How Positive Thinking Wrecked the Economy

Linked with Barbara Ehrenreich – USA.

Published on Barbara’s Blog, by Barbara Ehrenreich, Sept. 24, 2008.

… 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.  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. Those who still failed to get with the program could be subjected to personal “coaching” or of course, shown to the door …


… 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 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 its 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. (full text).

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