"Mellow out or you will pay"

by Rob Horning

24 January 2007


“Pathologies of Hope,” Barbara Ehrenreich’s editorial in the most recent Harper’s, seeks to throw some cold water on the budding positive psychology movement (detailed in this NYT magazine piece), which she argues is basically a call to narcissistic selfishness, if not more useless self-blaming advice along the lines of Who Moved My Cheese? The “insight” of that slim pernicious volume is that change in business is inevitable and unstoppable (the dumbed-down version of what Schumpeter called “creative destruction”) and it is incumbent upon you not to ask why things are changing as they are but to meekly adapt to whatever they happen to be. Essentially you are powerless, the book reminds you, just a rat in a maze, so you should accept the fact that your betters are experimenting on you rather than seek an end to the cruelty. If you accept the inevitablility of the situation, you might just be happy within it.

It’s no accident that Martin Seligman, the guru of the positive psychology movement, is also credited with formulating the theory of learned helplessness, wherein subjects internalize conditions in which they are deprived of agency and come to feel they are incapable of doing anything meaningful. They blame themselves for things out of their control and think any action they will take will compound failure. This is basically the flip side of positive psychology, which also encourages you to see personal agency where you have none, but rather than developing negative momentum by assuming false reponsibility for bad things, you try to develop positive momentum by spuriously assuming unwarranted responsibility for good things. Some of the same misattributions that cause depression can also cause inexplicable baseless happiness (i.e. optimism); basically, emotional cause and effect are presumed to be reversible—we feel depressed or happy, and derive rationalizations for this afterward.

Of course, that is not how positive psychology is sold to its practictioners. Telling someone to simply pretend to be happy no matter what the circumstances is unlikely to be convincing. Instead happiness gurus emphasize doing good deeds (sending letters of gratitude, aggressively smiling at people) as these promote a feeling of positive agency—they give the fundamental attribution error something to work with. And you should discover what you are good at and shape your personality around that, to enhance the likelihood of flow experiences, of being “in the zone” and experiencing “mindfulness.”

Ehrenrich, a cancer survivor who was infuriated at the constant injunction that she needed to have a positive attitude about her situation to get better, is having none of this. Pretending that positive thinking can magically make miracles happen and remove all obstacles from life seems to her a dangerous illusion, not merely because it detaches a person from reality (“should I assume, positively, that no one is going to cut in front of me or, more negatively, be prepared to brake?”) but because “it seems to reduce our tolerance of other people’s suffering…. If no one will listen to my problems, I won’t listen to theirs: ‘no whining’ as the popular bumper stickers and wall plaques warn.” In other words, positive psychology undermines the effects of sympathy that Adam Smith, et. al., found so fundamental to the healthy functioning of a society otherwise fixated on self-interest. If Ehrenreich is right,  positive psychology instructs people to ignore the impulse to understand other’s feelings and instead impose on them your positive mood by force—like Rousseau suggested, you will force them to be free. As a more-contemporary philosopher bitterly noted, “Mellow out or you will pay.”

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