The Limits of Positive Thinking

Finding value in misery has achieved something like cult status. However, Barbara Ehrenreich (2009) has exposed this highly touted approach as empty at best and malicious at worst in her volume Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. And other countries as well, I might add. The source of the positive thinking movement was David Spiegel, a Stanford University psychiatry professor who proposed that cancer patients join support groups and dwell on the benefits of life-threatening illness as a way of curing their cancers. Ehrenreich writes:

In the nineties, studies began to roll in refuting Spiegel’s 1989 work on the curative value of support groups. The amazing survival rates or women in Spiegel’s first study turned out to be a fluke. Then, in the May 2007 issue of Psychological Bulletin, James Coyne and two coauthors published the results of a systematic review of all the literature on the supposed effects of psychotherapy on cancer. The idea was that psychotherapy, like a support group, should help the patient improve her mood and decrease her level of stress. But Coyne and his coauthors found the existing literature full of “endemic problems.” In fact, there seemed to be no positive effect of therapy at all. A few months later, a team led by David Spiegel himself reported in the journal Cancer that support groups conferred no survival advantage after all, effectively contradicting his earlier finding. Psychotherapy and support groups might improve one’s mood, but they did nothing to overcome cancer. (p. 97) Part of the problem with Spiegel’s approach is that support groups don’t necessarily contain meaningful relationships, just other random people.

Ehrenreich takes on much more than breast cancer support groups, citing many studies that identify the stressful effects of forcing oneself to submerge negative feelings and only expressing positive ones. Essentially, such radical positive thinking has the effect of embracing the status quo. Everything is ok, nothing is wrong, this is the best of all possible worlds. Dr. Pangloss in the 21st century. Voltaire would likely have a violent reaction to some of the questions and affirmations that are used in “happiness” questionnaires and evaluations:

  • In most ways my life is close to my ideal.
  • The conditions of my life are excellent.
  • I am satisfied with my life.
  • So far I have gotten the important things I want in life.
  • If I could live my life over, I would change almost nothing.

Ehrenreich, rightly in my opinion, observes that affirming these questionnaire items is tantamount to being either ignorant of or indifferent towards threats to one’s welfare: climate change, dramatic income inequalities, ideologues attempting to control our options, organizations dear to us that are on the verge of financial collapse, coal ash in our water supply, poor air quality threatening the viability of our respiratory systems, loved ones in need of support.


No, I am not satisfied with my life, it is far from my ideal, I would change much on my second go ‘round, and many important things I want from life are still out of my reach (at the moment). I am not a grouse, nor am I am Pollyanna. I want more. I want language fluency, and I am willing to work for it. I want to master the Vivaldi piccolo concerto that profoundly deaf Evelyn Glennie shamed me with during her recent performance. I want to read, digest, and share so many books that my eyes ache at the prospect.

When the positive thinkers create websites that urge folks to “Get rid of the negative people in your life,” they are asking us to get rid of people with consciences, people with ideas, people with noble discontent. Without pessimists, bridges would be weaker. With only optimists, details would be lost. We need the creative tension of positive and negative. Certainly excessive negativity, like excessive positivity, is toxic. Like William Butler Yeats’ phrase (from the poem “Sailing to Byzantium”), we must “perne in a gyre.” We must balance forces as a gyroscope spinning on a string, careful not to get too close to either extreme lest we fall.

(Excerpt from my book, The Owner’s Manual for Happiness, where it is presented as one of 15 myths about happiness.)

2 thoughts on “The Limits of Positive Thinking

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  1. Love our humanity with misery wrapping its long arms around the planet and yet only the blind sees it and the deaf hear it.

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