Bright-Sided or Right-Minded?

I take issue with many of the points in the Washington Posts review of Barbara Ehrenreich‘s new book, Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. I took the liberty of commenting on the points i disagree with.

When Barbara Ehrenreich was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2000, the sharp-eyed social critic found herself nearly as discomfited by the “pink ribbon culture” surrounding the disease as by the illness itself. Relentlessly upbeat, cloyingly inspirational,

Seems to me that critics of all stripes are under strict orders to avoid any and all feelings of tenderness and genuine human emotion. While many of us are deeply touched and uplifted by, say, the books of Mitch Albom or by inspirational attitudes and quotes, critics make a point to distance themselves emotionally by using words such as “cloying,” “mawkish,” “treacly” and “syrupy.” Such a response says more about the critics than whatever it is they’re criticizing.

the breast cancer world, as Ehrenreich describes it, is a place where anger, fear and depression — all perfectly reasonable responses to a potentially mortal diagnosis — are frowned upon and the cancer itself is lauded as a great opportunity for spiritual growth.

When you want to disparage other people’s words, actions and intentions, there’s an easy trick: exaggeration. Yes, anger, fear and depression are perfectly reasonable responses. Anyone who frowns upon such normal human reactions isn’t in touch with reality. If super-positive-Sally-Sunshine tries to tell you, “Forget that nasty old cancer and give me a nice, big smile!” then I agree: That is annoying! However, wallowing in anger, fear and depression serves no purpose and will almost certainly worsen your physical and mental health.

Claiming that cancer is lauded as a great opportunity for spiritual growth is also an in-your-face exaggeration. Yes, illness can be an opportunity for spiritual healing but people who are adept at living consciously know how to present such a view with compassion, empathy and great wisdom. Again, those people who choose to wallow in self-pity are apt to lash out at any attempt to think and act positively, as if their illness gives them the right to sulk and feel sorry for themselves.

In this cocoon of optimism, the prevailing opinion is that cancer is a gift, a chance to become closer to God, to find life’s true meaning. It’s not a tragedy; it’s a rite of passage with an enormous upside. “What does not destroy you, to paraphrase Nietzsche,” writes Ehrenreich, “makes you a spunkier, more evolved sort of person.”

Ehrenreich’s quote is mocking and spiteful. I wonder if she would have felt the same way had she met Heidi von Beltz, a former championship skier and aspiring actor who was paralyzed from the neck down in a head-on collision while working as a stunt double in The Cannonball Run. Years later, von Beltz stated in print and TV interviews that she was grateful for the crash because it sent her life veering onto a new course, a path of greater understanding and spiritual awareness.

And I wonder what Ehrenreich would have thought of my friend Jim MacLaren, a former triathlon champion who also expressed gratitude for the two vehicular accidents that rendered him a quadriplegic. “Even though both accidents were devastating at the time, I now view them as gifts and not tragedies,” he told me. MacLaren insisted he would not trade his years of paralysis for a restored, healthy body. “Having to admit to my own dependency and vulnerability actually made me more powerful,” he said. “For me, the journey has always been about going deeper and becoming more of a human being.”

Would Ehrenreich have mocked Jim and called him “spunky”? If so, she has quite a bit of evolving to do. I have read and heard countless accounts of people who were thankful for their illness because it forced them to go within and discover what life is all about. Does that approach work for everyone? Certainly not. But to disparage those who rise above their circumstances and find joy and peace is inexcusable.

I wonder what Ehrenreich would think of this observation:

“People with diseases like AIDS and cancer feel an urgency in straightening out their lives, examining their purpose, and confronting the reality of death. Ironically, in spite of the physical and emotional pain they experience, many of these patients express gratitude for this opportunity. The encounter with their own mortality changes their priorities in life, their values and aspirations. For many, it makes them truly cherish life and the ability to give and receive love.”
— Jeff Seibert

Why, three centuries after the Enlightenment, is American culture so bewitched by magical thinking, elevating feelings and intuition and hope over preparation, information and science? Why do so many of us seem so willing to discount reality in favor of vague wishes, dreams and secrets?

To atheists and agnostics, a belief in God, or for that matter, any world beyond the five senses, is “magical thinking.” It’s a dismissive term meant to ridicule people who claim to have felt the presence of God. Ehrenreich also marginalizes feelings, intuition and hope when numerous and widely available studies prove the correlation between mind and body. Hope just may save your life. What’s more, feelings, intuition and hope work together with preparation, information and science. Neither grouping is sufficient unto itself; integrating them is prudent and powerful. And if you think intuition and hope are discounting reality, then in my view, you do not understand the nature of reality.

And has this gospel of good times delivered us not into a life of ease but instead into a worldwide economic meltdown? Ehrenreich’s examination of the history of positive thinking is a tour de force of well-tempered snark, culminating in a persuasive indictment of the bright-siders as the culprits in our current financial mess.

Here again, whether it’s in books, movies or television, critics value snark and snideness over compassion and kindness. Since when is snark a positive trait and something to be applauded? Is that the kind of world we want to live in? If not, then why do we celebrate it? Why would I give five seconds of my time to a “tour de force” of negative attacks of any kind? I am saddened to see people who take joy and satisfaction in mocking and attacking others; somewhere along the way, they must have been horribly mistreated or deprived of basic human love and kindness.

She begins with a look at where positive thinking originated, from its founding parents in the New Thought Movement (inventors of the law of attraction, recently made famous in books such as “The Secret”) through mid-20th-century practitioners like Norman Vincent Peale and Dale Carnegie, to current disciples ranging from Oprah Winfrey to the preachers of the prosperity gospel. We’re not talking here about garden-variety hopefulness or genuine happiness, but rather the philosophy that individuals create — rather than encounter — their own circumstances. Crafted as a correction to Calvinism’s soul-crushing pessimism, positive thinking, in Ehrenreich’s view, has become a kind of national religion, an abettor to capitalism’s crueler realities and an overcorrection every bit as anxiety-producing as the Puritans’ Calvinism ever was.

Wow. So positive thinking was responsible for the economic meltdown, huh? Seems to me the culprits are greed, selfishness and corruption. You know: the usual suspects. If Ehrenreich is equating positive thinking with naivete on the part of unqualified home buyers, that’s one thing—although positive thinking and naivete are very different from each other. Blaming positive thinking for our economic woes sounds like a skit on Saturday Night Live.

Bouncing from cancer lab to motivational business meeting to megachurch, Ehrenreich tests the theses embedded in American positive thinking and finds them wanting. Studies proclaiming a link between a positive attitude and cancer survival, she finds, are full of problems and discounted by most researchers. Furthermore, she points out, the popular insistence that cheerfulness can help beat the Big C, while it can be “a great convenience for health workers and even friends of the afflicted, who might prefer fake cheer to complaining,” leaves patients in the uncomfortable position of having to hide or deny their very real anger and sadness, even to themselves, for fear of being complicit in their own illness.

Any researcher can find what they’re looking for to support their bias. The link between attitude and survival is undeniable. Study after study proves this. As for being complicit in their own illness, what Ehrenreich doesn’t understand is that while you are not responsible for your illness, you are responsible to it. If you don’t understand the difference, you’re going to make all sorts of faulty assumptions.

As for the tests and formulas devised by practitioners of positive psychology, an academic field that receives major funding from ultra-conservative groups (such as the Templeton Foundation, which also bankrolled the Proposition 8 campaign to overturn California’s same-sex marriage law), Ehrenreich points out that the “real conservatism of [the field] lies in its attachment to the status quo, with all its inequalities and abuses of power.”

Positive thinking is strongly associated with ultra-conservative groups? Um, this is getting a bit absurd.

Unlike scholarship that aims to understand or ameliorate social problems, positive psychology focuses only on the individual’s attitude toward those problems, meaning it’s a short skip to the point of view that happiness or unhappiness is entirely a function of how a person feels about her circumstances. But what if your circumstances are awful? How on Earth is one to parse the Satisfaction with Life Scale developed by positive psychologists? Can you say “In most ways my life is close to my ideal” if you’ve just been laid off, or if you face medical bankruptcy because you’re uninsured? What if you’re a slave or a refugee? If all that stands between you and the good life is a positive attitude, as positive psychology posits, then the only person you have to blame if your life isn’t good is yourself.

When I was laid off, I was devastated. But now I thank my lucky stars for that day. It’s the best thing that could have happened to me. I learned to take full responsibility for my life. Today, I am living simply and ascetically. I have very little in the way of money or material possessions. Yet each day overflows with peace, love and joy. I know now that external security does not bring peace. Rather, peace brings internal security, which renders external security superfluous. If you want to tell me I’m fooling myself, that I can’t possibly be happy living in less-than-ideal circumstances, go ahead. That just makes me smile.

The author deploys her sharpest tone to eviscerate the business community’s embrace of positive thinking. Offered as a sap to those facing layoffs, used as a spur to better performance by those workers who remain (often while enduring cuts in pay and benefits) and relied on as an excuse to ignore unpleasant inevitabilities like bubbles bursting, American positivism reaches its giddiest and most dangerous heights in the corner office.

That doesn’t sound like positive thinking to me. It sounds like conniving management trying to manipulate workers for their own benefit, not the benefit of the workers.

Although our current economic mess has complex and varied causes, Ehrenreich’s aim here feels all too true. “Recall that American corporate culture had long since abandoned the dreary rationality of professional management for the emotional thrills of mysticism, charisma, and sudden intuitions,” Ehrenreich writes. “Pumped up by paid motivators and divinely inspired CEOs, American business entered the midyears of the decade at a manic peak of delusional expectations, extending to the higher levels of leadership.” Gripped by “runaway positive thinking,” the markets rose and rose until reality receded into the far distance. Little wonder that it hit so hard when we all fell.

“Mysticism” is another word for “magical thinking” or belief in a world that we can’t perceive with our five senses. If you don’t believe in God, it’s likely that you place all your trust in what can be measured and counted. As a wise man once said: Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts. The above paragraph is riddled with hyperbole. It smacks of a desperate attempt to justify an absurd thesis.


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4 Responses to “Bright-Sided or Right-Minded?”

  1. sajerosa Says:

    Wow! you really made a critical dissection of it. I like the arguments and interpretation. Anyway, all I could say is that
    The bright side of being positive elucidates optimism. It takes a near missed death, an untreatable sickness to realize that after all we humans are imperfect. and this imperfection draws us closer to God. Happy are those who have turned around and acknowledge their imperfection before God but God is still waiting for those who blamed him because of their sufferings, the imperfection rooted from Adam.

  2. Phil Bolsta Says:

    Yes, sajerosa, we are certainly imperfect creatures and suffering is a part of life. But through hope, faith and optimism, we can transcend our suffering and find joy and beauty in life.

  3. Yitka Winn Says:

    Hi Phil,

    I came to your blog by way of Amazon and your very in-depth critique there of Ehrenreich’s book. I’m in the midst of reading another of hers, “Bait and Switch”, which caught my eye at the library this morning. Over the course of reading it today, I’ve found myself increasingly irritated with snide comments here and there about positive thinking, motivational books and seminars, etc, and my irritation prompted me to peruse a few reviews on Amazon…and link by link, I eventually wound up on this page. I’m commenting because I really appreciated your thoughtful analysis of so many specific sections of this other book of hers. I felt as though you captured aptly so many of my thoughts and feelings on the subject, and articulated them beautifully, to boot. So, well done. I’ve been in a book-buying/ordering/borrowing frenzy this past month and already have more on my shelf than I can handle for now, but just wanted to write and say that I’ve added “Sixty Seconds” to my reading list for the near future.

    All best,

  4. Phil Bolsta Says:

    Thanks so much for writing, Yitka. I’ve heard nothing but good things about Barbara Ehrenreich in the past, and I’m sure she’s a brilliant, very capable woman. But I don’t understand why snideness and snarkiness is celebrated by so many people. It’s pervasive throughout all facets of media. I’m glad that you, too, are bothered by it. I think that speaks well to who you are as a human being, to your kindness, compassion and desire to make the world a better place.

    Thanks, too, for adding “Sixty Seconds” to your book frenzy! I very much appreciate it! I look forward to your feedback on it!

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