The Ills of “Mandatory Optimism”

In the video above (be forewarned: the volume doesn’t come on until 20 seconds in), Barbara Ehrenreich (author of Bright-Sided) rightly claims that everyone from self-help gurus to corporate managers to politicians try to force a positive thinking ideology upon us. There are probably a lot of things that I disagree with Ehrenreich about, but I agree with her about the ills of “mandatory optimism”. There are many problems with mandatory optimism, as Ehrenreich points out in the video; however, the idea that you change the physical world and reality with your thoughts is one of the more delusional ones. This just isn’t true in any objective sense of the word.

It’s important to note that mandatory optimism isn’t just delusional, it’s also dangerous. It is very difficult to prevent a mistake if you’re overly optimistic that everything always works out for the better. Arguably at some point in the near future, humanity will have its fate at stake (the Singularity, Global Warming/Cooling, Wars, etc.). Without dissension, doubters, and skeptics we put our selves in real danger of making ourselves extinct through our blind optimism. People (myself included) often get labeled a pessimist or dystopian for shunning the popular positive thinking ideology. I, however, think that is unfair. Just because I shun the positive thinking ideology doesn’t mean I embrace the negative thinking one. Negative thinking can be equally as dogmatic and I shun that as well. I’m an advocate for realism.

On an individual level, mandatory optimism is flat out cruel. If misfortune finds its way into someone’s life, the mandatory optimist can simply blame the individual for not thinking positive thoughts. As such, telling people they can be or have whatever they want if they only think positively is making them feel responsible for everything in their life when some of it is beyond their control. Some people simply aren’t physically, mentally, or otherwise capable of performing or achieving certain feats, no matter how much positive thinking they do. I don’t see how telling people otherwise (especially when you profit from it as many self-help gurus do) is anything other than cruel and unethical.

Ultimately, Ehrenreich makes a desperate plea for realism (hopefully this post does too). There are potentially pleasant and unpleasant truths to be known in this world. We can’t, however, identify and solve problems if we only see the world how we wish it ought to be, instead of how it actually is. As Candide said: “Pangloss deceived me cruelly when he said that all is for the best in the world.”

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13 Comments on “The Ills of “Mandatory Optimism””

  1. J Scott Shipman says:

    Not sure I’ve ever seen a lot of mandatory optimism. Your position is agreeable, but perhaps a bit too extreme in the other direction. I believe one can possess curiosity/healthy skepticism and a general common sense air of optimism. As my bride puts it, we can’t be Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm-type, but generally disposed to hope for the best. In my forthcoming book, I include humility and optimism as foundational principles in addition to honesty, courage, curiosity, conviction, and persistence. The latter are Boydian, the former two, decidedly not.Blind hope is silly, but people and organizations who have goals and visions based on integrity, who are steadfast in their pursuit—I would hope, would possess a healthy dose of optimism—otherwise, why bother?

    • Greg Linster says:

      Scott, I find mandatory optimism ubiquitous amongst the technophiles. The first comment on my essay, “On the End of Human Labor”, says: “How dystopian”. No where in the essay do I imply I hope anything bad happens, but yet I’m accused of doing so. In fact, I actually hope for the best, but I think it’s important to realistically stew over the potential intended and unintended ramifications of our collective actions. Our meager understanding of this world and ourselves coupled with blind optimism that everything works out for the better may eventually get us in to serious trouble one day (if it hasn’t already).

      Anyway, I think realists are merely frustrated idealists at heart. I largely agree with what you’re saying about having a balanced position though, which I now hope is more apparent.

      • J Scott Shipman says:

        Greg, We’re on the same page. And I’m not surprised about the technophiles. My motivation to place emphasis on optimism is more an effort to convince the “too many” who have subscribed to the other extreme of cynical pessimism. In my book, I’m dealing with culture and what I’ve seen—from a leader/follower perspective, most would prefer to follow someone who has a fairly optimist idea that their collective pursuit would succeed. That said, too much of either will grate on anyone. The “Smilin Bobs” of the world always leave me cold. There is definitely a balance, because one at the exclusion of the other is either delusional or paralyzingly fatalistic.

  2. datxomin says:

    I think there is a difference between wishful thinking and optimism. When I set a non-trivial goal for myself and I pursue it, I am definitely optimistic regarding the possibility of its achievement. If I felt it couldn’t be achieved (or that I could not achieve it) and that nothing could possibly come of it, I would not pursue it. It would be pointless.

    I find that a positive disposition to unknown outcomes is productive. And what of importance does not have an unknown outcome…

    • Greg Linster says:

      @google-cc64c304ebd42bf74ec96e59c79288fa:disqus I agree on the distinction between “wishful thinking” versus “optimism”.  On both a macro and personal level, I hope for the best, but I think it’s important to temper our hope so that it doesn’t become blind optimism.  What I’m advocating is for a healthy dose of realism that I often think is missing in both political and self-help circles.  
      As to your second point:  some unknown outcomes are, however, more likely than others, right?  For instance, you may or may not become president of the United States.  That statement has, by definition, an unknown outcome.  How likely is it that you become president though?  Are both outcomes equally likely?  No, it’s statistically highly unlikely that you become president.  Will thinking positive thoughts that you *will* get elected (assuming you want to be president of course) make it any more  likely?  Again, no.  Would blind optimism set you up for disappointment in this situation?  I, of course, would argue “yes”.  If I told you as long as you had positive thoughts you will become president that would be cruel and false.  There are many reasons that would probably preclude you (and most of us) from being president that are outside of your control and positive thinking isn’t going to do a damn thing to change it.

      I think the same logic can be applied in self-help circles when we tell people they can be wealthy and whatever else it is they want to be.  In some cases the outcome is, as you said, “unknown”, but in cases where it’s a game of relative importance, not everyone can, by definition, be above average.  Let me be clear, however, I’m not advocating that we should crush people’s dreams either, but rather that we should approach these situations with a healthy dose of realism.  If you need to be one of the top 5% income earners in the country to be happy (I think many people put relative terms on their happiness) you’d be better off transforming your positive thoughts to realistic ones by realizing that in this scenario 95% are going to be unhappy.

      • datxomin says:

        Of course, I agree that blind optimism is inane. Your post is on target in that regard.

        My addendum was that there are situations where optimism plays a decisive part. For instance, when facing certain unknown outcomes (and, I should have specified) within the framework of a legitimate setup.

        Consider this. I am an academic. I have published a large number of papers (compared to the average colleague). I am also co-editor of a journal and have been a reviewer for a number of others. In sum, I am experienced in these matters. Yet this experience yields what must be uncomfortable knowledge to non-academics, that is, the peer-review process is fundamentally broken. A worthless computer-generated paper could be accepted for publication immediately, while a landmark paper could be rejected on immaterial grounds by 7 different journals and take four years to publish… so, you see, the researcher that invests many months of study and work on a particular venue of research needs significant amounts of optimism in order to endure. Over the years, many colleagues have given up on the unjustifiable randomness of the process and have moved on to successful careers in the private industry.

        This example only applies to those in my professional situation. However, I think it can be extrapolated to any kind of situation where work and forward thinking can only take you so far. I don’t claim that optimism, in any way, can provide the missing piece that solves a problem. I’m simply saying that it can provide the psychological breathing room in which an individual might manufacture the missing piece that solves a problem.

        Anyway, I’m enjoying your blog very much. It’s intelligent and stimulating. Thank you.

        • Greg Linster says:

          @google-cc64c304ebd42bf74ec96e59c79288fa:disqus You bring up a valid point in your example.  For academics, I could see how getting a journal article published is a frustrating and seemingly arbitrary process (I’ll hopefully be learning this the hard way soon myself).  Having an article published is, however, a very realistic thing for an academic to be capable of.  Having the grit, determination, and bit of optimism during the process is, as you allude to, probably essential, but that is a much different situation than the situations I had in my mind’s eye when referring to “mandatory optimism”.
          As an aside, thank you for the kind words and for adding insightful thoughts to the conversation!  I hope to hear from you again soon.  Also, if you’re inclined to share, what field are you in and where do you teach?

          • datxomin says:

            Neurolingiustics. How about you?

            Sadly, it is not the case that publishing is realistic (in general) for academics. In fact, most academics hardly publish and, when they do so, it is in out of the way journals without any relevant review process. In some countries, for example, universities have set up special institutional journals to help out a struggling faculty that otherwise would not be able to write their name in the snow. You will learn the tragic details eventually.

            Becoming initiated in academic publishing is extremely discouraging. The key is to persevere… which, is of course, true of most things in life. Editors will, most often, give the papers of non-established authors to their less reliable reviewers and these will unfortunately be as blatantly ignorant of the subject of your paper as they are unwilling to admit to it. They will try to cover their ignorance with violence (yes, violence) instead of simply letting the editor know the paper is outside their area of expertise. Be prepared to see your papers undermined on the most absurd grounds (truly, you ain’t seen nothing yet). Learn as early possible to evaluate the worth of your papers on your own. The golden rule to survive the first few years is to never think that your papers have any more or less worth based on a review. Take advantage of the irreplaceable feedback given by educated reviewers that carefully read your paper and invested time into figuring it out. Absolutely ignore the hysterical posturing of the delusional reviewers that did not read your paper and instead demanded that you write theirs. The difference between the two kind of reviewers will be one of the first things you learn.

            Delusion… I now realize that some of the behavior that you label as optimistic, I consider delusional. Nothing wrong with this, of course. Being unaware of our disparity of definitions in this regard is normal given that we don’t know each other.

          • Greg Linster says:

            I’m currently studying economics; however, my real interests lie in the intersection of economics, philosophy, and psychology.  I’m hoping there is a way to tie my interests together in academia or even outside of it eventually.

            Thank you for the candid advice.  That’s exactly the kind of realism I needed to hear!  On a side note, I find this blog to be an excellent medium for sharing “real” thoughts that don’t have to pass through any filter other than my own, which has its pluses and minuses.  Overall, I think you can find some great writing and ideas in some blogs and some sophomoric fluff in others.  I obviously aspire to the former.

  3. Zander Spray says:

    I think we’ve all felt the disastrous effects of “Panglossian economics”. Blindly believing that all will work out for the best is dangerous. Perhaps what you are advocating is that we not give up our belief that we can arrive at a better situation through effort, rather than the position of mandatory optimism, which, if I read correctly, encourages complacency.

    • Greg Linster says:

      Mandatory optimism promotes a terrible kind of complacency that makes people think positive thoughts alone can have a real affect on outcomes; positive efforts are, in my opinion, what we should really be aiming for instead.

    • Greg Linster says:

      Mandatory optimism promotes a terrible kind of complacency that makes people think positive thoughts alone can have a real affect on outcomes; positive efforts are, in my opinion, what we should really be aiming for instead.

  4. […] that the world has a great deal to offer them.” Unfortunately, in our culture of praise and mandatory positive thinking, many of us don’t hear this […]


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