It's a fascinating juxtaposition. On the one hand, the holidays are a time of hope and renewal, culminating in the boundless optimism of New Year's resolutions. Yet as 2008 lurches to a close, it must be said that of the myriad factors in America's teetering economy, the most ironic is the role of positive thinking.
In recent years America's native optimism has snowballed into a veritable avalanche of positivity. The market penetration of the movement's top authors is jaw-dropping. Eckhart Tolle sold 3.5 million copies of "A New Earth," his latest tract on "living in the now" - in one month. "The Secret," Rhonda Byrne's tribute to wishful thinking, has sold at least 7million hardcover copies plus 2million DVDs. Joe ("The Attraction Factor") Vitale cracked the million-copy threshold through viral marketing alone.
These and other authors preach a build-your-own-reality view of life. Vitale, for example, describes affluence as a simple matter of "placing your order with the universe. It's really that easy!"
Meanwhile, Anthony Robbins and other top seminarists tout their favorite ploys for defining away negativity. "There's no such thing as failure," asserts a key piece of Robbins dogma. "There is only feedback."
Such pop-culture nostrums receive reinforcement from formal psychology, thanks to celebrity shrink Martin Seligman, who's credited with inventing so-called positive psychology. "Posi-psych" inverts tradition by focusing on silver linings, not dark clouds.
With this chorus of positivity playing as the nonstop soundtrack of American life, who can blame society for losing its regard for prudence and moderation? All of our major economic woes are, at least in part, creatures of unchecked optimism, compelling evidence of what happens when timeless proverbs like "a penny saved is a penny earned" are scorned as outmoded and "disempowering." Indeed, self-styled Texas pastor Joel Osteen ("Your Best Life Now," over 4 million copies sold) built his Lakewood Church into a national icon by framing acquisitiveness and flash as virtues. "God wants us to be prosperous," he told Time magazine.
Unsurprisingly, America maintains one of the lowest personal saving rates in the free world - putting us in a very precarious position as we try to weather this economic storm. In 2005 and 2006, that rate sank below zero as consumers spent every nickel they earned. We giddily underplanned and overextended in every measurable area of endeavor. Consumer debt skyrocketed. Unqualified buyers took on mortgages from banks that had no business offering them. Lenders optimistically assumed that escalating property values would vindicate their investment; borrowers told themselves, "It'll all work out somehow." Thus was sealed the fate of the mortgage industry and aligned ventures on Wall Street.
In corporate settings, risk aversion and contingency planning have become signs of "naysaying." To many executives, writes renowned management consultant William Altier, "the idea that they should devote time and effort to thinking about things that could go wrong is anathema, un-American, disrespectful of apple pie, motherhood and the flag."
You might think the advocates of personal empowerment would feel chastened by the fact that all this rude interruption by reality comes at a time when positivity is being celebrated as never before.
Think again. Rather than concede the fallibility of an unfailingly positive attitude, they counter that some negativity must have snuck in, queering the deal. (This is the logic Byrne used in blaming Hurricane Katrina victims for failing to repel the storm with upbeat vibes.) Vitale characterizes America's doldrums as a byproduct of "the media bad-news scenario," making it sound as if unemployment, the foreclosure crisis and the looming collapse of major industries didn't exist until the media reported them. He argues that what we need now is even more pie-in-the-sky.
Or as best-selling guru Wayne Dyer puts it in the title of his new book, due out this January: "Change Your Thoughts - Change Your Life."
Yeah, that'll work.
No one is suggesting that people should curl up in the fetal position and expect the worst. This is about balance. Realism isn't fatalism, and failure isn't just "feedback." Sometimes failure is failure. To leach misfortune of its sting is also to leach it of its lessons.
Some dreams - like some mortgages - are too big for the dreamer. Some risks aren't worth taking. Today more than ever, we should view our options in life through the clearest possible lens, not a rose-colored one.
Now there's a resolution that will serve us well in 2009.
Steve Salerno is the author of "Sham: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless."
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