Why Positive Thinking Is Useless for the Poor and Dangerous for the Rest of Us



For years, I have deluded myself into thinking that the future hinged on attitude. Kids in poverty needed hope and a stronger sense of self, confidence, possibility. Those who were depressed or cynical needed to be grateful for what was good in life.

Last week, I read a piece in Psyche by Jennifer Sheehy-Skeffington, assistant professor of social psychology at the London School of Economics, that shook me by the shoulders. “Believing in your power, staying focused on future goals, being proactive, and leveraging social relationships are four outlooks that can help, many of us suspect, in overcoming life’s obstacles,” she began. I nodded eagerly.

Governments and nonprofits have tried to act accordingly, she continued, focusing on the psychology of poverty to help people move into a better life. I was still nodding—until she added that it has not worked. Not even the most recent research, which focuses on how mentally exhausting it is to be poor, how stressful, how much harder to eat well and save money and plan, has nudged people into healthier lifestyles.

By now my antennae were up. Those approaches sounded right to me. But they made one huge mistake, Sheehy-Skeffington said. They assumed a free-floating mindset. They took for granted the premise that “everyone has the power to decide how to perceive and respond to the unavoidable constraints and challenges they face.”

She described, in more detail, those four ingredients for a flourishing life. First, the internal locus of control: your life does not proceed at someone else’s whim; you can choose for yourself. Second, self-regulation: the ability to stick to a long-term plan. Third, an “approach orientation” that proactively moves you toward your goals. Fourth, an attitude of “general social trust” and “agreeableness.” The stats bear it out: those with these four arrows in their quiver live longer, wealthier, saner, and happier lives.

But. You cannot just reach out and pluck these arrows from the ether. They are already embedded in the material, social, ideological framework of your life. When what you need is scarce, for example, it would be ludicrous to pretend a locus of control.

This is why the absurdly wealthy make such missteps; they cannot imagine how limiting the framework of other people’s lives could be. This is why I sit on my privileged tush and urge people not to waste their money on lottery tickets—because I cannot imagine the relief they might gain even from a fantasy with hardly any chance of coming true. As for keeping your eyes on future goals, if your life is bleak and painful, and you are hungry, will you choose helpful raw carrots or a salty, greasy, immensely satisfying Big Mac? You would have to be a masochist to eat those carrots.

Self-regulation starts to look trivial, even pathetic, when most of your life’s shape is already colored in by circumstances that lie outside your control, and the surrounding society has already left you behind. Sheehy Skeffington quotes from Hand to Mouth, Linda Tirado’s book about raising kids on low wages in Appalachia: “We don’t plan long term because if we do we’ll just get our hearts broken. It’s best not to hope. You just take what you can get as you spot it.”

Meet people’s needs in a stable way, Sheehy-Skeffington urges, and they can experience real control over their life’s circumstances. Then, planning and saving will make sense. It will become more plausible, less credulous, to trust those around you, and you can be agreeable without constant worry that you are about to be stolen from, used, exploited, vandalized, killed.

The positive attitude that I wanted for people (God, the phrase was already embarrassing) made no sense in their situation. They would have to be deluded to be that optimistic, and they would be exposing themselves to even more pain and denying themselves the tiny pleasures that were available to them.

With all my sunshiny coercion, I was no better than the bootstrappers.

“If cultivating these mindsets is of little use in addressing some of the biggest challenges one can face, what are they good for, and where did they come from?” Sheehy-Skeffington asks. The best she can figure, they came from a culture of Western free-market capitalism. We applied its economic ideology to ourselves and set out to cultivate personal freedom and fulfillment, stay positive, achieve goals, network.

The joke was about to land on me. Because if you carry that oh-so-positive approach to the extreme, what you come up with is today’s neurotic. Feeling personally responsible for everything, logic be damned. Blaming yourself even for things that are out of your control. Staying positive always, no matter what, and studiously avoiding any experience, knowledge, or contact that might bring you down. Focusing zealously on self-improvement and self-enhancement; making sure you use every second productively and then relax in just the right way, for just long enough to restore the necessary energy and creativity to be productive again. Leveraging relationships for their utility and casting aside those with the wrong cost-benefit ratio.

All too familiar. And this way of living lets us blame the poor for staying mired in a culture of poverty, boss them around some more to make them act more like us, demand perfection from ourselves, and focus so obsessively on our own moods, needs, and future that we wind up stressed and anxious and quick to disengage from any news or political issue that might bring us down.

“Before we prescribe a particular way of thinking for those who appear to be struggling,” she concludes, “we would do well to take a critical look at why we are so attuned to that outlook in the first place.” Why did we get so incensed when people quit their jobs because the COVID unemployment stipend paid more? Their calculus was as accurate as a portfolio manager’s. Were they already “successful,” we would applaud their savvy.

Health has more to do with peace of mind than with raw carrots. Maybe we ought to stop banging on about our free-market mindset and instead just make sure that every American has enough to eat; a safe, warm place to sleep; a decent education with viable job prospects; and a sense that their life matters. The flourishing will flow from there.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.