Do you ever get tired of being told to “look on the bright side”, to “make lemonade from the lemons life gives you” and how supposedly the Chinese character for “crisis” is the same as for “opportunity”? Barbara Ehrenreich has written a book called Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. She looks at the developmental history of the American style of optimism and its relationship to Calvinism. She examines proponents from pioneers Phineas Parkhurst Quimby and Mary Baker Eddy to modern proponents as different at Joel Osteen and Joyce Meyer on the religious side to Martin Seligman and positive psychology in the secular realm. She also looks at the effects of positive thinking in areas such as cancer, particularly breast cancer (and looks at research as to whether a positive attitude affects onset and outcome of the disease), and at the economy and economic experts’ faith in positive outcomes of what were actually bubbles. Ehrenreich posits that we have been blinded by the light of unrealistic optimism with sometimes dire consequences. And yet, we keep following the same path.
At the end she does have a solution – realism. She does say that negative thinking can be just as delusional as positive thinking, and is not advocating absolute pessimism either. Realistic thinking is not easy. We see the world through our own blinders, and groups do the same thing. Ultimately she espouses the power of critical thinking – something all too often missing in our lives these days in our relationships with ourselves and with others. We need look no further than our political discourse, or perhaps our disagreements with friends and family.
Jamie Hale recently wrote an article on critical thinking which can be found at http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2011/01/12/critical-thinking-what-is-true-and-what-to-do/. Hale says that critical thinking is based on rationality. We look at the evidence. We do not just look for what will prove us right, but what will also prove that idea wrong. Ehrenreich refers to “anxious vigilance” in child raising. Ronald Reagan is often quoted with the phrase, “trust but verify.” Hale says that, “In order for our beliefs to be rational they must be in agreement with evidence. In order for our actions to be rational they must be conducive to obtaining our goals.” Ultimately critical thinking is about trying our best to determine what is true, and then being sure that our actions in achieving our goals are consistent with that evidence.
When Admiral James Stockdale, who was held captive for years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, was asked by James Collins about those who did not survive imprisonment, he said, ”Oh, that’s easy, the optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.” Stockdale said he survived because, ”I never lost faith in the end of the story, I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.” He then said, ”This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”
Self confidence and self efficacy have to be backed up with ability and a realistic assessment of what is. Otherwise that confidence is false and will ultimately fail. Ehrenreich and Hale are both reads I recommend.