Looking on the bright side (Mar/Apr 10)

Friday, 01 April 2011 08:05

Dorothy Rowe on the bad science of positive thinking

Barbara Ehrenreich is a renowned American writer who is relentless in her pursuit of those who prefer fantasy to the truth. Her latest book, Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America[1], followed her encounter with the fantasies that prevail in the treatment of breast cancer.

Ehrenreich developed breast cancer in 2000. She had been taking hormone replacement therapy for eight years, ‘prescribed by doctors who avowed that it would prevent heart disease, dementia, and bone loss. In 2002 HRT was shown to increase the risk of breast cancer, and, as the number of women taking it then dropped, so did the incidence of breast cancer. Ehrenreich had not only discovered the bad science of HRT but she had also encountered the bad science of positive thinking.

Ehrenreich holds a PhD in cell biology and thus looks at research, whether in biology, medicine or psychology, with a scientist’s stern eye. Since the 1970s it had been known that severe stress ‘could debilitate certain aspects of the immune system’. It’s now clear that severe anxiety or deep depression can lead to cancer or heart disease. However, the reverse of this isn’t necessarily true. Positive thinking doesn’t prevent cancer, nor does it cure it. Being as brave and positive as you can manage to be undoubtedly is helpful in getting through each difficult day but you would be lying to yourself if you told yourself that you were thinking nothing but positive thoughts. Yet, when Ehrenreich posted a statement on one of the popular breast cancer websites about how angry she was with all aspects of what she was going through, every respondent but one chided her severely for her negativity. The only respondent who agreed with her was a woman whose cancer was terminal. All her positive thoughts had failed to cure her.

Ehrenreich had discovered that in the USA ‘cheerfulness is required, dissent a kind of treason.’ She found this attitude had a long history, beginning with the Calvinist early settlers and evolving over the years to the belief that positive equals good for which you’ll be rewarded and negative equals bad for which you’ll be punished – the Just World belief in another guise. If we believe in any of the various versions of the Just World, as each religion obliges us to do, and, if we have not developed any ability in sceptical, critical thinking, we can be gulled into accepting all kinds of ridiculous ideas by people who don’t have our best interests at heart. Ehrenreich explored some of these ideas as they occur in positive thinking in everyday life, religion, business, and in therapy and life coaching. Here I want to talk about Martin Seligman and the industry of Positive Psychology.

When Aaron Beck first developed cognitive behaviour therapy he wanted to teach people how to be sceptical and critical of their own thinking. If his patient said to him, ‘Everybody in the world hates me,’ Aaron would point out that, first, his patient hadn’t met everyone in the world, and that, while some people might dislike him, some didn’t.’ While some therapists still strive to teach their clients sceptical, critical thought, others prefer the fantasies of Positive Psychology that say that being optimistic will bring you happiness, good health and success. ‘The science of happiness’ of which Positive psychologists talk, has all the scientific rigor of Scientology or Christian Science. As President of the American Psychological Association, Seligman made Positive Psychology respectable. He attracted huge grants, and PhD students built up a large volume of research reports linking optimism to all kinds of desirable outcomes. (In psychological research that uses questionnaires it’s very easy to get the results you want. Just select your subjects and your questions carefully.) Many of these PhD students became life coaches who wrote mass-market books advocating Positive Psychology, while Seligman developed a cash-generating website with exercises that promise to increase your happiness.

From all of this vast industry something is missing – any mention of the terrible things that happen in our world. No mention of war, poverty, climate change, and the people inescapably involved in these catastrophes. According to the gospel of Positive Psychology, all of these people are failures because they have harboured negative thoughts.

This cruel fantasy has little connection with real life. No amount of positive thinking can prevent disaster, betrayal or loss, but truthful, unselfish thinking can sometimes prevent and always mitigate such catastrophes. By valuing ourselves and other people, we can work together to make all our lives better. Ehrenreich finished her book by pointing out that we mightn’t succeed in all the things we want to do, ‘but – if I may end with my own personal secret of happiness – we can have a good time trying.’

Published in openmind 162 March/April 2010



[1] Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company, New York.