Barbara Ehrenreich (2008) suggests that the greed we see in America's corporations may be a function of the cultural phenomena of "positive thinking" and she suggests this way of thinking is firmly embedded in American culture. This type of thinking entered corporate America in the early 1990's and is now a staple, permeating executive constellations and in most corporations all levels of management. It can be said that in the modern corporation one cannot gain entry into the executive constellation unless one can demonstrate that they are proponents of positive thinking. Simply defined positive thinking is a dangerous mixture of ideological "right wing" conservatism, religious fundamentalism, Ayn Rand's philosophy, and the happiness psychologists.
Positive thinking has been around for some time gaining wide popularity during the Great Depression and further popularized by a Protestant preacher Norman Vincent Peale in his 1952 book "The Power of Positive Thinking." He preached that one is thinking positively when one has a mental attitude that expects good and favorable results. These were the steps he laid out in his book and sermons for developing personal strength and if followed would lead to a successful, healthy, and happy life. He claims to give:
"¢ Confidence-building words to live by
"¢ Ways to overcome self-doubt
"¢ Strategies for achieving good health
"¢ A program to release the vast energies within you
"¢ Accepting ourselves and our individual needs
"¢ Embracing the spiritual forces that surround you
In corporate America it is almost impossible for a manager to avoid those who sell the virtues of a positive mental attitude. The attitude and how to get it is contained in a barrage of books, business magazines, corporate literature, and newspapers, and forms the basic message at corporate "pep rallies," which range from large scale cavernous meetings of several thousand employees to intimate pseudo group therapy meetings and inspirational retreats. Managers returning from these events eschewed all forms of negativism even to the point of isolating employees accused of spreading "negative energy or vibes" and in some cases terminating them. What is a negative employee? Typically they are those who cause trouble, give their manager a "headache," they may seek to mobilize employees against management or some change initiative, but in most cases they are employees who point out flaws, suggest alternatives, and question assumptions. They enjoy critical thinking and they love to diagnose and solve problems. One could say they embrace what the positive/happiness people dread, the diagnostic medical model. As a matter of fact the positive/happiness people don't refer to it as the medical model of diagnosis they call it the disease model and maintain that it promotes victimization, pathology, and of course, negativity. As a consultant stated in an address to several hundred managers, "We have to stop focusing on problems or what's wrong, we need to change our attitude and the attitudes of our employees and develop their strengths. Negativity and pessimism spreads like a cancer and the only way to combat it is to get on with what's good, what works, that's our strength." While condemning the medical model he conveniently uses it. Positive consultants aggressively report that negativity is a disease and must be defeated and only a positive attitude defeats this disease. This is indeed simplistic or magical thinking, but it has a powerful voice in universities and among an ever growing field of organizational consultants, coaches, gurus, speakers, and writers.
In many American universities there are "positive thinkers" who like to call
themselves "happiness coaches." Executives and bankers subscribe to "positive
thinking" ideology and they point to the happiness research that has been
pouring out of these universities.
Conceptually and perhaps in other ways connected to "positive thinking"
ideology is the happiness researcher, a former American Psychological
Association President and University of
Pennsylvania scholar Martin Seligman who has also been connected to the CIA and
Bush's torture programs. He chairs the university's master program in Applied
Positive psychology. Seligman is also the author of "Authentic Happiness: Using
the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment."
Positive thinkers led by Seligman claim they have "scientifically" discovered
what truly makes people happy and they now offer programs where they claim they
can teach people to overcome negative emotions (anger, fear,
pessimism, and sadness) and replace them with positive thoughts and feelings,
and help individuals identify and cultivate their character strengths and use
them everyday to achieve happiness in their work.
Of course, included in this potpourri of magic is a motivation to change corporate American by putting a smile on every employee's face and developing and strengthen employee's positive emotions so that they can work harder and longer hours like non-complaining robots. To further their claims of legitimacy, the happiness researchers and consultants have created the Journal of Happiness Studies and a World Database of Happiness. Others who lend credibility to this movement are Tal D. Ben Shahar, who teaches a course on Positive Psychology and Psychology of Leadership and Shawn Achor who teaches Positive Psychology and the Science of Happiness, they claim these are the most popular courses at Harvard. Ben Shahar gives advice, self-help tips, and writes books on how to be happy and of course he gives inspirational talks and is called "Dr. Prozac" by his students. Antidotal data suggest that every university in America is either offering or planning to offer a "Happiness" course in 2010.
Ayn Rand and the positive thinkers