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.
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.
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.
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.