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The Tyranny of the Positive Thinkers

Posted Oct 12 2009 10:00pm 1 Comment

[Imagine a red slash through the smiley face]

From Saturday's New York Times, by Patricia Cohen:

.....In “Bright-sided,” [Barbara Ehrenreich] traces the roots of the nation’s blithe sunniness to a reaction against Calvinist gloom and the limits of medical science in the first half of the 19th century. Starting with Phineas Parkhurst Quimby, perhaps one of the first American New Age faith healers, she draws a line to Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science; the psychologist William James; Ralph Waldo Emerson; Norman Vincent Peale, who published “The Power of Positive Thinking” in 1952; and the toothy television minister Joel Osteen, who preaches the gospel of prosperity.

To Ms. Ehrenreich, the reliance on one’s personal disposition shifts attention from the larger social, political and economic forces behind poverty, unemployment and poor health care. “It can’t all be fixed by assertiveness training,” she said wryly.

Ms. Ehrenreich found that the more she listened, the surlier she became. All that shiny optimism, she said, was “like sitting in a warm bubble bath for too long.” Luckily she found other churlish comrades, scholars and doctors who were similarly skeptical of undimmed positivity.

“We began to call ourselves the Negatives,” said Micki McGee, a sociologist at Fordham University and the author of “Self-Help, Inc.: Makeover Culture in American Life.” The group would meet on occasion and discuss their research and the news of the day. The thread of positive thinking that runs through self-help culture says, “If you dream it and believe it, it becomes reality,” Professor McGee explained. “That kind of thinking contributes to the economic bubble that we just saw explode in enormous ways. Barbara’s take on it is very important.”

Richard Sloan, a professor of behavioral psychology at Columbia, is a more recent member of the Negatives. He has written at length about the absence of scientific evidence showing links between prayer and healing in his book “Blind Faith: The Unholy Alliance Between Religion and Medicine.”

“There is some relatively recent evidence of the benefits of positive affect, but not the simplistic approach that is advocated by coaches that all you need to do is be happy,” he said. “There is no evidence that trying to put on a happy face makes a difference.” Rather, those who are characteristically more optimistic may have an advantage over those who aren’t, but, he said, “you just can’t change who you are very easily.”
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