Or the Obligation to Be Up-Beat

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority has announced that soon all New York City Metrocards will be stamped “OPTIMISM.”  Positive thinking, our unofficial national ideology, is becoming harder and harder to escape.

Happiness and cheerfulness are good things, to be sure, as are self-confidence and faith.  Nor is optimism bad, by any means.  But there are downsides.

Right now, for example, in the aftermath of our financial crisis, we have very good reasons to be wary of optimism.  Too many people rashly overestimated their ability to pay the mortgages they were encouraged to take out on their houses, while too many investors bought mortgage derivatives based on the false expectation that real estate values would spiral ever upwards.  Banks over-extended themselves, while regulatory agencies and ratings services stopped worrying just at the point when they should have been fearful and pessimistic, when they should have forcefully said “no.”

Barbara Ehrenreich’s new book, Bright-Sided, describes our national obsession with positive thinking at a critical moment when it looks as if we are trying very hard not to learn the lessons of our recent mistakes.  She chronicles how positive thinking has been touted as a cure for cancer, causing many suffering from it to blame themselves if they do not get better.  It is seen as the key to financial success and upward mobility, some writers going to far as to proclaim: “God wants you to be rich.”  Increasingly it is viewed as a management strategy, where the “right attitude” is viewed as essential to success.

She notes that this trend parallels the deepening of the problems we face in our society, our deteriorating ssafety net, the growing gap between rich and poor, and rising uncertainty and pressure in the workplace.  She cites a recent meta-analysis that found Americans ranking only twenty-third worldwide in self-reported happiness, adding that we account for two-thirds of the global market for anti-depressants.  This is similar to a point made by Carlin Flora in Psychology Today last January: “According to some measures, as a nation we’ve grown sadder and more anxious during the same years that the happiness movement has flourished.”  Maybe, she offers, “that’s why we’ve eagerly bought up its offerings.” (See, “The Pursuit of Happiness.”)

There are a few other problems with positive thinking.  A full and rich life includes other mental and emotional states.  Life inevitably includes frustration, disappointment, loss, illness, and ultimately death.  Without the capacity for sadness those experiences engender, life would be two-dimensional.  Without nostalgia, longing, wistfulness, regret, and even grief, how could we understand others and expect to be understood in turn?

Moreover, anxiety and fear are clues that something is amiss.  Sadness tells us something, often something we need to hear about our relationship to the world.

Far worse, though, is the danger of proscribing such feelings by refusing to meet each other in their presence.  Nothing is worse that the isolation and guilt we induce by being unwilling to recognize what others are experiencing.  That makes us ungenerous, sometimes even cruel and punitive.