If you’re craving a quick hit of optimism, reading a news magazine is probably not the best way to go about finding it. As the life coaches and motivational speakers have been trying to tell us for more than a decade now, a healthy, positive mental outlook requires strict abstinence from current events in all forms. Instead, you should patronize sites like Happynews.com, where the top international stories of the week include “Jobless Man Finds Buried Treasure” and “Adorable ‘Teacup Pigs’ Are Latest Hit with Brits.”
Or of course you can train yourself to be optimistic through sheer mental discipline. Ever since psychologist Martin Seligman crafted the phrase “learned optimism” in 1991 and started offering optimism training, there’s been a thriving industry in the kind of thought reform that supposedly overcomes negative thinking. You can buy any number of books and DVDs with titles like Little Gold Book of YES! Attitude, in which you will learn mental exercises to reprogram your outlook from gray to the rosiest pink: “affirmations,” for example, in which you repeat upbeat predictions over and over to yourself; “visualizations” in which you post on your bathroom mirror pictures of that car or boat you want; “disputations” to refute any stray negative thoughts that may come along. If money is no object, you can undergo a three-month “happiness makeover” from a life coach or invest $3,575 for three days of “optimism training” on a Good Mood Safari on the coast of New South Wales.
But the question, before you whip out your credit card or start reciting your personal list of affirmations, is: What makes you think unsullied optimism is such a good idea Americans have long prided themselves on being “positive” and optimistic traits that reached a manic zenith in the early years of this millennium. Iraq would be a cakewalk! The Dow would reach 36,000! Housing prices could never decline! Optimism was not only patriotic, it was a Christian virtue, or so we learned from the proliferating preachers of the “prosperity gospel,” whose God wants to “prosper” you. In 2006, the runaway bestseller The Secret promised that you could have anything you wanted, anything at all, simply by using your mental powers to “attract” it. The poor listened to upbeat preachers like Joel Osteen and took out subprime mortgages. The rich paid for seminars led by motivational speakers like Tony Robbins and repackaged those mortgages into securities sold around the world.
Optimism wasn’t just a psycho-spiritual lifestyle option; by the mid-’00s it had become increasingly mandatory. Positive psychologists, inspired by a totally over-optimistic reading of the data, proclaimed that optimism lengthens the life span, ameliorates aging and cures cancer. In the last few years, some breast cancer support groups have expelled members whose tumors metastasized, lest they bring the other members down. In the workplace, employers culled “negative” people, like those in the finance industry who had the temerity to suggest that their company’s subprime exposure might be too high. No one dared be the bearer of bad news. The purpose of work, at least in white-collar settings, was to flatter and reassure the boss, who had in turn probably read enough of the business self-help literature to believe that his job was to motivate others with his own relentless and radiant optimism.
Two years into the Great Recession, it’s time to face the truth: Optimism feels good, really good, but it turns out to be the methamphetamine of run-amok American capitalism. Meth induces a “Superman Syndrome.” Optimism fed into what Steve Eisman, a banking analyst who foresaw the crash, calls “hedge-fund disease,” characterized by “megalomania, plus narcissism, plus solipsism” and the belief that “to think something is to make it happen.” The meth-head loses his teeth and his mind; the madcap optimists of Wall Street lost something like $10 trillion worth of pension funds, life savings and retirement accounts.
Fortunately, the alternative to optimism is not pessimism, which can be equally delusional. What we need here is some realism, or the simple admission that, to paraphrase a bumper sticker, “stuff happens,” including sometimes very, very bad stuff. We don’t have to dwell incessantly on the worst case scenarios the metastasis, the market crash or global pandemic but we do need to acknowledge that they could happen, and prepare in the best way we can. Some will call this “negative thinking,” but the technical term is sobriety.
Besides, the constant effort of maintaining optimism in the face of considerable counterevidence is just too damn much work. Optimism training, affirmations and related forms of self-hypnosis are a burden that we can finally, in good conscience, set down. They won’t make you richer or healthier, and, as we should have learned by now, they can easily put you in harm’s way. The threats that we face, individually and collectively, won’t be solved by wishful thinking, but by a clear-eyed commitment to taking action in the world.
Barbara Ehrenreich is the author of the forthcoming Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America .
See TIME’s Pictures of the Week.
Download TIME’s iPhone and BlackBerry application.