Does positive thinking lead to positive outcomes?

Recently I wrote a positive review (no pun intended) of Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America for Forbes Online. A reader nevertheless wrote to me: “studies show that optimism leads to more positive outcomes.” My response:

No, actually they don’t. They find correlation but not causation. Being fat is associated with overreating, but not too many people would argue that being fat causes you to overeat anymore than they would see a cart behind a horse and presume that the cart is pushing the horse forward. I allude to this in my book review.

As far as success and riches go, yes, studies of both individuals and nations do link greater wealth with a more upbeat attitude. But our pathological positivism thrusts the cart squarely before the horse, insisting that attitude leads to circumstances. Evidence that suggests positive attitudes lead to positive results – like cheerier people being more likely to get a job or promotion – could merely reflect societal prejudice against those with negative or merely realistic attitudes, Ehrenreich points out.

Ehrenreich writes of a plenary session on “‘The Future of Positive Psychology'” featuring the patriarchs of the discipline, Martin Seligman and Ed Diener. Seligman got the audience’s attention by starting off with the statement, ‘I’ve decided my theory of positive psychology is completely wrong.’ Why? Because it’s about happiness, which is ‘scientifically unwieldy.'”

So we’re left to consider this logically. And logically circumstances are more likely to dictate attitude than attitude is to dictate circumstances. The connection in the first case is obvious; in the second case you have to provide all sorts of explanations as to why this might be the case.

Now, I have a friend who has a positive attitude despite current very negative circumstances. But why?

Because as he says he’s utterly convinced the novel he’s completing will be a best-seller notwithstanding that he’s never even written a novel before and the objective odds are he won’t even get a publisher. But he’s factoring a best-seller into his mental attitude.

Unfortunately John Kennedy Toole probably had exactly the same attitude and for the best of reasons. “A Confederacy of Dunces” was a fantastic book. It did in fact become a best-seller. But not before every publisher poor Toole went to rejected it outright and he killed himself. If Toole had a more sanguine attitude he might have gone on to write other books, gotten one of those published, and then gotten publishers to look at the first book. We know of similar examples, as with J.K. Rowling.

I’m sorry, but there’s nothing inherently good about positivism and, again as I note in my book review, there are indeed studies showing that pessimists are better able to handle bad news than optimists. All that said, I’m not pushing pessimism per se – although pessimists do serve an important function in society as a brake on the optimists – I’m pushing realism.