill, or are grieving the death of a loved-one? Perhaps, like the DSM, you give someone two months to “appropriately manage” their grief, (preferably in private), armed with the proper techniques. After this, once they exceed their “grief quota,” do you then shun them because their sadness is now “chronic?” Maybe I’m being a bit too harsh, but I’m reminded of this

  18. I read “Bright Sided” 2 months ago; as soon as I became aware of it, I knew I had to read it ASAP. Thanks for this great review and for your words.

    Yeah, I’m another one of those supposedly too serious, too sensitive people. I have been in the black hole of depression before. I also think that people in general are complicated (duh), with varied emotional states, and it isn’t right to label them for the sake of dismissing them.

    I don’t do too well with the relentless promotion of positive thinking. In fact, it pisses me off pretty profoundly. I really like how you wrote, “Starvation. It’s a bummer, man.” That kind of sums it all up right there.

    I mean, yes, I appreciate times of joy, but damn it, some things are worth getting angry or depressed about. In recent times I have been able to reexamine the entire context of my supposed mental illness, and hello, it wasn’t my fault! Lightbulb over my head! Maybe it’s really all about living in a culture of greed, violence, oppression, and disconnection (both directly experienced and witnessed)! Imagine that! It’s been a revelation that’s taken decades to become clear; it isn’t about me being eternally flawed and needing purification (and/or endless amounts of psych meds), so much in that Calvinist mindset. I’m healthier now than I’ve ever been.

    I do struggle with some significant internal tension around activist circles that promote “being positive” as a supposedly necessary component of bringing people on board despite the difficult and emotionally challenging tasks of dealing with stuff like energy descent, the fact that the planet is being killed, etc. To me, I understand that they’re taking some kind of marketing stance, I guess, but I get really angry when I sense that valuable emotions and valuable *people* are being marginalized. I don’t want to ever pretend that I’m feeling chipper when I’m not. I don’t want to tell people that they are only welcome in an activist circle if they are ready to party. So part of all this is also deciding to what extent I’m willing to work with certain activist circles and how much do I think they’re doing something useful, versus promoting damaging views.

    For a long time I was thinking about blogging about my thoughts on what I usually call relentless positivity (as opposed to garden-variety optimism), especially in the context of collapse work, (because it kind of blows my mind that “negative” emotions could be anything but appropriate given the circumstances), but decided against it. I guess I was too fearful that I would be branded for the umpteenth time.

  19. @kathy – please excuse the inadvertent markup… I was attempting to quote.

    Your comments are fair. I am probably more susceptible than average to sensing and then mirroring the emotional state of someone with whom I’m interacting, especially if I’m emotionally close to them. It’s not that I view myself as “entitled” to a positive experience from others – instead, it’s more of a self-protection instinct taking hold. Not a permanent withdrawal, but just a necessary charging of the batteries.

    I do “enjoy” (not exactly the right word, but I think the meaning should be clear) listening and helping friends and family with their challenges, but experience has taught me that I’m not of any use in helping them if my own state is dragged down through exposure to ongoing negativity.

  20. Ciao Kathy,

    Great post. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had someone stop me in mid-explanation of Hubbert’s Peak with a dismissive, “Geesh, that’s so depressing!” Couldn’t agree more Cecil as far as the Transition Town movement. This whole “accept out fate, it’s our fault anyway” is perfect, though, for crowd-control.

    Thanks for a great blog,

  21. Brings to mind a couple of things. In “Learned Optimism” by Martin Seligman the results of experiments they performed indicate that if you want realism go to a pessimist – but you may need the optimists to get you through the hard times.
    The Stockdale Paradox also teaches us that realism and pessimism coupled with a vision can make for effective results.
    As you point out – any sign of negativity (read realism) is perceived as no optimism and a bleak or no future.
    What Seligman and Stockdale teach us is that there is no simple formula – you need a blend of both – such is the weft and weave of a rich tapestry.

  22. Harbinger says:

    For those of us who couldn’t afford the “git Happy” seminars, books, or time to watch it on the Stupid Box we have been in the dark and consequently have been marginalized through our community social workers who bought it hook line and sinker and plastered us with medications or wrote us off as hopeless, I am “happy” to say that thank Medea some of us have not succumbed to the rhetoric.
    Most of us have stopped believing anything by anyone coming down the pike to further blame us for the lot we are in. I mean how much more are we supposed to gag on? Once you come to trust no one the only thing that is left to trust is yourself. As long as you haven’t cut yourself too badly or overdosed on too many street drugs in your lifetime you still have an ounce of brain cells left to keep you functioning cognitively enough to know anything that is new and trendy usually means shit especially when it is used against you. I mean, when we were born we were given everything we needed, including our emotions. “Sorry bud” that I acted like a human being and cried from the abuse. ” Aw Paw when you touch me there I feel like killing myself” These are all important safety mechanisms. And even if those same mechanisms make us anti social for awhile,.they are still very valuable. Sad thing is in this day and age no one can handle any emotional confrontation, any emotional display and especially any negative emotions. And especially among the privileged nothing that reeks of reality hard and cold as it may be. We have become a land of mannequins.
    Yet amongst the down and outs the most important way people display their dissatisfaction is through physical means be it fists, violence, raw emotions. Unless they have been pigeonholed into one of the DSMIV categories before 2nd grade and zombified into oblivion. Our children are sitting ducks if they act up. Even mediation agencies have rules about how much “emotion” you can display.
    I once sat through a housemate meeting where you could barely talk above a whisper, use “I” statements, not bring up anything controversial, not show anger or negative emotion and not interrupt even if the pervasive lie continued to pop up. All for the mere reason of defending someone who was being verbally attacked. intimidated, preyed on and threatened to the point of experiencing serious PTSD and dissociation. The harm this procedure wrought on the victim was intense and sad. Most of it ignorantly being imposed on the parties to “prevent negative energy from entering the household” like “The Secret” suggested. Unfortunately a young child is being raised there now and I do worry what will become of him.
    Sadly as everyone else had addressed this issue, we are not allowed to be human any longer. Being uniquely true to our species is an aberration. If people are buying that then they are too moronic to help themselves but damn them for promoting it’s use on us who still know who we are.
    Sometimes being out of the loop or away from the clutches of the latest thing has saved some of us from the meat chopper. But it has not prevented people from stigmatizing us in the process. It’s a sad human story that will not be over until it’s over.

  23. I’ve been thinking about your post for days. Thank you for the excellent food for thought.

    Your words brought about several strong – and conflicting – reactions for me. The saccharine, happy-happy, don’t-be-blue! culture does drive me nuts. It’s maddening when people don’t want to hear any difficult truths and instead effectively clap their hands over their ears and say “Lalalala…I’m happy, all is well, Mr. Negative can’t bring me down!”

    On the other hand, I know people who are just as adamantly morose. Nothing is, or ever could be good; the world is against them and nothing they do can change that; life sucks and then you die. They are so adept at seeing the worst in every situation, they literally don’t notice when something good happens…which reinforces their perception that It’s All Bad.

    I wish there were different words to describe the sort of “manic happyface” mindset, and what I think of as real happiness. Real happiness changes in intensity and duration. It doesn’t happen all the time. But it is pleasant and, I would argue, useful as a motivator (as mentioned by Ed #8 above).

    Or perhaps it’s the difference between acting happy and being happy? You can’t just tell someone “Be happy!” and have it work, but I do believe we can learn to act in ways that bring satisfaction and contentment.

  24. Ha!
    I am rather negative person (one would say meeting me in person) – I am always thinking about worst events (“hmm… If I leave computer on, it may start fire”). I wonder if it has anything to do with my chess skills (trying to predict opponent’s best move):D

  25. Hi Kathy, i’m sorry, but this article is horrible:

    First you gathered up the most delusional sounding quotes by delusional people.

    Delusion is not positive ever.

    Second: Positivity doesn’t mean a devoid of empathy, conversely negativity doesn’t give you an understanding of empathy, AND even the middle won’t fulfill your empathy.

    Empathy is attained by genuinely taking your self out of the equation, meaning, eliminating your perception of reality and then substituting it with the experience/feelings of another person. It has nothing to do with you.

    Third, if your family or the people around you are constantly making you feel like a victim, discouraging you, harming you, oppressing you or making you feel stifled, you bet your ass the most positive thing, which is the best thing, is to get the hell away from them.

    If you’re suffering in Darfur because of genocide, war, crime, etc, you get the hell out of Darfur and come back AND ONLY COMEBACK when you can do something about it. No positive thinking or the opposite or even the gift of empathy is going to help you against AK-47s or dry land. Positive thinking can help you leave Darfur, think up a plan, and go back to make a difference.

    The real world is not made up of suffering unless your perception of the world is suffering. And if your perception of the world is suffering then you should be doing something about it instead of complaining about the people who think the world is made up of joy and happiness.

  26. Hey FD, I guess you said it all!
    “The real world is not made up of suffering unless your perception of the world is suffering. And if your perception of the world is suffering then you should be doing something about it instead of complaining about the people who think the world is made up of joy and happiness.”
    …and this little chestnut; “Positive thinking can help you leave Darfur”

    Thanks FD for contributing to the Peak Shrink’s collection of “delusional quotes”!

  27. Jack/#5: No, I don’t happen to believe someone is as good an activist when they are happy. I don’t believe that, because I have observed that happiness is essentially a state of emotional homeostasis. In other words, it’s a state of mental balance. What is balance? You’ve basically come to rest, everything is in its place and you have no reason to move unless you feel like it.

    Activism requires a sense of urgency. What happy person feels urgency? Activism requires initiative. What is there to have initiative about if you already have what you want?

    Now if you want to argue that LOVE is necessary for good activism, I’m right there with you. The thing is, you don’t have to be cheerful to love someone. In fact, if someone you love is being harmed, I should hope you’d get pissed right the f off and go do something about it! I’d question your love and loyalty for that person, otherwise.

    But happiness? Nah. People often do their best work when they’re mad. They may not yell and cuss, but there’s definitely that sense of quiet outrage and determination even among the ones not yelling.

    Kathy: Count me among those who’ve been abandoned by peers and friends for not being Pollyanna enough. Hm, let’s see. In the past decade I’ve had to turn a husband in for felony crimes, had to abandon a house to foreclosure (this was in ’99, well before the current crisis–but my own personal crisis was pretty bad), turned to family for help only to find them too caught up in their own problems to be able to deliver, found out that my *next* partner had mental issues that were completely incompatible with an adult relationship, lost my son to my in-laws who eventually adopted him, and have spent 99.9 percent of that time in poverty. I’d say 100 percent, but I’m trying to be slightly optimistic.

    Then on top of that the world’s going to hell in a handbasket and I’m kinda concerned, you know? I talk about this stuff around my friends to try to raise awareness and wow, I’m such a bad person for doing that… what a *drag*, you know? And I better bear my burdens with *silent* fortitude or everyone will turn their backs on me. And they did. Just about every single one of them.

    I’m sick of it, and the whole experience has scarred me and left me quite unwilling to attempt friendships again. Most people I’ve met are so fake and superficial, more concerned about appearances (“attitudes”) than reality. No thank you.

  28. lilgerman says:

    Good article and replies.

    I am blessed as a naturally happy person.

    God made this beautiful world for us and doubtless, He wants us to be happy in it. Ironically, He, too, made some folks to be melancholy. There is a reason for that which I don’t understand for certain, except perhaps to balance those smiley, optimistic types like me, for as we know, “it takes all kinds!” It seems logical and sensible, so let’s welcome the happy and the melancholy both as gifts from our Creator.

    Know and be happy in yourself as a child of God and Nature; that is the only answer!

  29. Treecraft says:

    Gee Doc – when I snooze it seems, sometimes, I lose.

    Dipping into POB on occasion has been good… dipping out for any length of time has often been not-so-good. I’ve come late to this great follow-up to “…Panglossian Disorder?” !%@#&@!# Darn!

    Here, now, though. I hope you’ll pull some of these thoughts into your Northwest Speaking Tour. I’ve been wondering (still) about the likely content of your tour presentations, and will be looking to hear from you about just what sorts of ideas you expect to hammer (cheerfully) on.

    Being of the realistic slant, I’ve never found much reason to expect that any life on this planet that might fall within reach of modern human ingenuity was – at least statistically – doomed to decimation and/or eventual extermination. Thus, as you might expect, I always had an unobstructed path to the punch and hors d’ouvre (whatever) table. I must admit that positive people can have their attractive moments, but they can be awfully boring after ten minutes.

    Was it Alice Roosevelt who said, “If you don’t have anything good to say… come sit by me!” ?

    I’m quite sure it WAS J. Krishnamurti, who vowed, “It is no sign of mental health to be well adjusted in a profoundly sick society.”

    Thanks for jacking me up by kicking some “happy butt” now and again.

    Cheers…. D B T L

  30. treecraft says:

    Oh Damn!

    Didn’t proffread my screed wery vell.

    Should have read: “…. modern human ingenuity was – at least statistically – doomed to NOTHING BUT decimation and/or eventual extermination.”

    Then, too, this could be fixed by simply switching the word “expect” to “DOUBT”.

    Do you you edit our fup-ucks? We’ll see.


  31. Being positive includes being authentic and certainly embraces all states of mind, heart, and world. In Buddhism they embrace and stay with their emotions, knowing what comes will also go. By looking at all us, the entire being, we are authentic and responsible or our emotions… it is clear that we can suffer seeing the state of the world and grief and sadness is certainly indicated. So why not see our authentic nature, our humanness as a positive… Yes, we are not here to be each others cheerleaders but we can listen to each other and be present no matter what we go through in regards to global changes beyond our control.

    Yes, perhaps real positivity (and I make that up) embraces even that which cannot be easily embraced, and even that we are disgusted about. Looking away.

    Sometimes I think that we “owe” it to the world to look at it… the suffering, the climate change, the war, the hunger, the species dying. By looking at the World from many perspectives, and being fully present, is the least we can do. Perhaps when we have seen enough we can start to really serve each other from the heart and from an authentic and caring mode and not from co-dependency… but even that is better than nothing at this stage… we all can only do what we can do…

    Being with another being in distress and truly being present is a deep experience. One increases perhaps the ability to love.

    Really reading Barbara Ehrenreich’s book made me realize while I had a hard time in the US as a foreigner… I could not be a cheerleader and fake smiles were hard to come by. Working with sincerity and perhaps no smile still produces very good work…

    I think we need to learn to be authentic and embrace all of our emotions without necessarily acting on them, especially when we go though rage or anger when the peak oil scenarios set in.

    I think it is highly positive to look at your so-called “negativity” :-) … as this takes actual courage, which is an ingredient we need in order to survive. So why not have the courage to look at ourselves, the world, and peak oil and then be constructive about it. That to me would be really positive.

  32. This is an interesting perspective and even history of positivity. As a Dallas Therapist, I try to work with clients to deal with the basis of their negative emotions, and think more positively. However, this gives me a cultural perspective that I had not previously thought of. Therefore, although I am still taking this in, it does give me some things that need to be considered when I’m teaching positivity.


  1. […] 9, 2010 Peak Shrink has an interesting post on The Tyranny of Positive Thinking, a review of Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive […]

  2. […] I was even happier when I discovered Peak Oil Blues has a couple of excellent posts on the topic: The Tyranny of Positive Thinking “Do You Have a Panglossian […]

  3. When positive thinking can hurt you « Unconventional Ideas says:

    […] April 27, 2010 unconventionalideas Leave a comment Go to comments I recommend everything about The Tyranny of Positive Thinking by Psychologist Kathy McMahon: the content, the links, and the comments. Categories: […]

  4. […] promote a “positive attitude” as the “key to success” for their remaining work staff.  I wrote about this phenomenon in 2010: In 1994, the same day that AT&T announced it would lay off fifteen thousand workers, […]

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