With a new year comes new resolutions. This year, you are going to do what you always told yourself you should do and damn it, you’ll be successful at it. You’ll work hard because you know success is based on merit and it comes to people who truly deserve it because of their relentless efforts. You will go far and perhaps even become your own brand. Why not? If you are not succeeding in your goal, it’s because you are not trying hard enough, right?
So what does that say about people who are not “successful”? Does that make them losers? Or are they maybe just too lazy?
For years, especially in the U.S., positive thinking and meritocracy have been pushed forward not only by popular show hosts like Oprah but also by psychologists, doctors and entrepreneurs. You are sick? Think in a positive light, don’t let any negativity creep in and you will beat your disease. You want to be a famous singer? Stand on the street and sell your show ticket by ticket if you have to. They say Marilyn wasn’t the most talented young actress around. She became famous because she wanted it MORE than any other girl did. (Or maybe she said that herself. I can’t seem to find the original quote.)
Because I’m not an optimist by nature – a result of personality and unhappy childhood – this kind of positive thinking has always made me cringe. “Yes we can” is nice and all, but I’m more of the “Okay let’s give it a try but don’t get your hopes up too much” type of mentality. It freaks me out to see positivity elevated as the new moral standard, the new religion to follow. My lack of faith may not allow me to fly as high as a kite, but it keeps my feet well grounded. It also means that I often have a plan B, which makes me ready to move on when something doesn’t go my way.
Thankfully, we are slowly hearing voices rising up against this excess of magical thinking. Barbara Ehrenreich, who wrote the famous book Nickel and Dimed just published another book with an exciting title:
Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America.
The practice of positive thinking is an effort to pump up this belief in the face of much contradictory evidence. Those who set themselves up as instructors in the discipline of positive thinkingâ€” coaches, preachers, and gurus of various sortsâ€”have described this effort with terms like â€œself-hypnosis,â€ â€œmind control,â€ and â€œthought control.â€ In other words, it requires deliberate self-deception, including a constant effort to repress or block out unpleasant possibilities and â€œnegativeâ€ thoughts. The truly self-confident, or those who have in some way made their peace with the world and their destiny within it, do not need to expend effort censoring or otherwise controlling their thoughts. Positive thinking may be a quintessentially American activity, associated in our minds with both individual and national success, but it is driven by a terrible insecurity.
For a fun take on the book, watch the interview that Jon Stewart did with Barbara Ehrenreich.
Thereâ€™s a real correlation between a society that tells people that they can do anything, and the existence of low self-esteem.
Everybody agrees that meritocracy is a great thing and we should all be trying to make our societies really meritocratic. A meritocratic society is one in which if youâ€™ve got talent and energy and skill you will get to the top. Nothing should hold you back. Itâ€™s a beautiful idea. The problem is, if you really believe in a society where those who merit to get to the top get to the top, youâ€™ll also by implication, and in a far more nasty way, believe in a society where those who deserve to get to the bottom also get to the bottom and stay there. In other words, your position in life comes to seem not accidental, but merited and deserved. That makes failure seems much more crushing.
Weâ€™re perceived as being in the driving seat. Thatâ€™s exhilarating if you are doing well but crushing if youâ€™re not. In the worst cases, it leads to depression and suicide. They own their success but also own their failure.
The whole talk is available on video here.
An Australian psychology expert who has been studying emotions has found being grumpy makes us think more clearly.
In contrast to those annoying happy types, miserable people are better at decision-making and less gullible, his experiments showed.
Professor Forgas said: “Whereas positive mood seems to promote creativity, flexibility, co-operation and reliance on mental shortcuts, negative moods trigger more attentive, careful thinking, paying greater attention to the external world.”
Grumpy people of the world unite! Let’s all get a sweet, global reality check. Way to start 2010!