“Positive thinking is endemic to American culture — from weight loss programs to cancer support groups — and in the last two decades it has put down deep roots in the corporate world as well. Everyone knows that you won’t get a job paying more than $15 an hour unless you’re a ‘positive person, and no one becomes a chief executive by issuing warnings of possible disaster.”

This is from a thoughtful op-ed piece by the author, Barbara Ehrenreich, titled “The Power of Negative Thinking”, which appeared in the New York Times yesterday. It is worth reading in its entirety.

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/24/opinion

Ehrenreich argues that the financial mess we’re in was brought about in part by our unique brand of all-American optimism, which sometimes borders on delusion. As a result:

“No one was psychologically prepared for hard times when they hit, because, according to the tenets of positive thinking, even to think of trouble is to bring it on.”

My focus is not the Dow Jones, but how our cultural attitudes affect people with cancer. We are taught, for example, that with the right “attitude” we can surmount any obstacle, even a life-threatening illness. And that going to support groups will prolong our life.

Unfortunately, neither is true, although being in good spirits and socializing can certainly make your life better.

What about dying? It’s the most un-American thing you can do. You might as well be Benedict Arnold. Dying is a negative thing, and we are a positive people.

I got this impression from a broadcast I saw on TV a few weeks ago called, “Stand Up to Cancer”. This was a highly publicized fundraising event which featured a host of celebrities. (There was even the first-ever live DRE performed on TV!)

First there was some small talk, and then came the testimonials from cancer survivors. All were positive. And it seemed as if an inordinate number had beaten the odds — outlived their projected survival times, sometimes by decades. One woman said she should have been dead 16 years ago, but thanks to progress in cancer research she’s alive and kicking. Another lady who was in a wheelchair and seemed in very bad shape, vowed that she was never going to die, in spite of a poor prognosis.

Patrick Swayze spoke about his belief that a cure will be found for his pancreatic cancer before it has a chance to kill him.

What was conspicuously absent in this telecast was any mention of the “D-word”.

I wonder if it would be a better thing to acknowledge that some people with cancer will die from the disease sooner or later, and that one of our goals should be not only to cure people, but to make their last journey as pleasant as possible. We can follow the example of other countries, such as Britain, who give a lot of attention to end-of-life care.

What I am not arguing is that people should be sourpusses. Because there is an alternative. As Ehrenreich concludes:

“When it comes to how we think, ‘negative’ is not the only alternative to ‘positive. As the case histories of depressives show, consistent pessimism can be just as baseless and deluded as its opposite. The alternative to both is realism — seeing the risks, having the courage to bear bad news and being prepared for famine as well as plenty. We ought to give it a try.”