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The Perils of Positive Thinking


July 22, 2011 by wcobserver

“Illusion is the first of all pleasures.”

The big-city dailies have been running full-page ads for an event called the “Get Motivated! Business Seminar.” The ad’s pitch relies heavily on America’s romance with celebrity worship, bargain hunting and Biblical authority. Even after perusing the ad, including the small print, we couldn’t tell if the admission price was “as low as $1.95” or “Admission at the door: $225.”

Regardless of the price the Observer won’t be attending.

The event is a product of the multi-billion dollar, positive-thinking industry which spews an endless assortment of videos, books, tapes, seminars, retreats and speakers all quenching a thirst for adult make- believe. The common thread of these products is the promise that we can all have whatever we want if we just want it bad enough. Resounding success in all aspects of our life – our careers, love life, health, fame, material wealth, having a fulfilling spiritual life and perpetual happiness are all available in a quick and failure-proof method to paying customers.

The perpetuation of the myth of positive thinking constitutes the biggest financial scam of our times, according to a number of researchers and writers. One of those is journalist/author Steve Salerno’s “Sham: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless.” The book points out how the tenets of the positive-thinking industry have infected various aspects of our lives. He exposes the “downside of being uplifted” and makes a convincing argument why self-help rhetoric is not only a colossal waste of time but produces a constellation of negative social ramifications including the now widely discredited “self-esteem” movement in public schools.

Barbara Ehrenreich is a widely-read, award-winning columnist, essayist and author of 21 books, once called “a veteran muckraker” by The New Yorker. She describes herself as “myth-buster by trade.” In 2009, she pointed her skeptical common sense toward the topic in “Bright Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America.” In it she traces the origins of the “sunny outlook” from marginal 19th-century healing techniques to its dominance as America’s favorite attitude.

The book covers the range of influence of positive thinking in our lives but her emphasis is on the business community where the consideration of negative outcomes such as massive amounts of mortgage defaults seemed forbidden. The reality that an unqualified borrower might default on the mortgage fell to the wishful thinking that if the buyer wants it bad enough, surely he’ll make the payments. Positive thinking invaded business thinking to the extent that some who favored caution and realism were eliminated from the discussion for being too “negative.” It is positive thinking that got us into the worst economic hole in 50 years, according to Ehrenreich.

We see the perils of positive thinking everywhere. It appears in government’s decisions to enter wars in the far reaches of the empire without giving consideration to the real possibility that even if the enemy uses bamboo spears or homemade bombs you can get your butt kicked. That sort of talk is dismissed as unpatriotic and unproductive.

So what’s wrong with realistic thinking? Well, no one has figured out how to make money pushing the idea of reality and rational thinking. Then there’s the pseudo-reality of television muddying the water. The words reality and television should never be used in the same sentence.

Many people seem to have at least a propensity for rationality but the big money is in promoting fears and wishes. Television.
Sex sells. Upbeat sells. Fear sells … realism? … mmm … not so much.

So what nugget of wisdom can the reader take from this editorial? The next time you’re at a meeting and some perky Pollyanna airhead presents a really stupid idea that will surely lead to disaster – keep your mouth shut. At all costs avoid being labeled a curmudgeon, naysayer, grump, pessimist, complainer, crepe-hanger, cynic, defeatist, downer, gloomy, killjoy, misanthrope, party-pooper, prophet of doom, sourpuss, wet blanket, worrier, worrywart or worse yet, a realist.

But, remember, the glass doesn’t have to be half full or half empty. The 8 oz. glass may simply contain 4 ounces. It is what it is. Try memorizing some catchy quotes to get you through the ostracizing that will inevitability befall any realist.

“Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”
Philip K. Dick


“Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.”
Albert Einstein


“How many legs does a dog have if you call the tail a leg? Four. Calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it a leg.”
Abraham Lincoln


“To treat your facts with imagination is one thing, but to imagine your facts is another.”
John Burroughs


“Every time I close the door on reality it comes in through the windows.”
Jennifer Yane


“Listening to both sides of a story will convince you that there is more to a story than both sides.”
Frank Tyger



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