From Oprah to New Age philosophy, ‘positive thinking’ has become a hugely influential movement in business circles, the religious sphere, in pop medicine, and elsewhere. In Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, Barbara Ehrenreich makes the case that the movement is poorly thought out and damaging. Her arguments are convincing, especially when it comes to situations where positive thinking is used to blame the victim when they suffer as the result of developments beyond their control: be it the movement towards corporate downsizing (which corresponded with the rise of motivational speakers in the workplace) or the unjustified assertion that cancer patients are responsible for their own worsening or recovery, on the basis of the mental attitudes they maintain.

Ehrenreich highlights how relentless optimism leads to dangerous groupthink, in which risks are downplayed and those who raise legitimate worries are sidelined. She provides ample evidence that these factors played a role in the inflation of the global house price bubble, and have continued to have important economic and political effects. These include the weird state of deluded isolation in which society’s richest people now reside. She also spends considerable time discussing the warped theology in which god is seen as a sort of mail-order service, happy to send you whatever good things (houses, cars, promotions) you are able to ‘manifest’ for yourself, simply by fervently desiring them.

Positive thinking involves a weird reversal, when it comes to dealing with risks. They cease to be external (concern that your company might fire you to improve their short-term profitability) and become entirely internal (fears about what your state of mind might do to you). It is also tied fundamentally to the notion that happiness is not most important in itself, but rather insofar as it influences events: “Nothing underscores the lingering Calvinism of positive psychology more than this need to put happiness to work – as a means to health and achievement, or what the positive thinkers call ‘success.'” The former tendency puts people in danger of worrying about the wrong things, while the latter strategy puts them at risk of seeking to achieve particular outcomes in nonsensical ways. That is especially dangerous when it comes to making big purchases on credit, firm in your belief that the universe will provide you with the means of dealing with it later.

Ehrenreich’s points are well-taken, though the book can be a bit tedious to read at times. There are also some partial contradictions. It is repeatedly asserted that there is no medical evidence that thinking positively improves health outcomes, yet it is taken as plausible that George Beecher was able to speed his demise through negative thinking. In the course of her analysis on the medical evidence, Ehrenreich claims to be “not in a position to evaluate” evidence that those with a positive outlook may have some protection against heart disease, but is seemingly happy to evaluate research on other illnesses that confirms her hypothesis.

All told, Ehrenreich makes important points about the poisonous institutional culture that accompanies an excessive focus on positivism – and the view that individuals are almost entirely responsible for what happens to them. Her concluding call for ‘realistic’ thinking is certainly appropriate enough, though perhaps she does not go far enough in suggesting how the empire of positive thinking she has mapped the outlines of might be deconstructed. As the world continues to grapple with real problems, magical thinking cannot be a substitute for dispassionate analysis, risk management, and contingency planning. How we get from our world to one more like that, however, remains mysterious.

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{ 39 comments… read them below or add one }

alena February 1, 2010 at 2:49 pm

I read Bright-Sided with one of my students and I found it confusing and not that useful. Although I am not a fan of self-help and new-age style books, I strongly support positive thinking. As a teacher and a counselor, I have seen the power it has over and over again. Positive thinking can elate, motivate and give strength at a painful time. I also strongly disagree that it played any role in the economic crisis. Overall, greed in various forms takes the responsibility for that. Be realistic for sure, but on a personal level and especially when dealing with others, positive thinking is a great tool.

Milan February 1, 2010 at 3:21 pm

Positive thinking contributed to the credit crunch in several ways, as the book demonstrates:

1) People with poor credit were encouraged to take out big mortgages, with claims that positive thinking would bring along money to pay for them. Some churches apparently encouraged this a lot.

2) Individuals also took on other debt, including credit card debt. This was also encouraged by motivational speakers.

3) Regulators took an overly positive view of the ability of firms to regulate themselves.

4) Senior executives at firms, including those heavily exposed to mortgage-related risk, rejected assessments that drew attention to the risks they were facing, while embracing assessments that envisioned rosy future economic conditions.

Maintaining a policy of ignoring risks while striving to constantly maintain a view that the future will be prosperous obviously sets people up for major problems, when excessive risks start to generate big losses and asset values begin to fall.

. February 1, 2010 at 3:46 pm

Lexington
Bah, humbug
The virtues of pessimism

Dec 17th 2009 | From The Economist print edition

America would be in better shape if banks had listened to the killjoys who warned that house prices would not rise for ever.

The prattling pedlars of positivism deserve to be mocked. But Ms Ehrenreich goes further. She argues that the cult of positive thinking makes capitalism even more heartless. Big corporations use self-help mumbo-jumbo to convince employees that they bear responsibility for their own fate, absolving employers from having to care for them. Outplacement agencies teach the freshly “downsized” to smile and polish their interview skills. Ms Ehrenreich wishes workers would agitate for job security and more “democratically organised workplaces”. Good luck with that.

. February 1, 2010 at 3:51 pm

September 24, 2008
How Positive Thinking Wrecked the Economy

Greed – and its crafty sibling, speculation – are the designated culprits for the ongoing financial crisis, but another, much admired, habit of mind should get its share of the blame: the delusional optimism of mainstream, all-American, positive thinking. As promoted by Oprah, scores of megachurch pastors, and an endless flow of self-help bestsellers, the idea is to firmly belief that you will get what you want, not only because it will make you feel better to do so, but because thinking things, “visualizing” them – ardently and with concentration – actually makes them happen. You will be able to pay that adjustable rate mortgage or, at the other end of the transaction, turn thousands of bad mortgages into giga-profits, the reasoning goes, if only you truly believe that you can.

Positive thinking is endemic to American culture – from weight loss programs to cancer support groups – and in the last two decades it put down deep roots in the corporate world as well. Everyone knows that you won’t get a job paying more than $15 an hour unless you’re a “positive person” — doubt-free, uncritical, and smiling—and no one becomes a CEO by issuing warnings of possible disaster. According to a rare skeptic, a Washington-based crisis management consultant I interviewed on the eve of the credit meltdown in 2007, even the magical idea that you can have whatever you truly want has been “viral” in the business culture. All the tomes in airport bookstores’ business sections scream out against “negativity” and advise the reader to be at all times upbeat, optimistic and brimming with confidence—a message companies relentlessly reinforced by treating their white collar employees to manic motivational speakers and revival-like motivational events. The top guys, meanwhile, would go off to get pumped up in exotic locales with the likes of success guru Tony Robbins. Those who still failed to get with the program could be subjected to personal “coaching” or of course, shown to the door.

The same frothy wave of mandatory optimism swept through the once-sober finance industry. On their websites, scores of motivational speakers proudly list companies like Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch among their clients. Angelo Mozilo, the former CEO of Countrywide Mortgage whose subprime ventures precipitated the entire crisis, was known for his congenital optimism and described in the Guardian earlier this year as “absurdly upbeat” even as his industry unraveled. No one was psychologically prepared for hard times, when they hit, because, according to the tenets of positive thinking, even to think of trouble is to bring it on. In May, the New York Times reported that Merrill, caught up short, was suddenly trying to “temper the Pollyannas in its ranks,” and force its analysts to occasionally say the word “sell.”

For those at the very top of the corporate hierarchy, all this positive thinking must not have seemed delusional at all. They actually could have almost anything they wanted, just by expressing the desire. CEO compensation has ballooned in recent years, creating the new class of billionaires and centi-millionaires who inhabit Lear jets and four-figure a night hotel rooms, who can dispatch a private plane who pick up a favorite wine, or a pet, they happen to have left in the Hamptons. According to a new book from the UK, Unjust Rewards by Polly Toynbee and David Walker, these masters of the universe tend to be seriously uninformed about how the other 99 percent lives and, Toynbee told me, often uncomprehending of the financial operations – the derivatives, CDS’s, etc. – that their wealth is derived from. If you live in a bubble of perfect wish-fulfillment, how could you imagine that, for example, some poor fellow in Cleveland might run up against unexpected medical bills or car problems that could waylay his mortgage payments?

Americans did not start out as deluded optimists. The original ethos, at least of white Protestant settlers and their descendents, was a grim Calvinism that offered wealth only through hard work and savings, and even then made no promises at all. You might work hard and still fail; you certainly wouldn’t get anywhere by adjusting your attitude or dreamily “visualizing” success. Calvinists thought “negatively” as we would say today, carrying a weight of guilt and foreboding that sometimes broke their spirits. It was in response to this harsh ethos that positive thinking arose– among mystics, lay healers, and transcendentalists – in the 19th century, with its crowd-pleasing message that God, or the universe, is really on your side, that you can actually have whatever you want, if the wanting is focused enough.

When it comes to how we think, “negative” is not the only alternative to “positive.” As the case histories of depressives show, consistent pessimism can be just as baseless and deluded as its opposite. The alternative to both is realism – seeing the risks, having the courage to bear bad news, and being prepared for famine as well as plenty. Now, with our savings, our homes and our livelihoods on the line, we ought to give it a try.

coyote February 1, 2010 at 5:46 pm

Sounds like Ehrenreich’s thesis has points.

I think there may be a case to be made for something like positive thinking, spiritual happiness, plain happiness, or whatever you want to label it, having internal benefits, such as allowing someone living with chronic pain or disease to bear it more easily. Actually curing these things seems less plausible. But since biology is a mass of connections and we don’t understand all of them, maybe there’s something there, somewhere.

But quasi/pop/psych/religious phenomena like The Secret disturb me because they purport to be guides to using the mind to control matters that are entirely external. Positive outcomes are often about importuning greed and materialism, with prestigious cars, houses and jewelry figuring prominently. This seems to make one’s higher power of choice or spiritual basis little more than a 4-year-old’s notion of Santa Claus. Or a broken ATM. Magical thinking, indeed.

Milan February 1, 2010 at 5:50 pm

Ehrenreich refers to that general belief as the ‘law of attraction’ – basically the notion in pop psychology, motivational speaking, and some sorts of theology that you can make things happen in the real world just by wishing for them (and often by providing some cash to the person who is passing this message on to you).

. February 1, 2010 at 5:54 pm

Law of Attraction
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The phrase Law of Attraction, used widely by New Thought writers, refers to the idea that thoughts influence chance. The Law of Attraction argues that thoughts (both conscious and unconscious) can affect things outside the head, not just through motivation, but by other means. Essentially, “if you really want something and truly believe it’s possible, you’ll get it”, but putting a lot of attention and thought onto something you don’t want means you’ll probably get that too.

Various scientists have stated that many of the Law’s claims are impossible, violating scientific principles and a scientific understanding of the universe.

R.K. February 1, 2010 at 6:00 pm

The owner of the boat in today’s photo should definitely read up on positive thinking and the law of attraction.

With a bit of mental effort, they could surely get themselves a shiny new yacht and a bevy of bikini-clad babes to sail around in it with.

alena February 1, 2010 at 9:08 pm

Milan,
there is nothing new-age about the ‘Law of attraction” as you define it. Tibetan pilgrims travel 100’s of kilometers prostrating themselves until their reach a monastery temple. they carry a wish and some yak butter to grease the wheel. People of all faiths do something similar. Those who follow money as their god, do exactly the same thing. In my opinion, these practices are very different from positive thinking. Positive thinking is an internal tool that can give us courage in dreadful times and it makes life worth living. Don’t underestimate its value.

Jill M Taylor February 1, 2010 at 11:08 pm

Do you know that everything that happens or anything that has ever happened in your life is, without exception, an almost complete response to your thoughts… And especially to the emotions behind those thoughts? Take a look at your life. There are probably few areas that make you are really happy, and other areas that keep disappointing you. Similarly, it is possible that you believe to be the victim of the circumstances of your life. I am here today to tell you that you\’re not a victim! It is simply to understand how to play the game of life – by understanding the law of attraction.

It seems that the law of attraction works for perfectly for millions of people around the world, who can talk you for hours about miraculous changes that took place in their lives. Most of them were able to solve problems, to find love and to heal themselves. The secret lies probably in the power of autosuggestion.

But what are the principles on which the law of attraction is based? How does it work?

Consider yourself a magnet that attracts energies in accordance with the subtle vibrations produced by your thoughts and emotions. Happenings and experiences you live are the result of your thoughts. If you don\’t trust yourself and your ability to attract wealth, love and health, you block the positive energy, because your impatience acts as a barrier. It is said that lucky people are more detached from their ultimate purpose, leaving the laws of the universe to help them. Lucky people feel lucky and trust themselves, without being overwhelmed by problems that any human being has in every moment of his life.

Try to create a clear image of the desired life. If you need more money, don\’t always think that you have no money right now, but on the contrary, imagine how you spend money to buy all the things you want. Avoid complaining or saying that you\’re poor.

Love yourself! Love and positive thoughts attract positive energies. The easiest and most effective way to accomplish your desires is to imagine that you have already obtained the object of your desire, that it is part of your everyday life. When you want something, you should focus your thoughts and attention on it; by thinking intensely, you are emitting vibrations that attract positive things to your life.

Rachel February 2, 2010 at 3:07 am

Ha! I just wanted to add that as I was reading through the comments here, I flipped on the tv to watch the Daily Show and the ad that was airing was a recent BC Lottery Corp Lotto Max ad. I don’t know how many of your readers are in BC Milan, but the theme of these commercials is “can you imagine?” and they totally play on the idea that if you want it bad enough you’ll get it. I just wanted to share that little coincidence…

Sarah February 2, 2010 at 3:53 am

Good post & I loved the Economist article linked above.

Is Jill up there providing a deliberate parody or is that just a convenient intervention?

Jo Jordan February 2, 2010 at 5:46 am

Where are these institutions that are unrelentingly positive? When I sit on a commuting train, I don’t see a lot of happy faces? The surveys don’t indicate happiness at work either.

They report defeatism, anxiety, fear, hopelessness.

But point me to those happy places. I want to be there.

Milan February 2, 2010 at 9:24 am

Rachel,

I think lotto advertising is definitely morally dubious.

It is one thing to say: “If we don’t offer games of chance, organized crime groups will instead and the outcomes will be worse.”

It is quite another to then go on and implicitly lie to people about the probability of winning.

Milan February 2, 2010 at 9:33 am

Is Jill up there providing a deliberate parody or is that just a convenient intervention?

That text, and minor variations thereon, is all over the web. My guess is that someone has a Google alert set for “positive thinking” and goes around pasting the comment on various pages.

BuddyRich February 2, 2010 at 11:10 am

I definitely am not a supporter of a magical law of attraction, but often times a thought and/or desire has to preceed the outcome, if only to get the causality ball rolling. Sure you could lead a perfectly desireless and intentless life and good and bad stuff would still happen to you but having that initial intent increases your odds of that intent happening.

However in the case of banks, etc. I think greed was still at the root of their maladies and that positive thinking mantra was just an excuse. CEOs surrounded themselves with yes men not because of the positive thinking but because listening to their advice led to the greatest short term profit appealing to their greed.

alena February 2, 2010 at 12:18 pm

Winning the lottery does not reflect “positive thinking”, but rather “wishful thinking” and or desperation/greed. Positive thinking in my eyes is more of an affirmative approach to problem solving and a world outlook. A person either has it or not and it is not something that you learn along the way. An exception to that is in the case of people who have had a brush with death and who begin to see the world in a different way because of a sense of gratitude.

Emily February 2, 2010 at 2:19 pm

Is it possible that we’re falsely equating a number of different approaches, and describing them all under the heading ‘positive thinking’?

There has to be at least three variations of positive thinking:

1. Positive thinking with a corporate bent; ie., systematically learned habits and thinking games with the aim to generate more financial success.

2. Positive thinking as a holistic, systematized approach to life (ie., positive thinking as taught as a discipline through self-help books).

3. Positive thinking as an unsystematized, personally beneficial practise.

I would have the first two distinguished at the very least by capitalization, because they are a kind of ‘trade-marked’ system that is marketed by people like our good friend Jill. And the third as a kind of unmarketable, infinitely variable, and personally defined mode of thinking.

Milan February 2, 2010 at 2:38 pm

I think the definition that Ehrenreich is using is fairly clear: the idea that the most important determining factor in what happens to people is their mental attitude, and that this includes matters outside their conscious control. Also, the specific versions of this doctrine expressed by certain American motivational speakers and preachers.

While risk-taking can obviously be an activity that produces good outcomes, it is inescapable that a mindset where you ignore risks and focus only on positive possible outcomes can get you into serious trouble. It is also convincing that positive thinking, seen in this way, has been used to ‘blame the victim’ in cases like cancer patients and victims of corporate downsizing.

Emily February 2, 2010 at 3:30 pm

I still feel as though positive thinking as it is colloquially used, and Positive Thinking that is defined as a kind of uniformly defined discipline are different.

The latter is perhaps an exaggerated, or hyperbolized form of the former. I still see them as distinct from one another.

Emily February 2, 2010 at 3:32 pm

Or maybe I’m conflating ‘thinking positively’ with ‘positive thinking’…

Milan February 2, 2010 at 3:32 pm

I think the key has to do with how you treat risk. If you ignore it completely, you are engaging in dangerous Positive Thinking. If you remain duly aware of it, while also focusing on what is good in life and what you can achieve, you are probably engaged in a benign form of positive thinking.

Milan February 2, 2010 at 3:34 pm

It is also grossly unfair to use positive thinking to accuse cancer victims, tsunami victims, and others of creating their own problems.

Ehrenreich quotes a New Age thinker who argues that the victims of the Asian tsunami were struck because their thinking was on the same ‘frequency’ as the disaster, and that anyone not adopting a poor mental attitude would have been spared.

Her account of the ways in which breast cancer victims are infantalized is also quite interesting.

Emily February 2, 2010 at 4:34 pm

Just as in every social or political movement, there are practitioners that claim the damndest things.

It seems unwise to dismiss positive thinking altogether because a radical practitioner takes it to another generally unreasonable dimension.

alena February 2, 2010 at 5:57 pm

Why should we give so much credit to Ehrenreich who is simply exploiting the other side of the “positive thinking” coin? In my eyes , risky behavior is also not related to positive thinking. One is an action, the other a motivator to do better. I agree with Emily that positive thinking can be defined in many ways and thus putting them all in the same slot is like saying that all types of love are irrational.

Milan February 2, 2010 at 6:49 pm

Having read her book, you are in an unusually good position to assess where Ehrenreich’s arguments apply and where they do not.

I never claimed that all forms of positive thinking were necessarily harmful. I have made specific claims about places where her allegations seem plausible.

. February 3, 2010 at 8:09 pm

Motivational speaker charged in sweat lodge deaths

By FELICIA FONSECA
The Associated Press
Wednesday, February 3, 2010; 7:58 PM

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — Motivational speaker James Arthur Ray was arrested Wednesday afternoon on three counts of manslaughter for deaths that happened after a sweat lodge ceremony he led in northern Arizona last year. Ray was taken into custody on an indictment at his attorney’s office in Prescott, and was to be booked into the Yavapai County jail in Camp Verde, sheriff’s officials said. His bond was set at $5 million.

Ray’s attorneys said Wednesday he surrendered to authorities but that the charges were unjust and they were confident he would be exonerated in court.

“This was a terrible accident, but it was an accident, not a criminal act,” Ray attorney Luis Li said. “James Ray cooperated at every step of the way, providing information and witnesses to the authorities showing that no one could have foreseen this accident.”

The Oct. 8 sweat lodge ceremony was intended to be the highlight of Ray’s five-day “Spiritual Warrior” event at a retreat he rented just outside Sedona. He told participants, who paid more than $9,000 each to attend, that it would be one of the most intense experiences of their lives.

About halfway through the two-hour ceremony, some began feeling ill, vomiting and collapsing inside the 415-square-foot structure. Despite that, Ray urged participants to push past their physical weaknesses and chided those who wanted to leave, authorities and participants have said.

Two people – Kirby Brown, 38, of Westtown, N.Y., and James Shore, 40, of Milwaukee – passed out inside the sweat lodge and died that night at a hospital. Liz Neuman, 49, of Prior Lake, Minn., slipped into a coma and died a week later. Eighteen others were hospitalized.

oleh February 5, 2010 at 9:30 am

This is an extremely interesting discussion.

I also believe in the power of positive thinking to enhance a sense of well-being. I think of that well-being stretching well beyond material well-being. My concern is that if people are relying on “positive thinking” to improve their economic position, that is too narrow, and maybe even misplaced.

Living positively can more easily be to be positive of one’s current position. The commuters on Jo Jo Jordan’s train seem unhappy. I wonder if the person next to them struck up a cheerful conversation, whether that might create a positive sense of well-being.

I have returned from Mexico , relatively poor country. People seemed more happy and more outgoing towards each other than we are in Canada, despite their relative lack of personal wealth.

. March 1, 2010 at 11:07 am

“”We didn’t realize we were signing up for Lamaze when we enrolled for the “childbirth classes” at our hospital. The classes were sold as an opportunity to meet other parents who would have babies at about the same time as us, to get a tour of the birthing rooms and nursery, and to ask questions about the stages of labor and delivery. We didn’t realize we’d also be getting indoctrinated in the virtues of drug-free childbirth. We didn’t realize (and I could never have imagined) that we would be told how important physical pain was to the process of becoming a mother. And we definitely didn’t know that the whole dog and pony show was underwritten, in part, by a consortium of health insurers who were interested in reducing the amount they spent on anesthesia during delivery.

Now I want to stress that this happened fourteen years ago, and I have no reason to think that our Lamaze lady typified Lamaze instruction generally. But she did nothing to incline me toward natural childbirth. Quite the opposite, in fact. By the time we had finished the classes, I was a complete reactionary on the subject, and would have asked for, and taken, anything the doctor had within reach, from aspirin to laudanum. It was the principle of the thing.

Because the class wasn’t so much about How to Have a Baby as it was about Just Saying No to Pain Relief. Pain, the Lamaze lady informed our class, is a natural part of childbirth, and if you don’t experience the pain, you’re missing out on one of the most beautiful parts of becoming a mother. She warned us that many women are disappointed if they have to have anesthesia during delivery because they feel they missed out on a life-changing experience. Well, that’s sad, I though; why doesn’t someone reassure those women that experiencing pain doesn’t actually make you a better mother?

My husband and I initially thought our “childbirth class” instructor was laying on the “avoid drugs during delivery” spiel a little thick, but she seemed very earnest, and we had already discussed the matter with our doctor anyway, so we sort of ignored the proselytizing tone. It wasn’t until we got into the particulars of active labor, and how my husband was supposed to support me through it, that we realized we had some fundamental differences of opinion.

“Now, when she really starts feeling pain,” the Lamaze lady explained to my husband, “She’ll probably ask for some pain relief. Your job is to tell her, ‘No, you don’t need it.'”

My husband somehow refrained from laughing outright, but he also refused to lie to the woman. “I’m not going to do that,” he told her flatly. She was obviously taken aback, but she didn’t know me, and he does. He knew when he married me that he was getting an educated, well-informed woman with very strong opinions and piss-poor impulse control. He happens to agree with me that women should get to make their own choices about their bodies. Plus he’s seen me break boards. One reason we’ve remained married for 21 years is that neither of us presumes to tell the other how much pain is OK for that other person to suffer. Especially when one of us is giving birth to the other’s child.

“But if you go ahead with the epidural,” she cautioned me, “You can’t go back. You won’t get the full experience of childbirth.”

The “full experience”? I thought. I’m not going to a goddamned weekend spa. My husband recognized the expression on my face and, cutting me off adroitly, managed to convince the Lamaze lady that I would be making my own choices about pain management, and that his “job” would be to support me in whatever decision I made.

This was my introduction to the hierarchy of evil in childbirth drugs, or, as I have come to think of it, the anti-feminist pharmacopeia of inverse rationality. Here’s how it works, from the natural childbirth standpoint, which you would do well to remember is also (by an astonishing coincidence) the health insurance industry’s standpoint: The “best” option is no drugs to relieve the pain. Result: You will be out of your mind with pain, but you won’t cost the insurance company anything. The “next best” option is something that doesn’t take away the pain but does seriously impair your connection to reality. Result: You will be out of your mind with pain and high as a kite, but you will be more tractable and presumably not asking for other, more expensive drugs. The “worst” option, from the Lamaze lady’s perspective, was the spinal block, which stops the pain and doesn’t impair your cognitive faculties. Result: The pain goes away and you can think and make decisions, just like a real grownup! But you have cost the insurance company twelve hundred dollars. “

. June 15, 2010 at 12:11 pm

RSA Animate – Smile or Die

Acclaimed journalist, author and political activist Barbara Ehrenreich explores the darker side of positive thinking.

. October 6, 2010 at 10:23 am

“A few weeks ago, I stood among 21,000 people at the Susan G. Komen Foundation’s annual Race for the Cure in New York City. The participants, including me and 1,500 other breast-cancer survivors, walked, ran, or wheeled their way to the finish line in Central Park. Nearby was a “survivors’ village.” I wandered about, uncertain whether I belonged.

Survivor seems a strange term for a patient like me, said by her oncologist to be in remission—meaning that there’s no overt evidence of persistent cancer cells in the body. The National Cancer Institute defines a “cancer survivor” as someone who’s had a malignant tumor and remains alive. This holds whether you’re thriving after a single intervention, like surgical excision of a small tumor, or struggling for years with metastatic illness. The American Cancer Society reports that nearly 12 million Americans are living today after a cancer diagnosis; each of us is a “survivor.”

In the decades following World War II, most Americans reserved the term survivor for those who endured prolonged, traumatic experiences: a POW camp or the Holocaust. Recently, however, its meaning has evolved, influenced by factors ranging from the trivial, like the popular TV show Survivor, which aired its first U.S. season in 2000, to the tragic, like the images that we encountered the following September of those souls who escaped from burning skyscrapers in Lower Manhattan.

I can’t help but wrestle with the expression. The Latin roots—super and vīvere—support a straightforward meaning: that a person has outlived another. As an oncologist, I’m not convinced of this label’s accuracy, at least as it applies to a woman living after breast cancer; this, like some lymphomas and other tumors, can recur years, even decades after treatment ends. What’s more, I worry the “survivor” lingo might cause harm: Just as the term can support or reflect upon a patient’s courage and tenacity, it might alienate or wound someone who knows she can’t alter the course of her disease.

. October 6, 2010 at 10:25 am

“At a deeper level, what’s wrong is that the expression connotes strength or heroism. Today, survivor feeds into the concept of cancer as some sort of contest of harsh ordeals. Best sellers like Dr. David Servan-Schreiber’s Anticancer: A New Way of Life push the impression that survival implies you’ve done something right. The fault’s in the converse: If you don’t lick your tumor, you’ve failed. Maybe you chose the wrong treatment plan, ate the wrong foods, exercised too little or too much, or weren’t sufficiently optimistic. But cancer is not a mystic life challenge or game. It’s a disease, or really a set of complex diseases, that’s common, feared, and widely misunderstood. “

. December 1, 2010 at 9:51 pm
. August 23, 2011 at 6:24 pm
peer reviewed science January 30, 2013 at 9:26 am

“A study by Affleck, Tennen, Pfeiffer, and Fifeld (1987) , which appeared too late to be included in the Taylor and Brown review, suggests that it may be maladaptive for individuals to believe they have control over an indisputably serious chronic disease.”

Affleck, G., Tennen, H., Pfeiffer, C. & Fifield, J. (1987). Appraisals of control and predictability in adapting to a chronic disease.( Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53, 273—279.)

peer reviewed science January 30, 2013 at 9:28 am

“Burish et al. (1984) also suggested that an external, objectifying orientation rather than an internal, personal orientation may be advantageous in dealing with a chronic disease to avoid the selfblame likely to ensue when personal control fails to prevent the subsequent adverse downward course of the illness.”

Burish, T., Carey, M., Wallston, K., Stein, M., Jamison, R. & Lyles, J. (1984). Health locus of control and chronic disease: An external orientation may be advantageous.( Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 2, 326—332.)

. October 27, 2014 at 5:57 pm

The NY Times explains research into how our mindset can influence results. The common refrain when striving for a goal is to stay positive and imagine success — people say this will help you accomplish what you want. But a series of psychological experiments show such thinking tends to have exactly the opposite effect. “In a 2011 study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, we asked two groups of college students to write about what lay in store for the coming week. One group was asked to imagine that the week would be great. The other group was just asked to write down any thoughts about the week that came to mind. The students who had positively fantasized reported feeling less energized than those in the control group. As we later documented, they also went on to accomplish less during that week.” This research has been replicated across many types of people and many different goals.

Building on that research, the scientists developed a thought process called “mental contrasting,” where people are encouraged to think about their dreams coming true only for a few minutes before dedicating just as much time to thinking about the obstacles they’ll have to deal with. Experiments have demonstrated that subjects using these techniques were more successful at things like exercise and maintaining a healthy diet than a control group. “[D]reaming about the future calms you down, measurably reducing systolic blood pressure, but it also can drain you of the energy you need to take action in pursuit of your goals.”

. July 9, 2016 at 5:37 pm

Can all this positive thinking be actively harmful? Carl Cederström and André Spicer, authors of The Wellness Syndrome, certainly think so, arguing that obsessive ritualization of self-care comes at the expense of collective engagement, collapsing every social problem into a personal quest for the good life. “Wellness,” they declare, “has become an ideology.”

http://thebaffler.com/blog/laurie-penny-self-care

. July 9, 2016 at 5:50 pm

changing your attitude is not going to change or help to dismantle structural injustice and a failed and unsustainable economic model which serves only the elite rich of this world, and exploits the rest of us, particularly the working class and those living in poverty. As far as I am concerned positive thinking will fucking ruin your life. “Just think positive” is a precursor to “it gets better,” and the hard reality is it is only going to get much, much worse for our most vulnerable.

https://www.opendemocracy.net/transformation/chloe-king/dangers-of-radical-selflove

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