PM Pick

"Mellow out or you will pay"

"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."

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less
6

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image