December 31, 2009

Positive Thinking

From the New York Times, "Seeking a Cure for Optimism:"

Recently, a number of writers and researchers have questioned the notion that looking on the bright side — often through conscious effort — makes much of a difference. One of the most prominent skeptics is Barbara Ehrenreich, whose best-selling book “Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America,” published in the fall, maintains that thinking positively does little good in the long run, and can, in fact, do harm.

“Happiness is great, joy is great, but positive thinking reduces the spontaneity of human interactions,” Ms. Ehrenreich said. “If everyone has that fixed social smile all the time, how do you know when anyone really likes you?”

There are quite a few distinctions that need to be made regarding the general concept of positive thinking. For example, there's the difference between internal and external cheerfulness, and between private and public optimsim.

Having finally seen the Coen Brothers' A Serious Man last night, which is like a less funny version of Curb Your Enthusiasm in which mild-mannered physics professor Larry Gopnik is relentlessly abused by the spontaneity of human interactions with people like Ms. Ehrenreich, I'd say that a little social smiling isn't such a bad thing.

About a year ago, my younger son's high school hosted a talk by radio rabbi Dennis Prager. He said that young people all want to help humanity, but that the surest, most effective way to help humanity is for you to act less whiny and more cheerful toward the people around you. Every single student at the school thought that was the worst idea ever -- Shouldn't you be authentic and therefore wallow in the horrors of having your oppressive parents ask you to empty the dishwasher? -- except, to my astonishment, my kid, who thought that Prager had a great idea. And he has been easier to live with ever since (and easier than I was to live with at that age).

So, thank you, Dennis Prager.

A study published in the November-December issue of Australasian Science found that people in a negative mood are more critical of, and pay more attention to, their surroundings than happier people, who are more likely to believe anything they are told.

“Whereas positive mood seems to promote creativity, flexibility, cooperation and reliance on mental shortcuts, negative moods trigger more attentive, careful thinking, paying greater attention to the external world,” Joseph P. Forgas, a professor of social psychology at the University of New South Wales in Australia, wrote in the study.

In other words, don't marry a stand-up comedian.

Psychologists and others who try to study happiness scientifially often focus on the connection between positive thinking and better health. In the September 2007 issue of the journal Cancer, Dr. David Spiegel at Stanford University School of Medicine reported his efforts to replicate the findings of a 1989 study in which he had found that women with metastatic breast cancer who were assigned to a support group lived an average 18 months longer than those who did not get such support. But in his updated research, Dr. Spiegel found that although group therapy may help women cope with their illness better, positive thinking did not significantly prolong their lives.

I have no idea if the Placebo Effect is real or not. But I do know that when I had cancer in 1997 and was, not surprisingly, pretty much paralyzed by depression, a half-dozen hypnotism sessions helped me get my mood up enough to research the alternative treatments and choose, correctly, among the three on offer. The point of hypnotism is to lull you into a relaxed state where your skepticism is low enough that you'll believe a pep talk. (I crafted a personalized pep talk for my hypnotist to give me when I was under.) It worked for me, in the sense that it helped me get back to the point where I could make important decisions, such going with the clinical trial in which I became the first person in the world with my specific form of cancer to be treated with what's now the world's most lucrative cancer drug, Rituxan.

Ms. Ehrenreich, who was urged to think positively after receiving a diagnosis of breast cancer several years ago, was surprised by how many readers shared her visceral resistance to that mantra. She created a forum on her Web site for people to vent about positive thinking, and many have. “I get so many people saying ‘thank you,’ people who go back to work after their mother has died and are told, ‘What’s the matter?’ “ she said. Likewise, there are “corporate victims who have been critics or driven out of jobs for being 'too negative.'"

The far, far bigger issue is the mandatory Happy Talk among the intellectual elite. You might think that people at the level of James D. Watson and Larry Summers might be allowed a Happy Talk-free zone about social issues so that the ruling elites could stay informed, but the opposite is true.

So, we wind up with disasters like the Sand State Mortgage Meltdown.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer


StanleyAnn'sRedDiaperChild said...

Barbara Ehrenreich is a despicable fraud. Within the past few weeks she was on CSPAN's morning call in show when a woman called in and said that mass immigration is exacerbating unemployment especially in the tech sector and that the government should reduce immigration. Ms. Ehrenreich went into a deluded and enraged tirade about how it was the employers' fault and the government has nothing to do with immigration! I could not believe my ears... the woman is an idiot and a liar.

R J Stove said...

I wonder if Barbara Ehrenreich mentions the findings - 30 years back - of Lauren B. Alloy and Lyn Yvonne Abramson ("Judgment of contingency in depressed and nondepressed students: Sadder but wiser?", Journal of Experimental Psychology, Vol. 108, pp. 441-485). These findings created quite a stir at the time they were published (1979), and therapists like the best-selling author Martin Seligman refer to them.

Alloy and Abramson discovered, in the experiments they did, that pessimistic patients are actually better at perceiving the nature of their environment than optimistic patients are. The outcome is called "depressive realism". (Yes, it is perfectly compatible with smiling, being courteous, and the avoidance of outright bellyaching.)

Of course, you will not find Alloy and Abramson appearing as guests on Oprah. Depressive realism runs entirely counter to the post-Christian West's civic religion of Happy Talk. How much more Happy Talk the post-Christian West can actually afford is, naturellement, a different issue.

A happy (and depressive-realistic) 2010 to Steve Sailer, BTW.

Richard Hoste said...

I crafted a personalized pep talk for my hypnotist to give me when I was under.

You made me wonder what my pep talk would be in such a situation. I could only imagine myself responding to a statistical argument. Get the facts and some peer reviewed papers that'll show I'm ok. I'm far too cynical and dare I say rational for anything else.

Anonymous said...

How did you come to try hypnosis? I think that's worth a post right there.

Anonymous said...

Hypnotism is very effective in childbirth as well. I am a cynical, negative kind of person, but I also wanted to avoid experiencing labor pain as much as possible, so my cynicism took a backseat.

Steve Sailer said...

"I could only imagine myself responding to a statistical argument."

Well, that's the point of hypnosis -- the statistics were against me.

Truth(er) said...

What or who did you use to bring yourself under hypnosis?

Figgy said...

I remember way back in the early 70s, fresh from Psych 101 classes and from talks with my high IQ friends taking psychology, all of us gung ho on the idea that such study could lead to a panacea for humankind that would hopefully be spearheaded by that "science". It was a belief held by many in that field at the time. Of course, it turned out to be a quixotic attempt to find the answers to very difficult problems that we humans are afflicted with.

It's a noble aim, one that the "enlightened" person seeks to obtain. But it's a very elusive target. Personally, the best tips I've received over my decades on the planet have been:

- floss and brush your teeth
- eat well
- keep moving, don't settle in
- exercise
- keep expectations reasonable
- and yes, don't be whiny

Not a very sophisticated list I admit, but I've yet to see many others that offer more benefit. Personally, I'm a bit disillusioned; perhaps I'm not giving all these mental gurus the credit they deserve.

Oh yeah, reading Sailer has a certain pragmatic benefit also.

Anonymous said...

Happy talk may not help someone to live longer, but if they die with a smile on their face, then that's worth something, isn't it?

l said...

Reading some of the posts at Ms. Ehrenreich's forum I'm reminded of the post-menopausal shrews at my work who gossip and complain all day. Until now I have avoided them as much as I've been able. I guess I'm missing out.

SFG said...

I think it's a little more complicated than that. You're assuming the rich control their organizations and can shape every aspect like an author writing a book.

In reality, they have control over their immediate environment composed of their direct reports...division heads, and such, all of whom are trying to suck up and please their superiors. The boss can't look at every bathroom stall in every factory, even if he actually cared about the company (which seems rare these days) and is dependent on his chief financial officer, chief information officer, and so on, all of whom are trying to get on his good side. And since the most effective way to advance is to tell people what they want to hear...

It's not so much a diabolical conspiracy against the white race, working class, or whoever, as people trying to take what they can get, and whoever's less powerful or not organized as a unitary group gets screwed.

Anonymous said...

Boy, it's depressing to read about the depression of atheists.

Y'all need to cheer up: God loves you.

Anonymous said...

Having finally seen the Coen Brothers' A Serious Man last night, which is like a less funny version of Curb Your Enthusiasm in which mild-mannered physics professor Larry Gopnik is relentlessly abused by the spontaneity of human interactions with people like Ms. Ehrenreich, I'd say that a little social smiling isn't such a bad thing.

Uh, no. A Serious Man is about evil and the inability of a lunkheaded optimist (a scientist) to recognize its existence.

Anonymous said...

Prager gets a lot of stuff right - he's far and above the best radio personality on the air, imo. He's particularly good and dismantling the left. He does, however, have a huge blind spot when it comes to recognizing that things like intelligence cause systematic differences in how groups will achieve in America. He greets any talk of IQ with a passionate 5 minute rant about how it doesn't matter and it's a stupid idea. Very weird for a guy who always says "first we should tell the truth". This is a truth he ignores, and if he were forced to asdmit it he would say "so what?".

Dennis, if you're out there, there is a mountain of iterature on IQ that explains TONS about group/racial/ethnic achievement gaps in America. It's an eye opening topic. Start with your friend Charles Murray's book "The Bell Curve". You have to actually read it.

Grumpy Old Man said...

I recommend "We Are Doomed" by John Derbyshire. An antidote to mindless optimism and a pretty good diagnosis of what ails us.

David said...

Speaking of getting through cancer, I did it by using positive thinking and believing in a nonsectarian cosmic force some call God. It worked, and works.

Rationality was made for man, not the reverse. If rationality tells you that you should crawl in a hole and die, that's when it's not doing its intended evolutionary job. Bring out the optimism on those occasions.

But yeah, to walk around with an idiot grin on your face can be sickening. And no - it isn't really optimism the flat-earthers are guilty of, it's conscious dishonesty and nihilism in a funky blend.

David Davenport said...

An aphorism attributed to the US Marine Corps -- the exact wording varies:

"Always be civil to other people, and also always be ready to kill them if necessary."

Anonymous said...

"Boy, it's depressing to read about the depression of atheists.

Y'all need to cheer up: God loves you."

I grew up in an evangelical household and the happy talk is part and parcel of the modern protestant experience. Christian book stores are jam-packed with self-help books that encourage what would otherwise be New Age mysticism if there weren't some bible verses thrown in for justification. Without any firm evidence I'd bet that this happy talk phenomenon has roots in the Jesus-is-your-best-friend attitude of Christianity.

Anonymous said...

I grew up in an evangelical household... Without any firm evidence...

What firmer evidence would you need than growing up in an evangelical household?

And, more generally, do you suppose that Christians always seem so happy because...



...they ARE happy?

Naahhh, that would be too obvious of an explanation - they must be faking it somehow.


Dutch Boy said...

I have a couple of living, breathing pep talks - my beautiful little daughters!

Anonymous said...

When the Dear Leader was giving his Afghan speech at West Point,several peole,like Limbaugh,commented on the seeming boredom,indifference and not altogether welcoming attitide of the cadets to the One. Someone said he turned off the cadets by talking in a(somewhat) pessimistic tone,and if he had mentioned FREEDOM,the cadets wouldve come alive and started cheering. Bush,whatever his IQ,etc.had the rep for being stupid,I think,because thats exactly what he would do. His policies were not wel thought out,or well explained,--or explained at all!,and the limits of what we could do not addressed.He just yelled,"Freedom!Democracy!!" and the suckers started applauding. I once heard some 'Southern Man' call a talk show,talking about how his son is over there--fighting for freedom.Well-meaning suckers like this constitute a huge segment of the Red nation.Thats why a boob like Sarh Palin,with the flag of Israel on her wall,(eyes roll)is seen as some kind of Red answer to Obama. The positive thinkers make ya feel good,but the negatives are more Reality-based. I am anti-Obama,of course,but his look at all sides,nuanced view is not all bad.I mean,he isnt TOTALLY anti-American,right? he doesnt want to wreck everything,does he?? Just saw a couple of good quotes from JFK in the latest Esquire magazine,like this: "...the problems are more difficult than I imagine them to be.The responsibilities placed on the US are greater than I imagined...greater limitations upon our ability to bring about a favorable result than I had imagined..." Try giving that speech to the neocons and their followers. Let sarah give THAT speech!!A younger Kennedy also had this to say:"I have just had an escapade. Got a fuck and a suck in a Mexican hoarhouse for $.65 so am feeling very fit and clean..." Make of that what you will.

David Davenport said...

Without any firm evidence I'd bet that this happy talk phenomenon has roots in the Jesus-is-your-best-friend attitude of Christianity.

Which Christianity?

The Five Points of Calvinism

There are two mains camps of theology within Christianity in America today: Arminianism and Calvinism. Calvinism is a system of biblical interpretation taught by John Calvin. Calvin lived in France in the 1500's at the time of Martin Luther who sparked the Reformation.

The system of Calvinism adheres to a very high view of scripture and seeks to derive its theological formulations based solely on God’s word. It focuses on God’s sovereignty, stating that God is able and willing by virtue of his omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence, to do whatever He desires with His creation. It also maintains that within the Bible are the following teachings: That God, by His sovereign grace predestines people into salvation; that Jesus died only for those predestined; that God regenerates the individual where he is then able and wants to choose God; and that it is impossible for those who are redeemed to lose their salvation.

Arminianism, on the other hand, maintains that God predestined, but not in an absolute sense. Rather, He looked into the future to see who would pick him and then He chose them. Jesus died for all peoples' sins who have ever lived and ever will live, not just the Christians. Each person is the one who decides if he wants to be saved or not. And finally, it is possible to lose your salvation (some arminians believe you cannot lose your salvation).

Basically, Calvinism is known by an acronym: T.U.L.I.P.

Total Depravity (also known as Total Inability and Original Sin)
Unconditional Election
Limited Atonement (also known as Particular Atonement)
Irresistible Grace
Perseverance of the Saints (also known as Once Saved Always Saved)


Felix said...

Yes, depressive thinking can sharpen awareness (when taken in moderation). But it lowers the will to take action.

The key is to cultivate resilience, not empty positive thinking.

(Turning to David D's off topic statement that "there are two main camps of theology within Christianity in America today: Arminianism and Calvinism".

I think he means "within Protestantism".)

R J Stove said...

"Just saw a couple of good quotes from JFK in the latest Esquire magazine, like this: '...the problems are more difficult than I imagine them to be. The responsibilities placed on the US are greater than I imagined ... greater limitations upon our ability to bring about a favorable result than I had imagined...' Try giving that speech to the neocons and their followers."

Well, Adlai Stevenson was probably the most pessimistic candidate of any major US party since the war. And we know what happened to him. Twice.

Here he is on the subject of getting the 1952 nomination - he was so relentlessly downbeat, his more sensitive hearers must almost have wanted to top themselves:

"I accept [said Stevenson] your nomination and your program.

I should have preferred to hear those words uttered by a stronger, a wiser, a better man than myself. But, after listening to the President's speech, I even feel better about myself. None of you, my friends, can wholly appreciate what is in my heart. I can only hope that you understand my words. They will be few.

I have not sought the honor you have done me. I could not seek it, because I aspired to another office, which was the full measure of my ambition, and one does not treat the highest office within the gift of the people of Illinois as an alternative or as a consolation prize.

I would not seek your nomination for the Presidency, because the burdens of that office stagger the imagination. Its potential for good or evil, now and in the years of our lives, smothers exultation and converts vanity to prayer.

I have asked the Merciful Father -- the Father of us all -- to let this cup pass from me, but from such dreaded responsibility one does not shrink in fear, in self-interest, or in false humility. So, 'If this cup may not pass from me, except I drink it, Thy will be done'."

Pessimism, rumination, plus a New Testament allusion near the end. We can't be allowed to have all those in 2010, can we?

Aaron said...

I haven't read Bright-Sided yet, but I don't think she's arguing against the basic idea that people with positive attitudes tend to be happier and do better than people who dwell on the negative. (And I would put people like Sailer and Derbyshire on the positive side of the scale, because while they may be pessimistic about certain things like societal change, they've got a light-hearted attitude about it. They don't fret in the way that, say, your average liberal frets about global warming.)

What goes much further than that, and what I think Ehrehreich is responding to, is the prosperity gospel stuff that became so popular in the last couple decades. It says positive thinking doesn't just tend to produce positive results, but does so like clockwork. It says if you think positive and say your affirmations and all that stuff, your life will be good, and if you worry all the time, bad stuff will happen to you. The universe is seen a big transistor: increase the positive charge on one side and the positive charge on the other side increases proportionally. Therefore, it's okay to take on a huge mortgage that you can't afford, because by thinking and acting like you can afford it, you cause it to be affordable.

This stuff sold really well when the economy was growing and credit was cheap and easy, and most people were going to become more prosperous (at least as defined by owning more stuff) whether the positive thinking worked or not. Now that many people are becoming less prosperous, it's going to be a harder sell.

After all, if you got a no-money-down mortgage because you thought positive about it (or as some preachers put it, God wanted you to have a house), then your foreclosure must mean you stopped thinking positive and started asking for a foreclosure. So either you have to blame yourself; or if you know your thinking didn't suddenly switch from positive to negative, then you have to admit the whole thing was bunk from the start.

kerrjac said...

The difficulty with positive psychology mirrors failed attempts at socialism and communism: It is the idea that we can systematically direct people towards happiness, health, & wealth.

In contrast, science is more effective at identifying and solving problems, a process that involves analysis. When you lose this deficit-model - which is something positive psychology eschews - you're in sketchy territory.

It's one thing to solve problems; it's another to point humanity in the right direction. I'd argue that the former is much more rewarding than the latter, b/c given the tools & conditions to succeed, people will thrive just fine on their own.