March 28, 2014

The Dark Side of Seeing Only the Bright Side

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

As a self-starter, I like self-help books, and have read or listened to number of audio books in the genre. I have listened to many books on discovering one’s passions and creativity, on personal finance, relationships, career building, and those promoting emotional well-being. I can truly say that I have learned a lot from them, and they have taught me how to understand myself and others better.

But even while listening, on occasion I am reminded of the limits of self-help books. For instance, many personal finance books suggest that readers control their spending—stop buying that daily latte, and eventually you will have a million dollars. Well, I don’t drink coffee, and I’m sure there are many people who cannot save or invest for a million dollars even if they don’t either. As a college professor, I am in the economic group that would likely benefit more from this kind of financial advice, say, compared with a low-wage worker who struggles to pay bills each month. Advising someone in these circumstances to skimp on coffee is not going to help them.

One best-seller promised readers that we can learn the secret to having everything that we want. Most of the anecdotes highlighted how people became rich beyond belief and had all of the material goods they ever dreamed of, without questioning whether having more stuff will really make people happy.

Another book suggested that owning real estate was the ticket to wealth. Buy properties with borrowed money, collect rent and invest that money in other properties, the author suggested. I knew that I had no interest in being a landlord, so I didn’t take the advice. But it is likely that thousands did and found themselves in financial trouble after the housing market crashed and they owed more money on the properties than they were worth.

What’s missing from these and many other self-help books? Social structure. The fact that we live in a broader society that has specific economic policies working for or against our getting rich, or a labor market that might help or inhibit having an awesome career never seems to encroach on the dream-like state that many of these books create for readers. While some spiritually oriented books encourage readers to critically examine our material desires, others regard consumption as a reward—one that maybe should be delayed but shouldn’t be denied.

Journalist Barbara Ehrenreich’s 2009 book Bright Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Bright sidedPositive Thinking has Undermined America does an excellent job of detailing other problems with the self-help movement. She begins by revealing that she was diagnosed with breast cancer and was encouraged to think her way into better health by many support organizations that promoted positive thinking as central to healing.

Now, having a positive attitude might make a difficult experience easier, but as Ehrenreich notes, feelings of anger, sadness, and fear become pathologized. Worse yet, individuals who can’t always remain positive might be blamed for their illness, or terminally ill people might feel like they failed to think their way back to good health.

By focusing only on the role of the individual, we might overlook very important structural conditions: what kind of early detection do people across the economic spectrum have access to? How might environmental factors affect who gets sick in the first place?

Both Ehrenreich and sociologist Micki McGee, author of Self-Help, Inc.: Makeover Culture in American Life, detail how the self-help industry both benefits from and masks the insecurity of the Self helplabor market. As layoffs become more common--and rewarded by Wall Street with rising stock prices--employees have been encouraged to see the loss of a job as a positive opportunity or their own fault. Companies often hire motivational speakers to coach their employees to meet sales goals or achieve more with fewer resources and encourage workers to examine their own psychological make-up as the key to career success, not taking the labor market or economy into account. Ehrenreich points out that since corporations are often the main clients of such speakers, they have an incentive to ignore broader organizational conditions in their books and other products they sell. The take away message: if you get laid off, you have no one to blame but yourself.

Yes, it is easier to be around people who are friendly and positive than those who are grumpy or otherwise have difficulty getting along with others. But there is a danger to being surrounded by people who are so committed to seeing the bright side that they ignore reality. Ehrenreich points out that this is exactly what happened during the economic crash of 2007-2008, when few workers in the financial industry questioned the likelihood of mortgaged-backed securities going bust. That the housing market—on which these investments were based—would always increase in value makes no sense. In this case relentlessly thinking positive had detrimental effects.

Making the most of your skills, talents, and ambitions is a worthy goal, one that I continue to pursue myself. And visualizing the life we want can help us get clearer on how to get there. But we can’t forget that we live in a broader society that is shaped by events that we often have no control over. Ehrenreich reminds us that sometimes we have to face reality in order to change not just ourselves, but the world around us as well.


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I actually agree and disagree. The book written by, Balbara Enrenreich tells us that thinking positive is not always the key to success. Yes it is good to think positive because positive attitude will make you a happier person over all. However, at times people have to realize that it is not only the positive attitude you put in but the amount of effort as well. The more effort you put into something, the better it will turn out to be. Although, this is just my personal opinion.

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