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August 1, 2012 / compassioninpolitics

Defending The Power of Positive Thinking versus Positive Psychology–against the criticisms of Barbara Ehrenreich

Part I: Defending Positive Thinking
For a moderate defense of traditional positive thinking, I suggest my answer on this thread: Does Napoleon Hill-style “Positive Thinking” actually work? I think the example of entrepreneurs and innovators using it may be an empirical example she overlooks or minimizes.

Second, I think the “magnetism” claims are more metaphorical (although changing for the good on the inside generally makes you more attractive on the outside–although there isn’t an exact one to one relationship). If you look at those who believe in charismatic and enthusiastic leadership as effective prove the “magnetism” claims to be true. Also, those claims aren’t intrinsic to positive psychology (ie Seligman et al)

Part II: Defending Positive Psychology
What is typically called positive thinking vs. positive psychology is hugely different (although they obviously overlap in terms of positive thinking and goal setting). This distinction needs to be made for clarity and I believe that given the Barbara Ehrenreich video that Seb Paquet points to (rightly, I’ll admit) might leave you with the wrong message about positivity.

I will defend the later in the rest of the post–it was “begun” or “discovered” by Martin Seligman who is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania (I believe in the early 1990’s). Positive Psychology is more defensible, because they have science and research to back it up (see the link near the end)

By the way, I know the positive psychology folks do answer some of her criticisms. They speak to a balance “realistic optimism.” She takes a characterization based on the Think and Grow Rich-esque thinking more than Seligman’s version.

Future thinking in a positive way–which helps with risk taking and self-control is key to achieving important human ends that Ms. Ehrenreich may overlook. At a minimum, its hard to defend negative thinking or learned pessimism as a good thing or a way to effectively deal with reality. Moreover, people with PTSD and even other similar challenges need a way to deal with the world rather than isolation and alienation. It also has to do with a dynamic versus static view of self and the world.

Third, I think you can use Darwin and evolution to defend positive psychology for daily life, for social grouping, innovation, and entrepreneurship.

Positive psychology is partially about re-defining happiness and our idea of success and includes a number of other key practices (mindfulness/meditation, gratitude journaling, giving, and I believe virtue and a number of other issues). As Seligman and other defend its much more complex than anything Barbara Ehrenreich seems to be talking about (and coercive-ish versions of it don’t deny the impact of some of its better manifestations)

One Comment

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  1. Ginnie / Nov 2 2012 4:47 pm

    I realise I’m a bit late in reading this but I do feel that there is more merit in Barbara Ehrenreich’s criticisms than given at first glance. Much of the main thrust of her argument was in relation to health issues be they cancer or other forms of health. Positive psychology, or positive thinking has become a required social protocol and deviation from the positive thinking script is often met with social correction.

    This negatively impact those with failing health, people in a physical health crisis, people with disabilities, mental illness are being targeted for correction of ‘attitude’. What is felt to be happening in these circles is a form of silencing. The facts of your life right now are negative, let’s change your attitude which mist necessarily be negative. This kind of ‘help’ is dismissive and callous. It does not honour where people are, it imposes a fake attitude adjustment whether it’s needed or not.

    Compassion involves listening, it does not impose or correct. I had an experience this past summer that illustrated my feelings about this. I was visiting a friend on the psych ward who was experiencing a full blown psychotic episode, as I was taking my friend for a walk, we met a gentleman who asked my friend how she’s doing. My friend answered that she’s been better, he then proceeded to correct her by saying “but the day sill get better”. It’s not that I hadn’t seen and even experienced this form of social callousness before but this particular incident highlighted to me the reflexiveness of response to suffering.

    People assume that persons with disabilities, the mentally ill, and those suffering from physical illness are be default ‘negative’. Think positive is shoved down their throats on a consistent basis. It becomes clear that the message is “your problems are a poor attitude” and this is perceived correctly as a lack of compassion, and an act of selfishness on the part of the person making the assumption. Too often the facts of people’s lives are dismissed as negative and positive thinking becomes something of a talisman that wards off and serves to exclude those who are truly suffering.

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