Monday, February 15, 2010

Is the Optimism Glass Half-Foolish?

Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World by Barbara Ehrenreich

I love a provocateur and welcome an opposing view. In Melbourne's Age newspaper, researcher and woman's health advocate, Trish Bolton, has offered plenty of food for thought in an opinion piece titled 'Always being positive can become a negative'.

The article contains some compelling arguments about the ‘cult of cheerfulness’ and whether 'positive thinking' is, well, positive. The Age column reviews the book by Barbara Ehrenreich (pictured), Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World. The starting point of the enquiry is when the author, who upon diagnosis with cancer, was "presented with ribbons and teddies" instead of the medical and scientific guidance she craved; and progresses through to the “reckless optimism” that she says caused the recent economic calamities.

But the broad idea that we are overwhelmed with positivity suggests that the writer has not watched the TV news, listened to a politician, read a letter to the editor, switched on a radio or logged on to the Internet in quite some time.

Are we to believe that this cult of positivity makes it hard for people at work to express doubts or raise questions for fear of being seen as "negative and counter-productive"? From my experience, it is the opposite. In many instances, people find it easier and safer to find reasons against doing something, excuses not to make changes or be against new ideas. I have never walked away from a meeting thinking "that was great, but I wish it was less positive."

The case is further stretched by arguing that it is an aversion to negativity that keeps people from tackling big issues like climate change. I actually think that apathy and cynicism about government action keeps people off the streets — not optimism or a surplus of positive thinking.

A radical optimist is not blind to the realities of life — and reality is often undeniably harsh and challenging. Instead, a radical optimist wants to say yes to opportunities that exist, not find reasons to say no. They seek out change and challenge.

I don't see radical optimism as a state of denial. We live in the real world and, like anyone else, we see and hear and experience negative things. We just refuse to be overwhelmed by them.