It is interesting to describe Barbara Fredrickson’s book Positivity to friends to see what they say and to read the comments on my post about the book — interesting for a whole bunch of reasons. One is that I used to be the sort of person who would make fun of the sort of person I am now — one who is vaguely spiritual, a westerner interested in eastern religions, one who reads self-help books and throws around terms like “positivity” without sarcasm. So when people express the same doubts about the concept of positivity that I once would have expressed myself, I remember that version of my self (which was around up until quite recently and still sort of exists) and have to laugh. I have my doubts about the whole thing too. And I agree with those who say that the positive psychology movement has its dangerous side and can be misused or warped into something that’s about repressing negativity in a harmful way.
And yet it doesn’t have to turn dangerous or be harmful, and I think Fredrickson does a good job of staying balanced; she argues that negative feelings are useful and important, and we should pay attention to what they mean. But people also tend to focus on the negative to such an extent that we block out the positive, and she urges people both to dwell on the positive more and to learn to distinguish between negativity that’s useful — the sort that tells us to get out of a bad relationship, for example — and the negativity that isn’t — the sort that keeps me up at night replaying a conversation that made me angry over and over again in my head.
But I also wanted to write about another book I read, this time for work (for discussion amongst faculty), Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future. This is not a book I liked a whole lot, although it did overlap a little with Positivity. The argument in Pink’s book is that because of three factors — abundance, Asia, and automation (I find the repeated “a” words obnoxious) — the types of skills that are in demand and will get us jobs in the future are changing. What matters now is right-brain thinking, a kind of creative, artistic, empathetic, and emotional approach, rather than the old left-brain thinking, which is about calculations and logic. Basically, computers and cheap labor from overseas will be able to perform the kind of rote, mechanical mental work that many people in America are doing now (computer-programming, accounting). Instead, skills such as creating new designs or empathizing with people’s problems or being able to create compelling narratives will be in demand. Pink lists six aspects of right-brain thinking that he describes in separate chapters, which include resources for developing that skill: design, story, symphony (making connections, synthesizing ideas), empathy, play, and meaning.
Now Pink’s argument may be entirely true, I don’t know. I can’t really critique the rightness or wrongness of it. But the book seems to be meant to inspire people to develop a facility with “right-brain” thinking, and rather than being inspirational, it’s frightening. It’s like an order to start being creative — now! — or lose your job and become irrelevant. It’s really hard to work on developing a new mindset, especially one that’s about openness and play, when feeling under threat.
Some of the attributes Pink talks about came up in the Positivity book; Fredrickson argues that cultivating positivity can increase our creativity and emotional responsiveness, and that it can be a part of our quest for meaning. I really like the idea that fostering positive emotions can make a person more open to new ideas, more willing to try new things, and more able to see creative possibilities. These are things Pink values as well. But his argument is “change or else,” whereas Fredrickson’s is “give it a try and see what happens.” That’s a much better starting place, don’t you think?