"Happy Thoughts"

Kerry Howley reviews Barbara Ehrenreich's book attacking positive thinking:

It’s no surprise that I was first told to smile while sitting in a church pew. The world of positivity is one of preachers, sacred books, incantations, revival meetings, and mystical teachings, all emanating from the idea that happy thoughts have the power to transform the physical world. For some people, sometimes, this fulfills a real need. But in the absence of critics like Ehrenreich, we run the risk of passively absorbing this dogma as it seeps into our lives, gently diminishing the sense that some circumstances really are beyond our control. Positivity is a secular religion. Sometimes it takes a village atheist to remind us that we can choose not to believe.

I don't share Ehrenreich's lefty politics, but I agree about the hideous cult of self-esteem:

Self-esteem isn't all that it's cracked up to be.

In fact, as a brief recounting of Bob Torricelli's career would usefully illustrate, it can be a huge part of the problem. New research has found that self-esteem can be just as high among D students, drunk drivers and former Presidents from Arkansas as it is among Nobel laureates, nuns and New York City fire fighters. In fact, according to research performed by Brad Bushman of Iowa State University and Roy Baumeister of Case Western Reserve University, people with high self-esteem can engage in far more antisocial behavior than those with low self-worth. "I think we had a great deal of optimism that high self-esteem would cause all sorts of positive consequences and that if we raised self-esteem, people would do better in life," Baumeister told the Times. "Mostly, the data have not borne that out."

Racists, street thugs and school bullies all polled high on the self-esteem charts. And you can see why. If you think you're God's gift, you're particularly offended if other people don't treat you that way. So you lash out or commit crimes or cut ethical corners to reassert your pre-eminence. After all, who are your moral inferiors to suggest that you could be doing something, er, wrong? What do they know?