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Pollyanna Creep is a phrase that originated with John Williams, a California-based economic analyst and statistician. It describes the way the U.S. government has modified the way important economic measures are calculated with the purpose of giving a better impression of economic development. This is a clear reference, in a sarcastic way, to Pollyanna's proverbial optimism.
John Williams and other economic analysts, such as Kevin P. Phillips argue the such manipulations distort the perception of electors and economic factors and have ill effects on political and investment decisions.
Concern about the manipulation of statistics also exists in the United Kingdom. For example, inflation in the price of certain essentials (such as food and fuel) is far higher than that of the published consumer price index. It should be noted, however, that the more reasonable answer to this seeming conundrum is that food and fuel make up a relatively small proportion of overall average household expenditure (about 10% for food consumed at home, 5% for home fuel, 5% for car fuel). This is because although these make up a larger proportion of expenditure in a typical week, inflation consumption weights account for all expenditure, even those large items purchased only infrequently (e.g. motor vehicles, furniture, electronics, clothes, etc.) but that when purchased are very large commitments. Prices of these goods have risen much less quickly or have, in some cases, fallen.
Oprah Winfrey. Smiley faces. Joel Osteen. Motivational speakers. These are just a few of the hyper-happy things that set Nickel and Dimed author Barbara Ehrenreich's teeth on edge. In Bright-Sided, Ehrenreich describes the national insistence on positive thinking as a "mass delusion."
As a breast-cancer survivor, she has a particular ax to grind against a "pink ribbon culture" that believes in the healing effect of a positive attitude. "Cheerfulness is required," scowls Ehrenreich, "dissent a kind of treason."
And if we're so damn happy, she asks, why do Americans account for two-thirds of the global market for antidepressants?
Her solution: less forced gaiety, more realism. -Andrea Sachs
Ehrenreich attacks "the cult of cheefulness" October 21, 2009
Barbara Ehrenreich is not the kind of person you're likely to find brandishing a sign reading "When life gives you lemons, make lemonade"; you're more likely to find her picketing the vendors, demanding a more varied and tasty supply of fruit. If you're thinking of picking up any of her books, be prepared for Ehrenreich's typical trenchant and skeptical (but never cynical attitude to be applied to whatever topic she's tackling. In this case, that is the whole universe of the phenomenon known as positive thinking, which she debunks with gusto and flair.
In the past, Ehrenreich has sometimes gone out to encounter her stories; in this case, the subject for her book came to her, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer and found herself uncomfortably sharing her new world with people so eager to put a positive spin on a horrible phenomena that even women facing a terminal diagnosis were bullied into labeling themselves breast cancer "survivors", since 'victim' was simply too negative a word to be used. Dissenting from this perspective is a kind of treason, she writes, and apt to provoke the professionally-sunny tempered to suggest that she somehow earned the cancer by not being upbeat enough. More important than her personal observations and experiences, however, are the broader conclusions she draws from this experience. "The effect of all this positive thinking is to transform breast cancer into a rite of passage," she writes, "not an injustice or a tragedy to rail against but a normal marker in the life cycle, like menopause or grandmotherhood."
That's the important message of this book -- that by being relentlessly upbeat (to the point of becoming self-delusional) we miss out on what is authentic. Although neither a scientist or theologian, she is competent enough on both fronts to debunk the 'positive thinking' industry's fuzzy arguments based on quantum physics (she points out the gaping scientific flaws in the pseudo-scientific comments) and to point out how little the message of positive thinking 'pastor-preneurs' like Joel Osteen has to do with the uncomfortable core message of Christianity, which revolves around sacrifice and service to others, not wealth and feeling good about oneself.
Indeed, the thread that runs throughout this book (although it's not as explicitly developed as it could have been) is that the positive thinking movement is essentially a very selfish one. Positive thinking is all about oneself: I am good at what I do, my worth will be recognized, I will receive all the wonderful things -- money, love and tangible goods -- that I desire; all with the subtext of a sense of entitlement. As Ehrenreich points out, the focus is never on others, or on broader society. "Other people are not there to be nurtured or to provide unwelcome reality checks. They are there only to nourish, praise, and affirm."
The problem with this blithe approach is that sometimes, ignoring reality can be dangerous. I became self-employed seven years ago, and know first-hand the importance of putting forward my most upbeat, can-do attitude when talking to potential employers, and the need not to be downcast when people say 'no'. On the other hand, simply being cheery, upbeat and entitled, isn't the answer, either; I need to be aware of the reasons people are saying no (it's not that I'm not upbeat enough; it may be that my skills aren't up to date or the proposal I presented didn't measure up). Ehrenreich tackles the real-world problems this attitude creates for all of us with her timely look at the impact of positive thinking as a contributor to the subprime mortgage debacle and the subsequent credit crunch; she hits the nail squarely on the head when she points out how the positive thinking-inspired sense of entitlement helped convince homebuyers or homeowners to take out mortgages that sober, realistic second thought should have told them they couldn't afford, while throughout the financial system, those providing the capital that fueled the credit bubble were equally susceptible to such magical thinking and focused on the short-term positives rather than the long-term risks.
While Ehrenreich's goal is to sound the alarm rather than provide counter-nostrums, she does urge us all, collectively, to step back and think about our lives and the society in which we live in realistic rather than idealistically selfish ways. She emphasizes the importance of critical thinking, which requires skepticism, and points out that most human advancement stems from that; at the same time, she makes a plea for us to step back from focusing on ourselves and what we want to our society and what it needs.
This is more uneven than some of Ehrenreich's books. At its best -- when she is making careful and well-reasoned points about the need to be realistic rather than draw smiley faces all the time -- this is an excellent book. (Do we really want airplane pilots who fail to plan for what might go wrong because that would be negative thinking? She doesn't mention Sully Sullenberger's name, but it's hard to escape the analogy.) She also points out the extent to which Americans delude themselves about their real position, and what that means, and introduces some data points likely to shock anyone willing to pay attention, such as the fact that while we prize the ideal of social mobility and assume (positive thinking at work again!) that it's there for us to grab if only we work hard enough at it, the French, the Scandinavians, the Germans and the Canadians are all more likely in fact to move upward from their socio-economic position at birth than we are. I would have been more impressed with the book, however, had Ehrenreich been able to distinguish between those who want to wear blinkers to screen out unpleasant realities and those who simply want a return to civility in public discourse. (After finishing this, I ran an errand and watched as someone bumped into another person on the sidewalk, and turned and verbally abused the person he had just nearly knocked over, screaming and shouting -- and this was a well-dressed individual.) Those who would like a civil 'civil society' may use some of the same language, but they're not advocating 'positive thinking' at all costs, just good manners.
In some cases, the arguments repeat those Ehrenreich has made in her previous books, notably the excellent Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, in which Ehrenreich spent many months living exactly the same lives as America's working poor, doing the same jobs they do and trying to make ends meet without safety net. That stands as her tour de force for me, since she reported the lives led by people on the margins not as an outsider looking in, but as someone living that experience herself -- it's a five-star book that Ehrenreich draws on heavily for those parts of Bright-Sided that deal with job losses, employment laws, etc.
The various strands that make up this book -- the positive-thinking brand of Christianity, the wishful thinking in the subprime meltdown, etc. -- are none of them new or surprising to anyone who has been keeping up with essay-length articles in publications like the Atlantic, Harper's or The New York Times Magazine (among others). What Ehrenreich does here is pull those strands together and provide a framework for thinking about them as part of a trend that may be dangerous to our society in the long run. I'd recommend this to anyone as an intriguing read, although I strongly suspect that few of those she's hoping to reach will listen. They are more likely to criticize her for not thinking positively about the world -- if she did, I can almost hear them say, society would be so much better...
The dark side of positive thinking October 13, 2009
Barbara Ehrenreich delivers the same sharp assessments she delivered in Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America and Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream, in this case a trenchant look into America's obsession with presenting a "positive" image at all times and at all costs. Spurred by her own reaction to a bout of breast cancer Ehrenreich came face-to-face with the near obsessive culture of positivity, which led to her questioning not only what purpose it serves, but how it came to exist. While Americans like to project a "positive" cheerful, optimistic and upbeat image we seldom reflect on why our culture insists upon this particular norm. Ehrenreich traces the origins of this "cult of optimism" from its origins in 19th Century American life up to the present prevalence of the "gospel of prosperity" in churches, "positive psychology" and the "science of happiness" in academia and in literature. Ehrenreich points out it is most pervasively rooted in business culture where the refusal to deal with negativity (potential and real) has resulted in a rash of negative outcomes, from the S&L crisis of the 1980s/1990s to the current mortgage led economic downturn. As with "Nickel and Dimed" Ehrenreich revels in not just mythbusting but in exploring corners of society seldom plumbed or contemplated. For Ehrenreich this lack of introspection and dealing with negativity in an appropriate manner has led us individually and as a society to "irrational exuberance" and now near disaster. Ehrenreich is at her best poking fun at the pseudo-science of positivity and poking holes in positivist theory.
Obviously Ehrenreich isn't for everyone and certain some people who insist on positivity in their lives will simply refuse to read such a potentially negative book. But Ehrenreich isn't a "negative Nelly" as some would fear; she's speaking truth-to-power and to a certain extent satirizing society. She seeks to question why we are so relentlessly positive, even when that positivity is unwarranted, and to get us to see what the true cost is when we are too accepting and nowhere near critical enough. It you set aside your preconceived notions about positivity and positivism you might just find this a richly rewarding book!
An important book October 15, 2009
Ehrenreich makes the point (and it can't be made too often) that the Law of Attraction, as promulgated via such works of irrationalist pseudoscience as The Secret and the books of Esther and Jerry Hicks, has the down-side effect of making out-of-work, poor, sick, and otherwise "unlucky" people responsible for their own condition. She tells how Rhonda Byrne (The Secret) opined that tsunami victims had attracted their own misfortune. Ehrenreich also spells out how convenient this "philosophy" is to the greed heads that have lately been so busy raping America and the global economy. Don't revolt, don't complain, it's all your own fault.
She covers how Emerson and the Transcendentalists attempted to break free from the toxic effects of Calvinism on early American life, but how that attempt got sidetracked into New Thought (Phineas Quimby, Mary Baker Eddy, etc), with its increasingly laser-like focus on "prosperity" and get-rich-quick schemes.
The scholarship that went into this intellectual/cultural history is impressive. Closer to present time, she unpacks how many evangelical mega-churches have leveraged this new, and very un-Christian, gospel in the style of huckster marketeers and predatory CEOs.
But my favorite is the number she does on Martin Seligman and his "Positive Psychology" boondoggle. This isn't just a good book, it's an important one and much needed. I hope it will shape attitudes and change minds.
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