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Monday, January 26, 2009

Laura Rowley's Putting an End to Magical Thinking

Posted on Thursday, January 22, 2009, 12:00AM

In an interview before the inauguration, CBS anchor Katie Couric asked President Obama how he would balance the optimism and hope that surrounded his election with realistic expectations.

"The American people, I think, are in a pretty good place in the sense that they are hopeful and optimistic about what a new administration may bring," he replied, "but they are realistic about what is going to be accomplished in the first year or the first 18 months. I think they recognize that we're not gonna magically eliminate some of the problems we've had but that we can make steady progress."

Perversion of Traditional American Optimism

I hope he is right. But I worry that there is more magical thinking afoot than the president realizes. Magical thinking can be defined as a perversion of traditional American optimism. Magical thinking is the can-do attitude without the do. It's faith without works, to borrow a Biblical verse. And it has played a key role in shaping the economic crisis.

"I think the real gut-level progenitor of this crisis in the U.S. is optimism," says Ron Wilcox, professor at the University of Virginia and author of 'Whatever Happened to Thrift?' "When psychologists study optimism across cultures, the U.S. is always right at the top of the heap. We know that optimism has a genetic component.

"People from all over the world come to the U.S. looking for opportunity," he continues, "and people who do that kind of thing tend to be optimists. The social mobility is higher in the U.S. than in other countries, so people reasonably believe they can make their lives better."

For Every Problem, a Solution

British author and philosopher Alain de Botton agrees. "From the early 19th century onwards," he wrote in an email, "the West assumed a bourgeois, scientifically based worldview where a belief in progress and technology was united with a faith that every human problem would one day find a solution. Never before had so many people believed so many cheerful things.

"The Judeo-Christian and Graeco-Roman ideologies that preceded this optimistic age had placed stress on the essentially tragic, incomplete nature of human life," he continued. "Humans were not accidentally unhappy, they were so by design, because their desires always outstripped their expectations and because their knowledge was greater than their power to change things."

Don't get me wrong -- I am a product of American optimism. Three of my grandparents got on boats in Ireland in the early 20th century, chasing that dream of opportunity in America, and in many respects, they achieved it. But they worked extraordinarily hard -- in steel factories and retail stores and other enterprises -- to reach their goals. Those menial jobs represented the first step on a progressive ladder, and they moved higher collectively, as a community.

Working Hard for the Money

Researchers such as the University of Pennsylvania's Martin Seligman tell us optimism is good for us. Optimistic people get sick less, recover faster, and live longer. They perform better in school, at work, and on the playing field. They have more friends and are less likely to be depressed. But there is a vital connection between optimism and toil: A 2005 study by Duke University researchers Manju Puri and David Robinson found optimistic people work harder, expect to stay in the workforce longer, and save more.

That relationship between optimism and hard work has been lost in some quarters, thanks in part to the self-esteem movement, which gave everyone a trophy regardless of his or her effort.

The recent season premiere of 'American Idol' provided an example. One of the men who auditioned, Randy Madden, dresses like Axl Rose but works as a salesman in a cubicle (calling himself "a rocker in a box"). When he met the judges, he admitted to having no musical training and never playing in a band, and then proceeded to butcher my favorite Guitar Hero song, Bon Jovi's "Livin' on a Prayer". He teared up for the camera, proclaiming, "I just want someone to tell me I'm great."

A Sense of Entitlement

Here was a man utterly unprepared to get the thing he wanted -- so he simply decided he was entitled to it, demanded it, and set himself up for a rather spectacular fall. He is not unlike those who took out mortgages they couldn't afford, cashed out and squandered their equity, piled on credit card debt and home equity loans, then teared up, proclaiming, "I just want someone to tell me I'm rich."

We know those days are gone. The jig is up. And the economy has to be transformed by genuine, hard-working optimists instead of magical thinkers.

This will start with how we choose to frame our losses, says psychologist Denise Cummins, who teaches at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

"That's the silver lining -- how will you frame this or describe this to yourself," Cummins says. "Whether you couch it in a disaster framework or it's-a-challenge-but-I'll-get-through has a whopping effect on your endocrine system. If you say it's the end of world or that you are stupid and it will never get better again, you're going to keep shooting more and more cortisol and adrenaline through your system, and if you do it long enough, you'll build more receptors for bad hormones.

"Ruminating can actually exacerbate the damage. Instead, tell yourself another story. If you put it in terms of a challenge -- what can be done, where do you go from here, and what you have left that's still good -- you dampen all these hormonal effects."

Then ruminate on the words of President Obama in his inaugural address: "In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of shortcuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted -- for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things -- some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labor -- who have carried us up the long, rugged path toward prosperity and freedom."

Here's a toast to the end of magical thinking.