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.”