Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Dangers of American Positive (& French Negative) Thinking.

One of the notable differences between the French and the Americans is certainly to be found in their outlook on life. The Americans value positive thinking as the way to happiness and prosperity whereas the French value cynicism and dim anything too positive as incredibly naïve. This is probably where our two cultures are the most different.

Interestingly this week, Jon Stewart had the author of “The Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America”, Barbara Ehrenreich, on his show this week.
I have not read the book but her interview, however short, was fascinating. Her personal story was that she confronted to breast cancer eight years ago and while trying to find support she was told she had to be “positive and cheerful” and “embrace her disease because she was going to come out of it a better person” which she did not.
More interestingly, she blames part of current economic crises as a by-product of positive thinking when people were told that everything was going to go up forever (hence the subprime crisis). This idea certainly deserves some thought.

As Jon Stewart put it himself at the beginning of the show, positive thinking and the idea that by the power of your mind and attitude you can attract things like money and wealth is almost like a secular religion in America.
Go to any American bookstore, and read the titles of the self-help section, and you’ll see how this has become a major part of the post-modern American culture. Or consider the ‘prosperity theology’. It makes sense though – after all, positive thinking is what has sustained the economy in the last decades. The idea that tomorrow is bound to be better than today is at the heart of the credit culture and American capitalism.
The problem seems twofold:
  1. it leads to irrational exuberance (and makes people buy more than they can afford for instance);
  2. it invalidates people’s fears and makes them feel guilty for their (potential) negative thoughts.

Barbara Ehrenreich is convinced it is a sign of the empathy deficit in our society. She may be right. It is certainly true that (most) Americans have little patience with people who share their problems and don’t do well for too long. They’d rather have them see a shrink instead or keep their problems to themselves (or give them one of those self-help books).

That being said, the French way may not be a better alternative. Despite their good life, excellent wine and food, long vacations, first-rate health care, long holidays and sit-down lunches, protected jobs and generous welfare the French have one of the highest suicide rates in the OECD
More people take their lives as a share of the population than anywhere in Western Europe bar Finland and Belgium.

The Economist has an interesting theory as to why that is, in last week's issue:
In a country that idealizes the good life, the reality of drudgery and waiting for the monthly pay check, or of solitude in retirement, may be harder to accept.
In other words, the more prevalent the culture of good life is, the harder it is for those who don’t have it. There may be some truth in that - and the good life of some requires sacrifices that may be too costly to others.
However it seems ot me that the culture of negative thinking also plays a part in this, and it starts in school which contributes to the low self-esteem of a great number of French students.
Contrary to the U.S., the social pressure in France is against those who are too positive or at least who dare express it too much. They are seen as naïve or privileged, if by any chance, they have reasons to be positive. It is almost political. It is all the truer in this economic crisis where anything too positive is akin to indecency with regard those who are going through a rough patch.

There is a lot more to say on this topic, but we can probably safely conclude already that the best outlook on life is probably not to be found in any extreme.
The 'cure' to excessive positive thinking is certainly not negative thinking; it is realism with a bit of hope and a zest of dream for a better future.
Meanwhile positivity or optimism should not be confused with happiness, and everyone can pursue happiness in their own way. Ultimately, it is probably best to let our friends, family and colleagues be who they are, and somewhat recognize and validate their fears, joys or dreams without making feel guilty for how they feel.


At 11:42, Blogger Tororoshiru said...

Dear Joker & Thief

The New-Yorker's frontpage cartoonist Sempé published 20 years ago a truly sensible and clever book about, precisely, this divide between our cultures: it's titled PAR AVION (first published 1989, the book was reprinted 2008 - in French: I was unable to find out whether there is - or has ever been - an english-language edition available). In this book Sempé gently makes fun of either the petulance of mandatorily over-enthusiastic americans and the awkwardness of the french visitor doing his best for staying in tune - while learning some lessons about the pros and cons of positive thinking.
No doubt Sempé's latest book (SEMPE A NEW-YORK, soon to be released) will offer more of the author's candid viewpoint on American life.

Totally unrelatedly: I really should visit this blog more often! I feel so embarrassed I didn't offer earlier proper praise to you for having so extensively answered and considerately discussed one mine comment from long ago! No need to say I agree with you on the remarks you added.

At 20:29, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You know what ? I’m French.
What else ? I’m definitely positive and proud of it.
How is it possible ? Being confident : I’m convinced that making the effort to find a sunny side to bad things is a good way to start up again particularly when you hardly done it. The recipe ? Consider there’s always an alternative,weigh the pros and the cons then go.

At 13:40, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very thoughtfull post on Positive Thinking. It should be very much helpfull.

Karim - Positive thinking


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