Saturday, January 30, 2010

Beware of the happy campers

There’s something odd about relentlessly jolly people, a sort of deep sadness. But this is nothing compared to the people who sell ‘happiness’ as a commodity – behind the smile lies a lie and a hefty daily rate. I have an instinctive distrust of motivational speakers, positive psychologists, life coaches, NLP fanatics and other happy-clappy types. Call me old fashioned, but I’m a sucker, not for pessimism, but for realism.

Smile or Die

That brings me to an astonishing book by Barbara Ehrenreich Smile or Die, a welcome shot of realism that shatters the cosy world of the happy, shiny people. The core argument is compelling. The ‘happy’ movement replaces reality with positive illusions. Sure, you can think positive but “at the cost of less realism”. It’s this optimism bias that leads to failed projects, missed sales figures, unrepayable debt and failure.

Ehrenreich starts with her Cancer, the catalyst for the book, and berates the relentless and ill-informed advisors who make false claims about extending your life through positive thinking. There is no such evidence, yet paid counsellors keep the myths flowing. It’s an unthinking world where any dissent is seen as negative and therefore wrong, even if you’re right. Even worse is the psychological side-effect which encourages patients to blame themselves (if they’re realistic) and their attitudes for their disease. This is truly disturbing.

Get a life not a coach

Above all it’s the coaching profession she finds most insidious. At its worst they seem to suggest that reality is wholly subject to change through thoughts and feelings. They cherry pick bits of science; quantum physics, magnetism and a heap of other things they don’t really understand (NLPers are easily the worst at this) to create illusions from bad science. Luckily the science usually bites back.

Pied piper of the positive psychology

Martin Seligman is the pied piper of the positive psychology movement and when she meets him she finds an odd man, keen on exploiting his ‘science’ for money. His book Authentic Happiness is, like him, a “jumble of anecdotes”. His banal formula for happiness is H= S+F+C (Happiness = set range, circumstances and voluntary control) condenses one vague concept from three others. The Journal of Happiness Studies is study after study linking happiness to every conceivable outcome but there’s no room for negative results in this brand of science.

Ponzi positivism

The whole Ponzi scheme that was the recent financial bubble was built on the false optimism of being positive about everything. At the heart of the economic crisis was an epidemic of self-delusion. A group of bankers coked up on a heady mixture of motivational speakers, motivational literature and coaches. Ehrenreich slates Tim Robbins, Chris Gardner and Chuck Mills for creating a ‘woo’ culture of high fives and leaders who became “megalomaniac, narcissistic solipsists”. Bankers and other financial types built bubbles around themselves, all within a mega-bubble of debt. As Paul Krugman said “nobody likes to be a party pooper”. To be positive is to be forever blowing bubbles.

Cheese, soup…….

Ehrenreich refuses to “fake sincerity” and “retreat from the real drama and tragedy of human events” and slams infantile books like; Who moved my cheese? Chicken Soup for the Soul, The Secret etc. for selling snakeoil solutions to vulnerable people. It’s always happy hour for the ‘professionals who peddle positivity, make huge sums of money from the selling these illusions.

Get real

In the final chapter, she despairs at Human Resources who can’t possibly see past this simple narrative and swallow it whole, using ‘positive’ and ‘good’ interchangeably. On the whole, HR and the training world, hungrily lap up this stuff, and are the enablers for this epidemic of anti-realism. It’s not a matter of optimism versus pessimism, but realism versus illusions.


Rob said...

Thanks for that, Donald. It astonishes me that otherwise rational and reasonable individuals and organisations buy into this - and that verb is appropriate.
Our HR department is currrently urging us to "embrace change"...

jay said...

I'm about half way through an audio version of Barbara Ehrenreich's book. I'm with her bitching about the happy faces in the mammogram room and "cancer-is good" people.

I'll see if I agree with her view on Marty Seligman, a guy I like a whole lot. He may not have the standard deviations, clinical trials, and behavioral experiments academics are accustomed to, but his upbeat philosophy is a breath of fresh air in psychology. These guys have been focused on sluts and nuts instead of human potential since Freud.

Positive psychology -- examining healthy people instead of the mentally ill -- is a move in the right direction.

I'll be back once I finish the book.


Donald Clark said...

Mental illness does not have a symmetrical opposite, namely positiveness or happiness. This debate was played out by Bentham and Mill, and subsequently by the very sophisticated development of utilitarianism.

The peddlers of positivism are selling pipe-dreams, at the dangerous expense of reality. Psychology should look at the brain descriptively and draw careful prescriptive scientific conclusions. This is not happening here. The happiness movement has moved into cult territory, with all the attendant commercial exploitation and bogus results.

Unknown said...

Can't see what's so wrong with Who Moved My Cheese. Just because it is written as a fable doesn't make it infantile. The message is, perhaps, something of a commnplace now but you do still meet people who ressit change and don't understand that it's their responsibility to keep up and earn a living. I think:

"If you don't like change, you're going to like irrelevance even less."
General Eric Shinseki, Chief of Staff, U.S. Army

put is it more succinctly!

Rob said...

What I object to is the idea that all change is, by definition, good. It isn't. Too much of this stuff is entirely uncritical of change.

Donald Clark said...

This is absolutely true. Change is not a virtue in itself and has to be backed up by some sensible definitions of the end state, how you'll get there and it's advantages. This is why I objected to Obama's Nobel Prize. In the Middle east he's failed to stop settlements, will fail in Afghanistan and Haiti turned into Katrina 2 - a military invasion that cost lives.

HR has descended into selling faddish abstractions because they're trying to find a role in organisations beyond 'pay and rations'. Unfortunatly, they are, in essence, readers of populist management books. This is why I disagree with Francis's defence of Who moved my cheese?. It's OK to read these books, but to base you're HR strategy on fables is just plain stupid. That's why you get these 'change' programmes.

Grace said...

Martin Seligman is a pioneer of fresh thinking in psychology.. I don't think its fair to lump him in with the rest of these charlatans!

It's important to point out that the scientific movement of Positive Psychology is still young, and THAT'S why some of the work may seem a bit anecdotal and premature. Positive psychology is all about making a start at being proactive about disease, illness, depression, etc. and attempting to hinder their occurrence.. It's absolutely a necessary development, which is why they've set up places like the Well-Being Institute in Cambridge University.. either way, it certainly isn't doing any harm!

Donald Clark said...

I suppose I think it does do harm, as does Barbara Ehrenreich, with an entire book of examples. Positive thinking may also come with a lack of realism. I just don't like science that has a pre-determined view on outcomes. There is no 'positive' psychology, only psychology.

Unknown said...

Hi, Donald. I didn't really have HR in mind when I defended WMMC, but individuals and how they need to tkae responsibility for their own career.

For example, you will find teachers who refuse to engage with data on the grounds that, 'I'm not a Maths teacher..' but at the same time want to argue with the implications of the data (when it means their pupils should be achieving better results/making more progress).

The result is that they refuse to accept that their pupils could/should be achieving more: low expectations of their pupils and themselves as teachers.

Another example is the need they to change attitudes about the extent of teacher responsibilites- of what is expected of them to do- to help pupils achieve their potential.

Performance management is developing in schools. Subject leaders are called in and asked to explain why department targets (say for 5A*-C GCSE passes) weren't met. Some staff need to change their attitudes becuse the 'cheese' has been moved: the game has changed and they either accept the new challenges (refreshing, once you face up to them) or take the consequences.

What I like about WMMC and some of the positive thinking/self development literature (SOME of the stuff SOME of the time: I'm no evalgelist and I'm not talking about medical stuff: just the day to day challenges life throws up) is that it can help you to shift perspective so that instead of moaning in the staffroom about what 'they' are doign to you, you can see that these new demands are a chance to improve you skills and knowledge. This makes you more better at your job, ore of an asset and utlimatley more employable.

I read Lance Armstrong's book about his experience of cancer. One of the doctors told him that he's seen plenty of the most positive people killed by the disease and grumpy types who survived it.

Anonymous said...

For some strange reason this blog persistently takes me back to Frasier from Dad's Army.

"We're all doomed".

Donald Clark said...

Thinly veiled piece of anti-Scottish racism! I have a solution 'anonymous' - don't read it!

Why is it that 'anonymous' posters never put forward an argument or rational contribution? Bye.

Rina said...

Beautifully said Donald! Just now I came across this one, don't know how I missed it. I keep away from such books they feel false and saccharine sweet. One thing that I would like to highlight is that there is certain feeling of security and completion when you are in a comfort zone of people who make sense. There is also something blissful about life that is shared. One thing more, it might sound silly but sometimes you don't feel like working when you are working for yourself, but the moment it is for some cause that is more universal, negating some obstructions and adding ease or beauty to many lives, you feel the zest seeping in. I guess these people who 'sell' motivation cash on the goodwill of masses. Thanks for sharing, this was amazing read! Am happy and satiated with today's fill.