Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America is a funny and poignant book examining America’s obsession with positive thinking. In it Ehrenreich not only details her own experiences with the positive-thinking movement, but delves into its history and evolution.
The book begins with Ehrenreich’s diagnosis of breast cancer in 2000 and her personal experience with the “pink ribbon culture” surrounding the disease. In this incessantly upbeat culture, fear and anger are not tolerated; only optimism is acceptable. Cancer is viewed as an opportunity, even a gift.
Ehrenreich explores this world in various ways. She touches on the crass consumerism of the “pink ribbon culture” (you would not believe some of the products that are being pinked and sold in the name of breast cancer research). She explains the prevailing mindset that being positive will help you feel better and even cure you more quickly (mind over matter). She then proceeds to debunk this long-standing myth with the relevant psychological studies; previous studies declaring a link between positive thinking and cancer survival are replete with problems and have been discounted by most researchers.
And she goes one step further, proposing that this culture of positivity may in some cases make women feel worse. If they don’t feel positively about their cancer, if they are in fact scared, sad, and angry, they are made to feel guilty and ashamed for feeling the wrong way. The patient is left to feel that since they have negative thoughts, they must be partly to blame for their illness.
Why do Americans discount reality, facts, and science in favour of magical thinking? Ehrenreich takes us through the history and reach of the positive-thinking movement. She begins at its inception with the New Thought Movement, which may itself have been a response to Calvinism’s bludgeoning pessimism. The New Thought Movement is the group of people who invented the ‘law of attraction,’ which has recently been re-discovered and re-packaged in the best-selling books and videos, The Secret. From there she discusses famous mid-20th-century positive-thinkers like Norman Vincent Peale and Dale Carnegie (author of How to Win Friends and Influence People). She ends with the current state of affairs, from Oprah Winfrey and The Secret to practitioners, motivational speakers, preachers, and hucksters who make a living off of telling people to think positively.
The author attends the National Speakers Association conference in San Diego, which contains all manner of woo. After listening to a lot of what Nobel physicist Murray Gell-Mann called ‘quantum flapdoodle,’ Ehrenreich addresses her concerns to one of the speakers, a life coach. In a funny and biting tone, she writes:
“After I summarized my discomfort with all the fake quantum physics in a couple of sentences, she gave me a kindly therapeutic look and asked, ‘You mean it doesn’t work for you?’ […] If science is something you can accept or reject on the basis of personal tastes, then what kind of reality did she and I share? If it ‘worked for me’ to say that the sun rises in the west, would she be willing to go along with that…?”
Today the relentless and often harmful culture of positivity permeates the world of disease, the business world (a very interesting chapter; at one point employees in a seminar chant, “I feel healthy, I feel happy, I feel terrific!”), religion (pastors at mega-churches are essentially motivational speakers declaring that God wants believers to be rich), and even science. Ehrenreich argues that the field of Positive Psychology (yes, that’s a field — there’s even a Journal of Happiness Studies) does not seek to understand and improve social ills, but bolsters the status quo by concluding that how cheerfully one views their circumstances directly relates to how happy one is. Which is to say, if you’ve been laid off and are feeling down, it’s because you’re not viewing your new-found unemployment as an opportunity. If you live in poverty and are feeling oppressed, it’s because you’re not viewing your circumstances as an opportunity to pull yourself up by your boot-straps and show the world that you have what it takes to get through it.
Bright-sided exposes the myth (a la The Secret) that people create their own circumstances, and that if bad things happen to you it’s because you were thinking negatively. As the purveyors of positive thinking and positive psychology would have you think, the only thing keeping you from having a good life is your negative attitude. Therefore, you are to blame for anything bad that happens in your life. This, Ehrenreich believes, is not only hackneyed, but dangerous because it leads to a form of denial that actually stunts social progress. If one’s thoughts are the causes of outcomes, then little else need be studied.
Do not misunderstand the basis of this book. While it has its share of snark, sarcasm, and humour, this is not a cynical or sardonic book. Ehrenreich is not damning happiness or hopefulness; rather she is exposing the almost religiosity with which people preach positive thinking while exposing its downsides. She allows that happy, positive people are more likely to make friends and be successful in business because of their upbeat personalities. But this is very different from the magical thinking that positive thought can lead to a better life regardless of one’s circumstances.
To conclude, here is another excerpt from the end of the book, which readers of this newsletter will likely cheer:
“This is the project of science: to pool the rigorous observations of many people into a tentative accounting of the world, which will of course always be subject to revisions arising from fresh observations… All the basic technologies ever invented by humans to feed and protect themselves depend on a relentless commitment to hard-nosed empiricism: you cannot assume that your arrowheads will pierce the hide of the bison or that your raft will float just because the omens are propitious and you have been given supernatural assurance that they will. You have to be sure.”