Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Positive thinking is positively bad for you

It has always seemed obvious to me that approaching life with Christian humility rather than thinking you are Superman will get better results in most ways. You are much less likely to be seen as obnoxious, for a start. The sources the writer below quotes in support of her conclusion are not all as sound as one would like but the case against promoting high self esteem has long ago been made in the academic literature. See e.g. here --JR

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. A new book has just come out in America called Bright-Sided: How The Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America.

In it, the author Barbara Ehrenreich, a sociologist, actually goes so far as to consider whether positive thinking, in its most extreme forms, might have been partly responsible for the financial crash in the U.S. She suspects this because positive thinking and undue optimism has taken such a hold of America that anyone who dares to say: 'Hold on a moment! Is what we're doing really right?' is deemed a 'toxic' nay-sayer. And shunned.

There is a theory behind positive thinking called the law of attraction, that if you think bright, positive and optimistic thoughts, then bright, positive and optimistic things will be drawn to you. Similarly, if you're always looking out for faults, bad things will befall you. The obsession with this theory has, in the States, often resulted in negative-thinking people being sacked and instead of whistleblowers being seen as wise and sensible saviours who spot dangers ahead, they're usually vilified.

Barbara Ehrenreich started suspecting the power of positive thinking when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She would look at cancer websites and become enraged by the relentlessly Polyanna-ish attitude to it all. People were writing: 'Cancer gives my life meaning,' 'Breast cancer is a gift,' 'Cancer is your connection to the divine.'

Indeed, a while ago, I was so furious about the idea that good comes out of every disaster, that I wrote a book after my father died called You'll Get Over It - The Rage of Bereavement. It describes how when I'd read other books to help me come to terms with my father's death, I hurled most of them across the room when I got to the final chapters, which so often talked of death as being a gift, a blow that strengthens us and gives us wisdom and maturity. Utter tosh.

Positive thinking doesn't just force us to somehow celebrate when we get ill, but it also informs the mad idea that happy people don't fall sick. And yet that's so clearly not true.

One of the happiest people I've known died of breast cancer - Ruth Picardie, a girl who lit up her world with joy and optimism (her sister wrote a book recording her slow and painful death), while we all know old people who are longing to die but, despite persistent falls, pneumonia and so on, often appear to have no hope of respite from life in the immediate future.

Then there's this insidious view that positive thinking can actually 'beat' illness and disease. I despair when I hear my friends, having been diagnosed with cancer, saying that they'll fight it, when the truth is that fighting has nothing to do with it. When it comes to fatal disease, we are powerless. No matter how much time is spent visualising the cancer cells as little demons being slaughtered by our uplifting thoughts, it makes not a blind bit of difference, whatever bestselling spiritual gurus like Deepak Chopra claim.

Apparently, one woman with cancer wrote to him because after doing all the visualisation exercises, she still suffered. He replied: 'Cancer is simply very pernicious and requires the utmost diligence and persistence to eventually overcome it.'

According to Barbara Ehrenreich: 'There is hope . . . which is longing. There is optimism, which is a natural feeling that things are going to go well, and there is positive thinking, which is a discipline, a way of forcing ourselves to think positively - if you expect things to get better, they will.' And it is this forcing yourself to look on the bright side which is the most pernicious.

In the UK an estimated one-third of top bosses used personal coaches in 2007. And companies these days are constantly trying to change the mood of their offices. They push people into 'bonding weekends' whether they naturally bond or not. They employ motivational speakers to address their staff. One employee had to attend training sessions which involved standing there shouting: 'I feel healthy! I feel happy! I feel terrific!' and then throwing the 'winning punch'.

And ever since Norman Vincent Peale gave us his The Power of Positive Thinking in 1952, the market has been flooded with books on the subject of thinking positively. Peale's spiel went like this: 'Visualise yourself as succeeding . . . whenever you think something negative, deliberately think of a positive thought to negate it, don't build up obstacles.'

In another book for gullible idiots, Secrets Of The Millionaire Mind, the author advises readers to place their hands on their hearts and say: 'I admire rich people! I bless rich people! I love rich people! And I'm going to be one of those rich people now!'

What is interesting about positive thinking is how delusional it is. Rather than being called 'positive thinking', it ought to be called 'magical thinking'. When I mentioned my thoughts to a therapist recently, she said: 'But of course positive thoughts are good!' A client had apparently come to her, unable to get a job, going bankrupt and miserable because her husband was leaving her. Rightly, the therapist pointed out to her that at least she had a roof over her head, had been offered another job, and was a terrific mother to her two children. 'It was good for her to think positively!' she said.

But, I pointed out, the therapist had not advocated positive thinking. She'd advocated realistic thinking, which is what we all need to focus on. Had the client come to her banging on about her brilliance, it would have been sensible for my friend to point out that yes, she was brilliant, but that didn't stop the fact that she was also bankrupt and her husband was leaving her.

It's interesting that in an age when the current mantras run thus: 'Every time a door closes another opens,' 'Every crisis is an opportunity in disguise,' 'When life hands out lemons, squeeze out a smile,' everything seems to be going wrong, and particularly for those in America and the UK, where positive thinking thrives. Far from being the greatest nation on earth, more children die in infancy in the U.S. or grew up in poverty than in many other industrialised nations. Healthcare is broken. It has the highest proportion of the population in prison, and is plagued by gun crime and personal debt.

However, in the days when the West did well - during and after World War II for example - we were all taught the opposite of positive thinking. We were encouraged 'not to get too big for our boots'. 'Who do you think you are? The Queen of Sheba?' our mothers would say, if we were too proud of any achievement. Or 'Don't let it go to your head.'

Interestingly, a study recently published in the journal Psychological Science showed that people with low self-esteem felt worse after repeating positive mantras about themselves.

In 1986, the Californian State Assembly appointed a task-force to investigate the subject of self-esteem, examining more than 30,000 research findings. The conclusion was that there was no correlation between levels of self-esteem and educational failure, crime, alcoholism, drug-taking, teenage pregnancies or child abuse. In other words, feeling good about yourself will not stop you going off the rails.

Indeed, the pre-occupation with self-esteem could actually be a disadvantage. In an international study, it was found that American students who ranked last in international comparisons of maths abilities ranked first when asked how they felt about their maths abilities. Positive thinking had completely deluded the entrants about their own abilities.

There's too much smiling going on these days. And smiling is starting to look very phoney. Whenever I see Tony Blair give one of his crazy rictus smiles, whenever I hear a mother say to her daughter, for the umpteenth time that day: 'Love you, you're brilliant,' I wince. Don't tell me to 'Have a nice day!' Thank you, I have other plans. More realistic ones.


Birthday cakes banned in British school

Because they are "unhealthy"

It was supposed to be a treat for Olivia Morris to share among her classmates on her ninth birthday. But no sooner had she blown out the candles on the chocolate cake than it was banned - for failing to comply with healthy eating rules. Staff informed Olivia's mother Rebecca that birthday cakes were no longer acceptable because they were at odds with the school's healthy living message. So, instead of sharing it round, Olivia was forced to take the cake home uneaten.

The treat was baked by her great-grandmother Eileen Morris, 79, who described the ban as 'crazy'. 'It was a lovely cake decorated with Maltesers and Jellytots, with chocolate icing and nine pink candles,' she said. 'I understand the need to teach children healthy eating, but surely a birthday cake is a special treat.'

Mrs Morris has been baking cakes for her family to take to school for four decades. The family tradition began when her own children Mark, now 48, and Jane, 52, started at Rockingham Infant and Junior School in Rotherham. When her five grandchildren and five great-grandchildren went to the same school she carried on sending in birthday cakes. Mrs Morris, from Kimberworth Park, Rotherham, said she blamed celebrity chef Jamie Oliver for the ban. He used the South Yorkshire town to launch his Ministry of Food TV show, vowing to teach its residents about healthy eating after parents were spotted passing junk food through school railings to bypass a ban on fast food.

Last night headteacher Heather Green stood by her decision to ban the cake. 'We love celebrating the birthdays of our pupils in class and in assemblies,' she said. 'At the same time, however, we are working really hard to promote healthy eating and lifestyles among our pupils. It is a tricky balance not to give a mixed message to pupils if we say to them "eat healthily at school" but at the same time we say "bring in cakes and buns to celebrate all our different events". 'We also take into account children with allergies and the pressure that some parents feel they are under to provide such treats.'


Food Cops’ Obesity Message is Off-Key

Ever wonder why more people don’t take the stairs—especially when so many people are trying to lose weight? An enterprising group in Sweden (an initiative of Volkswagen) had a theory that if activity is more fun, more people will do it and change their behavior for the better. The group turned a set of stairs into a giant piano, with each step representing a key. And according to their analysis, 66 percent more people took the stairs after the change.

It’s no secret that waistlines are getting larger in America. The New York City Department of Hype “Health” and other dietary scolds point the finger at soda pop. Others have suggested (and later recanted) that corn sweetener is the culprit. But this blame game only focuses on one half of the obesity equation: calories “in.”

Alternatively, we showed in our book Small Choices, Big Bodies that minor changes in lifestyle over the past few decades can add up to explain why we’re not burning as many calories anymore. What kinds of changes? More desk jobs and less work in the fields. More people driving to work more. More labor-saving devices, like dishwashers and washing machines.

Last year, CCF’s research director took a trip to Stockholm and saw petite women washing down starchy, meaty meals with pint after pint of draught beer. But the “obesity epidemic” was nowhere to be found. That’s because the home of the smorgasbord has a strong urban culture of biking or walking to get around.

Small changes can produce big effects. Innovative ways to increase physical activity instead of finger-pointing are music to our ears.


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