Gather round, you nattering nabobs of negativity. I have good news. Positive thinking is getting a drubbing.
Well, sort of. First, some background: A few weeks ago I wrote a column highly critical of Oprah's latest fetish, The Secret, an inane book and video that celebrate the so-called law of attraction. According to this made-up law, your thoughts attract whatever they focus on – literally. Focus on Britney Spears' thong, feel what it would be like to have it tied around your face, prepare to receive it – and it will soon be smothering you!
But, Oprah and friends warn, if you direct your thoughts in negative ways, either consciously or unconsciously, you will attract icky stuff. For example, say you read a column in Creative Loafing critical of The Secret, which has taught you the practical delight of sitting around the house, drumming your fingers while you wait for your lottery number to be picked.
The column annoys you – a lot! – and you write the author a blistering e-mail. The columnist writes you back and makes note that you are going to attract some serious shit with your negativity toward him. Hell, he might appear on your doorstep, trip, injure his spine and sue you for your lottery winnings. You quickly reverse yourself, wishing him a "blessed day" ... and you eat an entire pie.
The law of attraction is a ridiculous oversimplification of the so-called learned optimism of the positive psychology movement, which concerns itself with improving the lives of ordinary people instead of treating serious disorders. Although the founder of the movement, Martin Seligman, acknowledges that optimism is not always the best choice when making a decision, that message tends to get lost in popular culture's reading.
But two articles recently appeared to extol the value of negativity. One was a May 1 New York Times column by Atul Gawande, a surgeon at Harvard Medical School and staff writer for the New Yorker magazine.
In the column, headlined "The Power of Negative Thinking," Gawande argues that the key to success often is "actually negative thinking: looking for, and sometimes expecting, failure."
He uses as an example the scandal concerning aftercare at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Gawande notes that despite the horrific living conditions for aftercare patients, nearly all soldiers praised the staff at Walter Reed. The difference between initial care and outpatient care, Gawande writes, isn't attributable to the quality of staff in the different departments. Instead, he notes, initial-care personnel have been trained to study data and look for treatment and prevention failures that, once remedied, have reduced the death rate among wounded soldiers from 25 percent during the first Persian Gulf War to 10 percent now.
Contrarily, Gawande says, there was no organized effort to regularly uncover the failures of aftercare. Tellingly, when the scandal first erupted, authorities attempted to put a positive spin on it. Only a concerted study of the system's failures – not sunny optimism – can change conditions.
Gawande notes, of course, that it would be unhealthy to look for failure in all areas of one's life. But, in many cases, it's essential. Indeed, one could reasonably argue that it was George Bush's blind optimism and reliance on his "gut" that allowed him to invade Iraq without listening to those who anticipated failure. The refusal to consider the negative has mired us more deeply than ever in the negative.
The June issue of Psychology Today includes a piece by Jill Neimark that brings the definition of optimism itself under scrutiny. Although there is plenty of evidence to suggest optimism is an asset during many life dramas, Neimark's article debunks the Oprah-esque notion that an optimistic mood itself produces some kind of metaphysical advantage or, as is more popularly believed, produces a biochemical sense of well-being that improves health and immunity.
In several studies, it turns out optimistic people don't have an advantage because of their mental state itself but because they take action that more pessimistic people don't. Further, it appears that optimism that is not tempered by a willingness to adapt to negative reality, such as a lethal illness, can actually increase stress and reduce immune functioning. So effective optimism is a flexible behavior, not a relentless mood.
It ought to be self-evident that action counts more than mood itself, that a dose of pessimism is healthy. But the belief otherwise is an example of the magical thinking that pervades our culture from the White House to the living rooms of Oprah's fans. I'm glad to see science taking a stand for reality.
Cliff Bostock holds a Ph.D. in depth psychology. For information on his private practice, go to www.cliffbostock.com.
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