Give Up Positive Thinking

For as long as I can remember, any time someone would ask my great Aunt Ida how she was doing, she had the same response. Not so good. She said it so often that the phrase became family legend, only surpassed in fame by her eggplant Parmesan. The response wasn't really surprising. Aunt Ida survived her husband by 20 years, living until her late 80s, and suffered from a laundry list of ailments including arthritis so debilitating that it often left her unable to walk. What was she supposed to say? Fabulous?

This year, I am embracing my inner old lady, so if you run into me and ask me how I've been, get ready for the truth. I am giving up on the power of positive thought.

In June 2008, I sold a thriving retail business for a profit and relocated to Phoenix with my family. We used some of the money for a down payment on a house. I sent the remainder — a nice-size check — to our financial adviser and then turned my focus toward the positive energy that was sure to bring me my next adventure. A new business? All I had to do was imagine the success that I would have and this would set things in motion.

It might seem a little far-fetched, but I had proof. I had, after all, just had a successful five-year run with the business we sold, and I felt pretty sure that my optimistic attitude was the primary reason. The authors of The Secret, along with Oprah, Deepak, and others of the power-packed positivity consortium summoned us all to experience the magic. I, for one, took a big puff of the pipe they were passing.

By the end of our first summer in Phoenix, the economy had crashed, taking our nest egg, our retirement, and the equity we had in our deal of a house down with it. Our net worth had been sliced in half, and the damage was in the six-digit range. Even so, there was a bright side, right? A positive nugget to be unearthed? Some wonderful new opportunity on the horizon? Not really.

According to Barbara Ehrenreich's new book, Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, all this cheerful channeling is actually bringing us down. Ehrenreich links the pressure to stay positive to the recent mortgage crisis, pointing to the disregard of early whistle-blowers who were branded as party poopers. This was certainly true for me. The market was tanking, my stocks were plummeting, and I was busy staying positive, while doing little else to prevent my own mortgage crisis. Ehrenreich is far from the consummate curmudgeon, but she does challenge us to see the situation for what is really is. In other words, we all need to get real. Focusing on a positive but unrelated fact — as in, "but I still have my health" — doesn't change the negative situation at all. Ehrenreich suggests that it might be more beneficial to openly acknowledge the negative, to speak it aloud, and then deal with it.

For me, that means coming to terms with the loss of all my money and the role I had to play in it. Yes, the stock market will rebound at some point, but not fast enough to get a new business going anytime soon. And my house? It will take me years to recover my equity. Not so good.

From now on I will strive to put aside the positive puffery, and frankly, it will be a huge relief. Though I fought the good fight, it turns out the eggplant doesn't fall far from the vine, and I might have a little Great Aunt Ida in me after all. The whole glass-half-full idiom has always been a little confusing to me anyway. Half-full? Half-empty? Either way, it is still only half.

This year, when you tell me about your latest calamity, I won't advise you to stay positive. I won't tell you that it might turn out to the best thing that ever happened to you. I won't remind you that you have the power to change your unfortunate situation into an opportunity. I will tell you that your problem sucks. And then I will pour you a full glass of wine, and we'll commiserate.

 
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