Monday, November 2, 2009

NEGATIVITY PART 5: Examining Positive Thinking

Barbara Ehrenreich has a new book out called Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. It caught my attention because I wondered if I myself could possibly be TOO positive. Could I be positive for the wrong reasons? And if I were to give up being positive, what else "should" I be? I wanted to know what was behind her point of view. To that end, I am going to edit some of her introduction here, which you can read in full at her website, as well as see the video clip of her on Jon Stewart's The Daily Show, where he greets her as "Hello, Grumpy!" My disclaimer is: I haven't read her whole book yet, AND I have thoughts. . . The following bulleted paragraphs are Ehrenreich's:

• Americans are a “positive” people. This is our reputation as well as our self-image. We smile a lot and are often baffled when people from other cultures do not return the favor. In the well-worn stereotype, we are upbeat, cheerful, optimistic, and shallow, while foreigners are likely to be subtle, world-weary, and possibly decadent. American expatriate writers like Henry James and James Baldwin wrestled with and occasionally reinforced this stereotype, which I once encountered in the 1980s in the form of a remark by Soviet émigré poet Joseph Brodsky to the effect that the problem with Americans is that they have "never known suffering." (Apparently he didn’t know who had invented the blues.) Whether we Americans see it as an embarrassment or a point of pride, being positive—in affect, in mood, in outlook—seems to be engrained in our national character.

• Scientists have found that the mere act of smiling can generate positive feelings within us, at least if the smile is not forced. In addition, good feelings, as expressed through our words and smiles, seem to be contagious: "Smile and the world smiles with you." . . .Recent studies show that happy feelings flit easily through social networks, so that one person’s good fortune can brighten the day even for only distantly connected others. . . .People who report having positive feelings are more likely to participate in a rich social life, and vice versa, and social connectedness turns out to be an important defense against depression, which is a known risk factor for many physical illnesses.

• So I take it as a sign of progress that, in just the last decade or so, economists have begun to show an interest in using happiness rather than just the gross national product as a measure of an economy’s success. Happiness is, of course, a slippery thing to measure or define. . . .In addition to the problems of measurement, there are cultural differences in how happiness is regarded and whether it is even seen as a virtue. Some cultures, like our own, value the positive affect that seems to signal internal happiness; others are more impressed by seriousness, self-sacrifice, or a quiet willingness to cooperate.

• Surprisingly, when psychologists undertake to measure the relative happiness of nations, they routinely find that Americans are not, even in prosperous times and despite our vaunted positivity, very happy at all. A recent meta-analysis of over a hundred studies of self-reported happiness worldwide found Americans ranking only twenty-third, surpassed by the Dutch, the Danes, the Malaysians, the Bahamians, the Austrians, and even the supposedly dour Finns. In another potential sign of relative distress, Americans account for two-thirds of the global market for antidepressants, which happen also to be the most commonly prescribed drugs in the United States. . . .When economists attempt to rank nations more objectively in terms of "well-being," taking into account such factors as health, environmental sustainability, and the possibility of upward mobility, the United States does even more poorly than it does when only the subjective state of “happiness” is measured. The Happy Planet Index, to give just one example, locates us at 150th among the world’s nations.

• How can we be so surpassingly "positive" in self-image and stereotype without being the world’s happiest and best-off people? The answer, I think, is that positivity is not so much our condition or our mood as it is part of our ideology—the way we explain the world and think we ought to function within it. . . .There is, we are told, a practical reason for undertaking this effort: positive thinking supposedly not only makes us feel optimistic but actually makes happy outcomes more likely. If you expect things to get better, they will. How can the mere process of thinking do this? In the rational explanation that many psychologists would offer today, optimism improves health, personal efficacy, confidence, and resilience, making it easier for us to accomplish our goals. A far less rational theory also runs rampant in American ideology—the idea that our thoughts can, in some mysterious way, directly affect the physical world. Negative thoughts somehow produce negative outcomes, while positive thoughts realize themselves in the form of health, prosperity, and success. For both rational and mystical reasons, then, the effort of positive thinking is said to be well worth our time and attention, whether this means reading the relevant books, attending seminars and speeches that offer the appropriate mental training, or just doing the solitary work of concentration on desired outcomes—a better job, an attractive mate, world peace.

The promotion of positive thinking has become a minor industry in its own right, producing an endless flow of books, DVDs, and other products; providing employment for tens of thousands of "life coaches," "executive coaches," and motivational speakers, as well as for the growing cadre of professional psychologists who seek to train them.

OK, I'll stop here for now; there is much more to Ehrenreich's introduction that I may address at another time. I find many of her points well-taken, and some, as the ones I highlighted in bold, above, laden with a bit too much cynicism and lack of understanding about the deeper dynamics of consciousness and spirituality. With Jon Stewart, she says we seem to have a "deficit of empathy" in our country, an "irrational exuberance," and "I never think delusion is OK." So, wading through the swampy layers of insight and possible distortion here, I want to speak to this a bit.

I deal with people every day who have suffered through traumas,
losses, and deaths and who are not pasting smiley faces all over their computers, mirrors, and refrigerators. They are sincerely pursuing the positive development of their inner character, their spiritual evolution, their healing. One woman, whose sister was murdered, told me that the memory of the violence and that kind of loss never leaves you; you must find a way to live WITH it. She works with the feelings in her art. Another man, whose 4-year-old daughter died in a tragic accident told me he tries to make his life "bigger," so his life has more spaciousness and room, so the loss of his child isn't such a primary focus, so it doesn't overwhelm him as much. These are not people who have a deficit of empathy, or who are pretending to be positive. They ARE positive, because they are acting in an expansive way without denying their experience.

Ehrenreich almost seems to be making fun of people's natural spiritual inclination, which in my experience is to grow and expand—in understanding, in love, in creative ability. I think, just like flowers and trees, we grow toward the source of Light, we bend toward Light, be it physical or spiritual. This "evolution urge" is nothing if not positive. People who truly embrace growthful change make a point of finding the positive meaning—that which frees us to be more loving, more understanding, and more creative—in whatever occurs in their experience. Even the loss of a beloved sibling or child can make us more loving, more understanding, more creative—if we look for how that could be possible, for what the connections are that could free us. Every "negative" or contracted experience is like a bow pulled back, about to release its arrow to fly to an expanded reality—if we release the arrow.

I define being positive as living in and experiencing what exists in the present moment. What exists takes up what artists and designers call "positive space." "Negative space" is the space around an object where "nothing" exists. Being negative is living in fictitious realities centered around what doesn't exist, what might never exist, what we don't have, what we can't do, etc. Think: worry, complaining, even mourning ad infinitum for the loss of a person in the physical form when their spiritual self is still present, right next to you, but at a higher vibration. Being negative doesn't allow us to experience the soul's reality, because the soul is accessed through presence in the present moment, through existence. So when people are positive, they have a better chance of receiving insight from their deepest self.

Being positive, then, is akin to being clear. It is my experience that a positive attitude—and I mean one that sees what exists, be it a high frequency of energy or a low one, an expanded reality or a contracted one—actually allows us to see more realistically, with less clutter. It helps us add to our sense of self rather than detract from it.

This is quite different from Ehrenreich's criticism of the willful imposition of "having to be positive" on one's reality because the person is afraid of being devastated by negative emotion that they haven't actually experienced yet, and may not, for all they know. This way of being doesn't allow all of life; it divides experience into good and evil and doesn't allow the yin-yang symbol's flow between light and dark, where you eventually experience firsthand how dark becomes light and light becomes dark and dark light, and on and on, and you see how, in the end. they are ONE FLOW. Stopping the flow becomes the real cause of suffering.

There are two kinds of "positive." Spiritually speaking there is what exists, and that experience is inclusive of expansion AND contraction, and doesn't equate contraction with negativity. Contraction may dredge up fear-based emotion, but of itself it is simply a mechanism that causes us to FOCUS or DISSOLVE a reality by removing attention. Mentally and emotionally speaking, however, positivity is the opposite of evil, destruction, and everything we've labeled as "bad." There are typically strong religious overtones, based on fixed belief systems. There is will power involved to maintain positivity so negativity doesn't sneak in through the door and take over. This way of seeing the world does not include the fullness of spiritual, mystical understanding. It is a world view that is still based on fear.

I'm wondering whether Ehrenreich should really be talking about fear as the main theme in her book. . .