We are a nation of positive thinkers -- at least, we like to think we are. We create mantras to remind us that we should be. We try to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative. We aim for the sunny-side of the street. And we like our glasses half-full, not half-empty. So, how's it working out, America? Things any better? Are we happier campers because we embrace positivity? Well, no, not at all says social critic and essayist Barbara Erhenreich in her new book, "Bright-Sided". She calls our endless pursuit of positivity "mass delusion" which is probably why the book is sub-titled "How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America".
Ehrenreich wonders why, if we are so positive and happy, are so many of us on anti-depressants, the most commonly prescribed drug in the U.S. and represents two-thirds of the global market for the drug? As a breast cancer patient, she was bombarded with imperatives to think positively if she wanted to conquer metastasizing cells. To bolster her case, the doubting Ms. Ehrenreich points to a 2004 survey that found no survival benefits for optimism among lung cancer patients. Another study in the journal Psychological Science supports her premise by implying that trying to think positively may actually indicate how unhappy you are.
The real negative to all this positive thinking, Ehrenreich writes, is you blame yourself when cancer returns, you don't get that promotion, or a better love life, all because you weren't thinking positively. You are the cause for failure. Shame on you.
Ehrenreich spends 99.9 percent of the book cataloging the many ways we promote positivity through songs, best-selling books, 'happiness' psychologists, preachers and motivational gurus. The result of this full inventory is that the reader or audiobook listener is barraged with a battleship of words to fill a rowboat of thought. The simple thought being: positive thinking isn't working and the solution to this cult of cheerfulness is -- drumroll -- vigorous realism. Accept a situation as it is and be prepared to deal with it accordingly. Retain hope, yes, but make choices grounded in fact. Or, as Ronald Reagan put it in just three words, "Trust but verify."
Sound right? Any problems? Well, nooo, but simply replacing positive with reality-based thinking seems, well, a bit too much stick and not enough carrot. We're go-getters. We need a goal; something we can embrace. There are thoughtful folks among us like Joshua Foa Dienstag, UCLA professor of political science, who says we should embrace, or at least, form an acquaintance with the alternative to positive thinking -- PESSIMISM! "Pessimism is a force for good," Dienstag recently told Huffington Post. "Optimists wait for happiness and are often grumpy because things haven't worked out as expected. The pessimist is a person able to live in the present and be happy now."
Dienstag asks us to see pessimism as a philosophy, not as a disposition, meaning it's not about your cranky attitude; it's about your belief system. "It's the appropriate philosophy for living in a highly dis-ordered world."
A mid-forties professor and happy father of two, Dienstag tries to teach his kids the difference between hopes, dreams and expectations. Hopes and dreams are something everyone can and should have, he believes. The future is open, it is not pre-determined by rosy or negative expectations. So forget about expecting things to be bad OR good. Expect nothing. Deleting all expectations enables you to enjoy things that are here, now, and working well. "Pessimism is a much better recipe for happiness," he believes.
If your inner Existentialist is vibrating, it's probably because Dienstag believes time is a burden.
In his 2006 book, "Pessimism: Philosophy, Ethic, Spirit," in articles and in conversation, he points out us that change and death is merely the ultimate reminder that we do not control the conditions of our existence and are not ever likely to.
Here's the bottom line to all this philosophizing: we live in the new and extraordinary digital age that is written in binary code -- zeros and ones, either-or. The pit-fall is seeing the world in either-or, binary choices: good or evil, nature or nurture, red states or blue states, positivism or pessimism. As we approach a new decade, Dienstag and Erhenreich ask us toast the New Year in a glass neither half-full, or nor half-empty -- it's just there to drink and enjoy. Bottoms up!