A little more self-help

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?


Filed under Books, Nonfiction

13 responses to “A little more self-help

  1. That book certainly does sound frightening. Who says we should (or should want to) “rule the future”? And how do Asians feel about the implication that they have nothing creative or imaginative to contribute?

    On another note, some of the most “right-brained” people I’ve known couldn’t be counted on to spell their own mother’s names or balance a chequebook…


  2. I haven’t read this book, but I’ve read a lot of articles about Pink by people who support his idea. Personally, I find a lot of the “you must be a right-brained thinker” to be extremely frustrating. There’s an implication there that logical thinking is somehow less human or real–that a machine can do it. A machine can certainly do a lot of the tasks, but you still need a methodical, systematic thinker to determine what the machines need to do and what is feasible–and when to break the rules of logic. And some of that work needs to be done in person and simply can’t be offshored. Creativity may be more important than in the past, but must that mean we devalue logical, left-brained thinking?


  3. Hmmmm. It seems that the author’s approach to the subject is the key. While I dislike simplistic approaches to anything, I really dislike authoritarian pronouncements.

    I’ve had Lasater’s book Living Your Yoga for about a year (you mentioned this one in your last post), and while I like some of the little “dailies” a lot, overall, not so impressed with it.

    I did like Sue Patton Thoelle’s book The Mindful Woman.

    🙂 I know I’ve digressed from left/right brain and Pink’s attitude.


  4. Change or else won’t work. As you point out, the very nature of the statement sets fear in motion, which is reactive rather than creative. Nobody can predict the future. He’s just making a buck on it. All anyone can say is that books that predict future trends sell–or rather that publishers believe so!


  5. ‘abundance, Asia, and automation’ – eww. That’s not nice. This one sounds like an example of either/or thinking. You know, we’re all through with the left brain and NOW! time to exercise the right. I really don’t think the brain works that way, and I am quite sure that creativity requires both sides of the brain to be fulfilling. I think (and it’s a while since I read it so I could be mis-remembering) that Wolf’s book on reading described how the more advanced we become, the more areas of the brain we involve in the reading process. I wonder where common sense is located in the brain? Sounds like the author could usefully go looking for it. 😉

    I felt a bit unsure about the comment I’d left on your previous post, feeling it was more of an emotional reaction than a thought. I do think there is a place for cherishing and encouraging a positive outlook, particularly with regard to emotions like gratitude. What’s intriguing is how fiercely the negative demands to be heard – I’d quite like to read a book on why that should be so!


  6. Wow, Pink’s thining seems rather skewed. Litlove’s comment about common sense made me laugh.

    What makes me grumpy with all the right brain creativity stuff is the assumption that left brain thinking, the logical and rational isn’t and can’t be creative. It’s hogwash. Computer programming is quite creative. It involves design and problem-solving, an ability to see how all the parts will work together. That takes creativity and intuition and a sense of play. As for accounting, the current economy makes it obvious that it is also a very creative profession 😉


  7. You’ve got me thinking about the balance between positive and negative thinking now and I’m wondering if the negative doesn’t come out because of past experiences. There’s also a protective element in cynicism I suppose. It’s also interesting to look at mood and cognition and how relaxed moods open the mind to making creative links while fear tends to close it down.


  8. Whenever I read a book jacket that advocates an extreme, I’m immediately suspicious and turned off. I suppose that’s what gets readers’ attention; balance and moderation may be too boring a topic, whether you are talking about dieting, fitness, or, in this case, brain activity.

    I agree with the others; design is creative but there are also lots of left-brained skills that come into play. Graphic designers and architects immediately come to mind. I believe that a person skilled in both right and left-brained areas will do best in future, because they’ll be able to adapt no matter how the future unfolds.


  9. These are not really the sorts of books I would normally pick up, but your posts have been so interesting (and comments as well) they’ve piqued my curiosity. I’m a little surprised that you had to read the Pink for your work. Did you discuss it as a group? What did they want you glean from all this information? It seems sort of odd in an academic setting, but then maybe not? (Academia can be a crazy place sometimes). I do like the sound of the other book, though.


  10. Poor Wandering One

    Might I recommend “Brightsided” by Barbara Ehrenreich. It opens up the positive thinking movement and lets some needed daylight in.

    Granted the two books in the origional post do not seem to go too far out of balance. However historical context is always usefull. Besides Ehrenreich is a gass to read.


  11. Hmmm…I came across Pink’s book not too long ago at the book store and wrote it down, but now I think I’ll skip it. Positivity seems far more interesting, especially since I have lately become somewhat obsessed with what seems like the human tendency to focus on the negative. I’m not a big fan of all-or-nothing approaches and am not completely convinced about all the right brain/left brain arguments. I find them fascinating, but can’t get away from the notion that, with the exception of those rare cases in which the corpus callosum has been cut or damaged, that the two sides of the brain must be constantly interacting and informing each other, so that, as Litlove and Stef both note, there has to be creativity in some form on both sides, as well as logic and analysis on both sides. Dividing people and tasks, etc. into right-brain and left-brain seems to be just another form of categorizing and labeling and, as that sort of thing can do, and as your description of Pink’s book seems to witness, can often be very limiting, if not downright harmful (but that may just be my human tendency to be negative speaking).


  12. Marieke — yeah, it was a really light and unsatisfactory read, which is too bad. I’ve heard a scientist talk about it, and he wasn’t terribly impressed by the brain science the author draws on.

    Teresa — I agree. I don’t think Pink really dismisses left-brain thinking, at least not entirely, but I think you’ve described a complicated view of how the parts of the brain can work together in a way that he never quite gets to. Surely the whole thing is way more complicated than what he can describe in this fairly short book?

    Jenclair — I’m curious what it is about the Lasater you aren’t impressed by. I agree that the short meditations are good, but perhaps it doesn’t add up to all that much as a whole? Thanks for the recommendation of The Mindful Woman; I’m curious about it.

    Lilian — I felt anxious the whole time I read it, which surely is a bad sign. To give him credit, though, he’s using his creativity to make some money, following his own advice. But how many people can do the kind of thing he’s done? I wonder what the demand for the type of right-brain person he describes will actually be.

    Litlove — Positivity doesn’t talk in depth about why negative emotions can be so overpowering, but she does have some interesting ideas about how positive and negative emotions both are evolutionarily useful — they both add to our survival and the depth of our experience, but negative emotions tend to be more personal, whereas positive emotions more often connect us to other people. Interesting stuff! I love the idea that more advanced readers use more of their brain. What a great idea.

    Stefanie — oh, yes, creative accounting indeed! I like the way you describe how “left-brain” functions are creative as well. He does acknowledge how important left-brain thinking is for us and will continue to be, but I don’t think his ideas are nuanced enough.

    Pete — yes, I really liked the idea that positive experiences keep us open to new ideas and make it easier to make new connections and make us respond to different kinds of people more openly. She talks about studies that show people who have just experienced a positive state respond to images of people from various races in a less racist way. Interesting, right?

    Debby — I agree that sweeping pronouncements are a big turn-off. He tries to moderate the ideas a bit, but still, the overall effect remains an extreme one. It’s definitely the kind of bulked-up, not-very-meaty book that is meant to be read quickly. I’d definitely prefer something more thoughtful!

    Danielle — oh, academia is crazy all right! 🙂 I think the idea was … hmmm … maybe how we could encourage right-brain thinking in our students? We have a committee that tries to create development opportunities for faculty, and reading this book was one of them. I think we were supposed to think about how we could bring more creativity into the classroom and foster this kind of creative thinking in students. Which isn’t a bad idea at all, really, even if the book wasn’t very good.

    Jason — I may have to read that book, as a couple people have recommended it to me now. I do like Ehrenreich’s writing as well. Yes, the Positivity book is well-balanced, but it would still be a good idea to read a critique of positive-thinking. I’m guessing the two books could sit side-by-side without too many contradictions, though.

    Emily — well, if you ever want to borrow the book, I’d be happy to send you a copy, so you could read it without spending $ on it. I think you are right that the whole picture is much more complicated than Pink’s book allows for, and categorizing people in this way is surely counter-productive. Fostering creativity is one thing, but that’s not all this book does.


  13. I’d love to borrow your copy, but no rush. Send it along whenever you’d like, which reminds me, I hope you got my first pen pal letter (again, no rush to respond, I just want to make sure it arrived safe and sound).


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