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October 16, 2009

The power of positive thinking will kill you

And an excess of self-esteem will not make you happy claims sociologist Barbara Ehrenreich in Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America.

There's an ad for Volkswagen being shown in cinemas at the moment. A good-looking man is driving an elegant car; in the background the soundtrack plays a song saying: 'With positive thinking, life won't let you down.'

Harmless enough, you may think, but what makes the advertisement suddenly sickening is when the car passes a load of sheep on their way to the abattoir - they are all nodding their heads cheerfully in time to the music.

Yes, I know it's a joke, but there is still the implication that if you look on the bright side you, too, will be able to have a glamorous VW like the man in the ad, and, even if you're on your way to be slaughtered, a positive mind-set will make that jolly, too.

It won't. Indeed, this pre-occupation with thinking positively, with self-esteem and with the conviction that our thoughts somehow shape our futures is actually a dangerous obsession that leads not to happiness and fulfilment but rather disappointment and failure.

Much as I suspected.

Posted by Ghost of a flea at October 16, 2009 07:27 AM


This is the same Barbara Ehrenreich who encouraged young people to think of sex as purely recreational,at the height of the AIDS crisis in the early nineties- as if people who wanted children were the problem. The fact that this life-long socialist has a problem with positive thinking (AKA optimism), leaves me somehow unpersuaded.

Posted by: wyrdbrother [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 17, 2009 01:50 PM

I had not made the connection and, you are quite right, it is not reassuring. That said, I would not put "positive thinking" and optimism in the same box.

Posted by: Ghost of a flea [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 17, 2009 07:11 PM

I think that the mania for "self-esteem" as promoted by our door-mat educational community has perhaps compromised the meaning and value of genuine optimism. That someone as PC as Ehrenreich opposes synthetic pride may be a bit confusing; I wonder how she squares it with her other beliefs, and how she justifies it to her fellow travellers.

Posted by: wyrdbrother [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 17, 2009 07:35 PM