Enough with the bright side

Positive thinking can be dangerous, says Barbara Ehrenreich

By Jenna Russell
Globe Staff / October 11, 2009

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IT’S HARD TO imagine a more virtuous-seeming subculture than the pink-ribboned world of breast cancer support and survivordom, where T-shirts and 10K races invoke messages of courage, sisterhood, and perseverance.

So it comes as a shock when writer Barbara Ehrenreich starts her new book by launching an assault on the pink ribbons: Not only does the forced, “smile or die” cheerfulness of the breast cancer culture infantilize women, she argues, it can do them harm, by making them feel guilty for “failing” to heal themselves by staying positive.

Belief in the power of positive thinking - the idea that we can prosper, stay healthy, and live the lives we dream of simply by focusing on what we want and banishing doubt - has come to seem fundamentally American. But Ehrenreich sees it as something else, too: a dangerous invitation to dodge reality. In her new book, “Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America,” Ehrenreich documents the destructive power of the happy-think movement in numerous corners of American life, from the motivational speakers and megachurch pastors who exhort their followers to visualize wealth (and good tables in restaurants) and then go “get what’s yours” to the Wall Street giants who ignored signs of trouble, demoted naysayers, and led the country into economic collapse.

The problem, Ehrenreich argues, isn’t optimism per se, but the notion that fear and doubt serve no useful purpose - that success requires ridding yourself of all dark thoughts and critical people, shutting off the news (too negative), and paying attention only to one’s own desires and feelings. Ehrenreich, best known for chronicling the struggle of the underclass in “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America,” makes a case not for pessimism, but realism: “A vigilant realism does not foreclose the pursuit of happiness; in fact, it makes it possible,” she writes. “How can we expect to improve our situation without addressing the actual circumstances we find ourselves in?”

She spoke to Ideas by phone from her home in Alexandria, Va.

IDEAS: Was it your own experience with breast cancer that made you want to write this book?

BE: Definitely. I wrote something about it while I was undergoing treatment, but then I put it out of my mind. I thought it was just that pink-ribbon culture. Then a couple years later, I was going to motivational workshops with laid-off white-collar workers, and I thought, Oh my God, this is it all over again - people in a terrible time in their lives being told that they ought to be upbeat and positive about it.

IDEAS: What is positive thinking, as you see it, and what’s so bad about it?

BE: I think of it as an ideology that says we have to work on ourselves to be positive, optimistic and upbeat, and that that will make us healthier - will help us recover from cancer for example. Where it begins to get a little wacky is in saying that you can actually have anything you want by concentrating on it enough, because positive people attract positive things to themselves. I was seeing it applied to people who were really having serious problems, such as cancer or having lost a job, and they were being told it’s all in your mind - whatever happens to you comes from your attitude and thoughts … I think it’s kind of cruel to tell people who are suffering, and did not in any way bring it on themselves, that you just have to change your attitude and you’ll be OK.

IDEAS: A lot of people just find it more pleasant to be around people who are positive.

BE: Well, negative people are culled out. In the workplace, for example, they may be fired just for raising too many questions or being too critical. So yes, sometimes it’s irritating to be around somebody who doesn’t say every idea you have is brilliant, who says instead, I have these doubts. But I want to be with the person who has the doubts.

IDEAS: Has the widening gap in American incomes made people more susceptible?

BE: I would say positive thinking has made people less angry about inequality. The best recent example [during the 2008 presidential campaign] was Joe the Plumber, who objected to the possibility of taxes being raised on people making more than $250,000 a year, although he was an unlicensed assistant plumber, and his chances of ever getting into that category seemed pretty remote. But if you think positively, why, you’re always just about to be rich yourself.

IDEAS: You spent some time at conferences for motivational speakers. Did you ever find yourself feeling fired up in spite of yourself?

BE: No. And I think I was open to it. I wanted to feel the love, or feel what people were supposed to feel, but unfortunately, I’m saddled with this rational mind. At one conference in 2007, there was constant talk about how quantum physics explains how you can have anything you want just by thinking about it. That just infuriated me. I have very scant formal exposure to quantum physics, but I have some notion what it’s about, and it’s not about my being able to have that necklace in the jewelry store window.

IDEAS: And you found the same attitudes when you visited megachurches?

BE: The old guys, like Jerry Falwell, were all about sin and fire and brimstone. But if you go to Joel Osteen’s church, you’re not going to get any of that disturbing stuff. It’s all about how you can get what you want - it’s like God as personal servant. Osteen, America’s most successful preacher, will describe how God will get him a better parking space.

IDEAS: Why is his message so popular?

BE: Well, it’s certainly better than being told that you’re bad, and you have to struggle against your sins.

IDEAS: You make a convincing case that this kind of thinking contributed to the economic meltdown.

BE: There were other factors, like sheer greed and the speed of transactions and new financial products, but I think it probably would not have happened if we had not been swept up in this culture of positive thinking. For ordinary people, this meant accepting levels of debt that are really scary, and using your house to get more cash. {hellip} I like to imagine that someone at the top is clear-headed, but at the upper levels of Wall Street, they too seemed to be in the grip of this delusional thinking.

IDEAS: For the person who gets laid off, who has to get up out of bed and find a new job, I can’t help thinking that thinking positively might be an advantage.

BE: I think there is yet another way of thinking, that’s not, “Oh yes, everything will be all right because I think it will,” but a way that involves determination, where you understand that things are really against you, and still you’re going to keep trying.

IDEAS: Did working on this make you feel like a curmudgeon?

BE: (Laughs.) I’ve had to fight the accusation at times. I did feel somewhat isolated at the beginning, because it’s like going up against {hellip} everything. It’s like coming out and saying “I hate peace, and I hate Ellen DeGeneres.” It sounds wacko.

IDEAS: Clearly the forces of positive thinking are strong. Do skeptics just have to grin and bear it?

BE: Well, I’ve taken the rather unusual stand of saying that it’s something noxious, that it’s become something dangerous in our culture. I’m saying this is not just a benign way of reassuring ourselves, that this has led to not seeing very bad things coming, and trusting the wrong people - and can we wake up from that, not to being depressed or pessimistic, but to being realistic, and trying to really see what we’re up against in the world.

Jenna Russell is a reporter for the Globe. E-mail