Monday, May 09, 2011

Bright-Sided by Barbara Ehenreich

"What would it mean in practice to eliminate all he 'negative people' from one's life? It might be a good move to separate from a chronically carping spouse, but it's not so easy to abandon the whiny toddler, the colicky infant, or the sullen teenager. And at the workplace, while it's probably advisable to detect and terminate those who show sings of become mass killer,s there are other annoying people who might actually have something useful to say: the financial officer who keeps worrying about the bank's subprime mortgage exposure or the auto executive who questions the company's overinvestment in SUVs and trucks. Purge everyone who "brings you down," and you risk being very lonely or, what is worse, cut off from reality. The challenge of family life, or group life of any kind, is to keep gauging the moods of others, accommodating to their insights, and offering comfort when needed.

But in the world of positive thinking other people are not there to be nurtured or to provide unwelcome reality checks. They are there only to nourish, praise, and affirm. Harsh as this dictum sounds, many ordinary people adopt it as their creed, displaying wall plaques or bumper stickers showing the word "Whining" with a cancel sign through hit. There seems to be a massive empathy deficit, which people respond to by withdrawing their won. No one has the time or patience for anyone else's problems."

I loved the first chapter on positive thinking and cancer, but after that I was less impressed. The parts about business were really just a recap of Bait and Switch and the bits about religion and psychology felt a bit repetitive. Still, the main idea, that the emphasis on positive thinking in today's culture has a negative effect overall was a good one.

"Still, surely it is better to obsess about one's chances of success than about the likelihood of hell and damnation, to search one's inner self for strengths rather than sins. The question is why one should be so inwardly preoccupied at all. Why not reach out to others in love and solidarity or peer into the natural world for some glimmer of understanding? Why retreat into anxious introspection when, as Emerson might have said, there is a vast world outside to explore? Why spend so much time working on oneself when there is so much real work to be done?"

My time at RBS was an introduction into forced positive thinking. All that bullshit about people with negative attitudes but high production being "terrorists" in the workplace always pissed me off. Don't show me some stupid show about people happily singing as they work in the Seattle Fish Market and then think that I'm going to put on a happy smile whether I feel it or not. The rah-rah company events that are run like some sort of religious revival meeting merely pissed me off. I may work for you, but I am not you. And that should be okay as an employee.

"In the hands of employers, positive thinking has been transformed into something its nineteenth-century proponents probably never imagined - not an exhortation to get up and get going but a means of social control in the workplace, a goad to perform at ever-higher levels... With 'motivation' as the whip, positive thinking became the hallmark of the compliant employee, and as the conditions of corporate employment worsened in the age of downsizing that bgan in the 1980s, the hand on the whip grew heavier."

"This is the project of science: to pool the rigorous observations of many people into a tentative accounting of the world, which will of course always be subject to revisions arising from fresh observations... There seems to be an evolutionary paradox at work here: human survival in the face of multiple threats depended on our ability to live in groups, but the imperative of maintaining group cohesion can sometimes override realism and common sense, making us hesitate to challenge the consensus or be the bearer of bad news. So, after checking with others, it remains the responsibility of each individual to sift through the received wisdom, insofar as possible, and decide what's worth holding on to. This can require the courage of a Galileo, the iconoclasm of a Darwin or Freud, the diligence of a homicide detective."

"A vigilant realism does not foreclose the pursuit of happiness; in fact, it makes it possible. How can we expect to improve our situation without addressing the actual circumstances we find ourselves in? Positive thinking seeks to convince us that such external factors are incidental compared with one's internal state or attitude or mood...IT's true that subjective factors like determination are critical to survival and that individuals sometimes triumph over nightmarish levels of adversity. But mind does not automatically prevail over matter, and to ignore the role of difficult circumstances - or worse, attribute the to our own thoughts - is to slide toward the depraved smugness Rhonda Byrne expressed when confronted with the tsunami of 2004. Citing the law of attraction, she stated that disasters like tsunamis can happen only to people who are 'on the same frequency as the event.'"

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