About one-third into her new book, Barbara Ehrenreich recalls when she first lost hope in positive thinking while attending the National Speakers Association convention — the mecca of motivation. Leaving one panel, Ehrenreich asks one attendee if she is troubled by the use of quantum physics to explain how positive thoughts can manipulate matter. The woman, a “life coach” from California, smiles indulgently and asks, “You mean it doesn’t work for you?”
Aghast, Ehrenreich wonders, “If it ‘worked for me’ to say that the sun rises in the west, would she be willing to go along with that?” What empirical reality can we agree upon “if science is something you can accept or reject on the basis of personal tastes?”
What kind, indeed. But then, positive thinking isn’t known for its cozy relationship with science — or reality. So argues Barbara Ehrenreich, renowned muckraker launched to fame by her savage exposé Nickel and Dimed, in her latest work, Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. In a punchy 200-page critique, Ehrenreich cracks open the sugarcoating of “Think Positive!” and shows us the poison pill underneath. At a time when more and more Americans are choosing their own reality, whether deciding which news to hear, which science to believe, or how much debt they can afford, Ehrenreich’s book is a much-needed call for us to, in all possible terms, get a grip.
What could be so bad about thinking things are good? It’s a question we rarely ask ourselves amid constant exhortations to find a silver lining, be a team player, and always look on the bright side. From Oprah’s inspiring guests to the syrupy tales of Chicken Soup for the Soul, we are told that we too will soar to new heights if we just keep thinking happy thoughts.
Sadly, this just isn’t true. Not that Ehrenreich would rather we celebrate hopelessness and despair. But positive thinking demands we focus on ideal outcomes at the expense of recognizing real problems. “A chief of state does not want to hear a general in the field say that he ‘hopes’ to win tomorrow’s battle,’” Ehrenreich observes. “He or she wants one whose plans include the possibility that things may go very badly, and fall-back positions in case they do.”
Yet in recent decades our fanatical devotion to optimism has led us pretty deep down the rabbit hole, into a world where Newtonian laws can be warped by our whims. Self-help guides like the 2006 bestseller The Secret promise that the “law of attraction” allows you to “visualize what you want and it will be ‘attracted’ to you.” Literally: Picture what you need, and the universe shall provide.
Ehrenreich traces the seeds of positive thinking to a group of 19th-century philosophers struggling to shake off the existential dread of Calvinism. Their New Thought movement held that “illness was a disturbance in an otherwise perfect Mind and could be cured through the Mind alone.” Ehrenreich attributes today’s industry of positive thinking — complete with books, posters, and 10-step programs — to social and economic change in the 20th century. As “more and more middle-class people were … employees of larger corporations, where the objects of their labor were likely to be not physical objects … but other people,” she theorizes, “interpersonal relations came to count for more than knowledge and experience.”
Being positive was a veritable survival skill during the 1980s era of downsizing. CEOs employed motivational speakers, self-help books, and company retreats en masse to placate survivors of these brutal rounds of firing. Three decades later, pep has become the norm, even as our actual happiness has declined. We’re the 23rd happiest country in the world according to a recent analysis, surpassed by “even the supposedly dour Finns.” (We also account for two-thirds of the global market for antidepressants.)
Unbridled cheer has spread far beyond office culture, greeting Americans in church and even through academia. Bright-Sided’s chapters on megachurch “pastorprenuers” like Joel Osteen and “positivity psychology” are Ehrenreich at her best, bubbling with undisguised contempt. At Osteen’s church, we hear Joel and his wife Victoria celebrating the victory God gave them over a flight attendant who sued her for assault. (Victoria had demanded the attendant remove a stain on her first-class seat, then tried to enter the cockpit to complain when it was not blotted immediately.) It’s hard not to share Ehrenreich’s disbelief: “I look around cautiously to see how everyone else is reacting to this celebration of a millionaire’s court victory over a working woman … The crowd, which … appears to contain few people who have ever landed a lucrative book contract or flown first-class, applauds Victoria enthusiastically.”
Much of Ehrenreich’s wrath, unfortunately, seems spent by the book’s final chapter, where she unveils the pièce de la resistance: how positive thinking created the recession. She makes a strong case for how deluded CEOs refused to heed clear warnings about the toxic assets we now know as subprime mortgages. And she shows clearly how we dug ourselves deeper by believing the gurus who encouraged us to dream of “larger homes, quick promotions, and sudden acquisitions of great wealth” even as wages declined.
But then she seems to give up. After eking out 17 pages on her theory of the recession, the seemingly exhausted Ehrenreich cobbles together an even briefer postscript and drops the pen. More effective is the introduction to the book, in which she rants about how positive thinking pastes over our deepest social problems: “[It] takes the effort of positive thinking to imagine that America is the ‘best’ … Our children routinely turn out to be more ignorant of basic subjects like math and geography than their counterparts in other industrialized nations … We have … the greatest level of inequality in wealth and income.” In other words, positive thinking encourages neglect of our deepest social ills.
Such big-picture conclusions, unfortunately, are rare. We’re left feeling as though Ehrenreich has held back in all the wrong places, pouring vitriol into her anecdotes but failing to tie them into the all-encompassing “screw this” indictment that she alludes to in her introduction.
Yet fear not, those looking for the activist who wrote Nickel and Dimed. While the book is more diagnostic than prescriptive, Ehrenreich does urge us to disengage from the self-absorption positive thinking requires and invest ourselves in creating a genuinely happier world. “Surely it is better to … search one’s inner self for strengths rather than sins,” she writes. “The question is why one should be so inwardly preoccupied at all … Why spend so much time working on oneself when there is so much real work to be done?”
We indeed have real work to do. And we need to start by facing reality.
Chelsea Rudman is an international development professional and freelance writer who lives in Washington, DC. Her writing has previously been published in the NY Press and Matador Travel.
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