The negative consequences of positive attitudes

By SUSAN LIPPMAN

The evidence is amazingly underwhelming. Many say that positive attitudes can improve everything, from your relationships to your capacity to accumulate wealth to enable you to overcome the most serious of illnesses, like cancer and heart disease.

However, there is no evidence to prove any of those assertions. Yet, positive attitudes and positive and cognitive psychology have become very big business, quite lucrative for the purveyors -- and impoverishing for just about every else.

So what the hell am I talking about ?

0 - Progress Queens (Positivity).jpg

Well, corporations and the U.S. military love to tout positive attitudes. That way, when things go terribly wrong, and workers are unhappy with their horrible working conditions and lousy pay, positive attitude mentality will teach them that the problem has nothing to do with exploitative working conditions, but it is their negative attitude that needs to change. The military has also spent a fortune on positive attitude training for its soldiers, allegedly to prevent post-traumatic stress disorder in the face of war and killing. Despite the fact that morale remains low among soldiers, the training continues, because perhaps it might work for some people somewhere, but more likely because when soldiers question what they are fighting for and find out that they are not really fighting for freedom, but for control of things like oil and other resources, they’ll come to believe, miraculously, that the problem is merely their negative attitude, especially toward war and killing.

Why is it that the positive attitude mentality rears its ugly head especially in times of recession and depression ? Dale Carnegie’s book, "How to Win Friends and Influence People," was written and touted during the Great Depression of the 1930's. Napoleon Hill’s book, "How To Think and Grow Rich," was written in 1937. Carnegie changed his name from Carnagey, so that it would be the same as that of the infamous industrialist, Andrew Carnegie.

An acquaintance of mine believes strongly in what is known as the New Age Movement, in which, allegedly, everyone who has an illness, no matter how serious, must have wanted it on some level, some say even in a former life. What brazen bullshit. So the not-so-subtle message is that people are to be blamed for their own illnesses, and if you’re lucky enough to remain healthy despite the innumerable environmental toxins that poison us all, your attitude alone will keep you healthy. The same acquaintance says not only to me, but to everyone he meets (I am paraphrasing), "If you don’t accept New Age philosophy"  -- (if it can be called a philosophy) -- "it’s because you don’t understand it.” Is this fellow so much smarter than everyone else, and only he and the esoteric few can comprehend New Age bullshit ? What arrogance. How can you even begin to argue with someone who starts with the premise that his intellectual superiority renders him correct ?

The psychology industry has touted positive psychology and cognitive therapy as a panacea, especially for depression, but only the unscrupulous practitioners’ profit, and most of the hapless clients are harmed both emotionally and financially. The premise is that it’s your thinking that’s faulty. If you change your thinking, you’ll be a lot happier and have improved self-esteem.

There’s one common theme to these movements : that are proliferating like flies all over the place.

If you change your thinking patterns, everything will turn out fine, and your bad luck will magically be reversed.

Therefore, if you try to change your thinking and smile, when you really feel like crying, and it just doesn’t work, just try harder. That’s the toxic message by the purveyors of positive attitudes.

Your luck hasn’t gotten better. Your health hasn’t improved. You still hate your lousy job, if you still have one. Then, of course, there’s no one to blame but yourself. That’s the unspoken and unwritten conclusion, one that can lead to serious depression and even suicide.

Also, it gets the exploitative companies, and polluters completely off the hook for being responsible for creating horrifying conditions for the human experience. If it’s simply your attitude to blame, then the military-industrial complex can’t possibly have anything to do with your malaise.

Positivity as a form of social control

It’s ironic that, although in the United States, there’s probably more emphasis on what I’ll call the "happiness industry," and more self-help books written about how your attitude can enable you to prosper in so many ways, more people are prescribed anti-depressants than anywhere else on the planet.

Barbara Ehrenreich explains how the positive attitude movement is really a means of social control. If you’re not doing well, then something must be terribly wrong with you. Don’t even consider organizing or examining critically the role of the exploitative society in which we live or the horrible working conditions that can be downright depressing. But, if you’re taught that the problem is simply your attitude, then your boss is immediately off the hook. Change how you think, rather than the horrible work environment and/or your horrible living conditions.

"If life gives you lemons, then make lemonade." It’s that simple, according to the gurus of the positive attitude/positive psychology movement, most of whom, not surprisingly are white, wealthy, and conservative. That’s why so many employers hire them to motivate their workers.

Christopher Hedges claims that people in the United States are the most illusioned folks on the planet. I agree with him 100 per cent.

With extremely rare exceptions, the only folks who benefit from positive attitude movements are the wealthy. Furthermore, most mental health practitioners who are any good know that we need all our emotions. Positive attitude nonsense teaches that difficult issues such as serious illness, and job loss are really blessings, if we only change our attitudes about them, we could reverse the course of our lives. That’s actually unmitigated cruelty. To tell someone with painful, debilitating stage four cancer that he or she could get well with a positive attitude is offering false hope, and, I believe that false hope is one of the cruelest hoaxes anyone can perpetrate on vulnerable people. Also, it denies the opportunity to very ill people to honestly express their feelings of sadness, anger, as well as loss and grief. We need all our feelings. In my mind, all feelings are equally valuable. To deny so-called negative feelings is to perpetuate a great big lie. It’s healthy to feel sadness at sad events. Losing a job is never a blessing. Furthermore, the positive attitude gurus often tell people to avoid so-called negative folks, so if you’re feeling depressed or angry or scared, then you’re someone to be avoided. That’s another example of unmitigated cruelty in the name of positivity.

There’s little that makes me angrier that the positive attitude mentality, despite or perhaps because of its pervasiveness in our society.

The military's connection to cognitive psychology

I did some research into cognitive behavioral psychology and positive psychology, which I believe are essentially the same, even though their label is different. The founder of cognitive psychology, Aaron Beck, and the founder of positive psychology, Martin Seligman, worked together at the University of Pennsylvania for many years. Now Seligman is in charge of the positive psychology graduate program at the same university. That pseudo-science, such as positive psychology, is even allowed to be taught at a university, I find absolutely mind-boggling. It reminds me of the discredited and racist eugenics movement, which had some academics in charge, thereby giving it totally undeserved credibility.

What I learned about Seligman was horrifying. I agree with those who say that he should be prosecuted for war crimes. Here’s why.

A rather suspicious meeting was held at Seligman’s home in 2002, orchestrated by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, or CIA, allegedly to discuss how to best combat so-called "Islamic extremism." The CIA’s military program which sponsored the meeting was called Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape, or SERE, in which soldiers are given brutal mock interrogations, allegedly to learn how to effectively deal with those so-called enemies who might capture and interrogate them.

At that meeting were : James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, the two most preeminent torturing psychologists in the United States; the director of the CIA’s behavioral research program; and an intelligence operative from Israel.

Seligman proclaims his innocence to this day, and he gets big bucks for his involvement with and support for the military. 

For many years Seligman, a political conservative, was the president of the American Psychological Association. He received a $31 million, no-bid contract from the military to do so-called resilience training for those soldiers unlucky enough to have been on multiple combat duties. The idea of the program is to reduce stress among those young people, so that they can comfortably go back into combat zones. The mere idea is horrifying, as it not only justifies killing, but justifies putting young people in harm’s way and causing severe post-traumatic stress syndrome. To my knowledge, the program continues, although there is not one iota of evidence that it actually works or that is has helped even one soldier. And that very program has been conducted at the prestigious University of Pennsylvania. What a travesty !

Inflicting trauma and then experimenting with recovery

It’s cruel to pretend that anyone can remain unscathed from having witnessed and/or participating in war and killing.

Furthermore, shouldn’t psychologists be opposing war in the first place, especially profit-driven wars that not only kill, maim, and cause permanent emotional damage, but destroy the lives of so many non-combatants in war-torn countries ?

But wait, it gets even worse. Seligman did horrific experiments on dogs, inflicting them with electric shocks. As a result of his "research," he developed a theory about learned helplessness. The poor dogs were so traumatized that they simply gave up. Some claims that the dogs recovered, but recovery from that type of torture is virtually impossible. Some claim, and I agree, that the so-called research on those poor animals was completely unethical. No harm is ever to be done when people do experiments/research. Furthermore, the dogs were unable to consent to the treatment. Nevertheless, Seligman has claimed that he used the theory of learned helplessness essentially to help people unlearn it. The theory was supposed to be used allegedly to help people. Nevertheless, two members of the American Psychological Association, Mitchell and Jensen, were accused of torturing prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, doing what was called "reverse engineering," and trying to induce the helplessness that Seligman wrote about.

The military hires a lot of psychologists. It is known that Jessen and Mitchell attended a meeting with Seligman, who has had contact with the CIA and has complained that this country hasn’t done enough to root out terrorists. Of course, the prisoners at Guantanamo were never known to be terrorists, and usually no charges were leveled against them.

Note that Jensen and Mitchell became millionaires by torturing people.

The American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association, hardly bastions of progressivism, have both, on ethical grounds, refused to allow its members to interrogate prisoners. However, that was not the case with the American Psychological Association, which made a convoluted argument, which went something like this :  If our members were interrogators, that will help assure that the interrogations are done ethically.

Subsequently, the American Psychological Association has prohibited this type of activity, but there has been tremendous resistance to its implementation amongst the so-called leadership.

And Seligman claimed no knowledge that members of his prestigious organization were engaged in torture and constantly referred to his baby, "learned helplessness" as their model.

Seligman’s allegation is hardly credible when there was protest and reporting everywhere about this abuse. And some of the man’s statements are absolutely terrifying, as if his mantra is, "See no evil." For example: "Good science always runs the risk of immoral applications. It goes with the territory of discovery."

The commentary that followed indicated, in my view, correctly, that Seligman has taken a “see no evil” approach. If his work might be used for evil, it’s no concern of his. Of course, he denies involvement in and even knowledge of the torture program.

A group, the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology, has been working hard to remove psychologists from torture and abusive interrogations.

Nonetheless, the positive psychology program still exists at the University of Pennsylvania, and there are other similar programs at various universities throughout the United States. Some people have even been known to get Ph.D.'s in topics such as Happiness. These programs should disappear immediately, since they have no academic rigor and no validity.

Shed your illusions and fight the establishment rather than yourselves and one another. That lesson will never be taught in any positive psychology program.

Conclusion

The mere concept of positive and negative attitudes, in my opinion, is completely fallacious. It’s a social construct designed to maintain the status quo, at best, and, at worst, to justify war and other atrocities. It’s quite similar to race, also a social construct, designed to perpetuate slavery and Jim Crow laws.

Attitudes, in a psychologist context, are merely feelings, and all feelings are legitimate and should never be labeled positive or negative. We need all our feelings.

If we claim to feel positive and blessed in the face of adversity, we become cruel to ourselves at indifferent to the suffering of others.

I believe strongly that positive psychology is a pseudo-science that has no place in academia nor anywhere else in this world.