Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, by Barbara Ehrenreich (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2009, ISBN 978-0-8050-8749-9) 256 pp. Cloth $23.00.
Barbara Ehrenreich dedicates her latest book, Bright-sided, “To complainers everywhere,” entreating them to “Turn up the volume!” But the book that follows this emphatic call to arms is far from a vitriol-laced rampage against sunny, happy people. Rather, it’s a careful, studied dissection of the “positive thinking” movement that pervades and, as Ehrenreich has it, infects the American landscape, obligating “all good citizens” to smile and project positivity through life’s bad turns, even though such posturing has not been shown to make us any happier and, in fact, has driven us individually and as a culture into many a yawning cavern wrenched open by wishful thinking.
Ehrenreich’s journey into the madding, smiling crowd began in the year 2000 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. In an increasingly vulnerable state, she found herself assaulted by positivity, showered by survivors’ tales of the life-changing growth opportunities afforded them through their bouts with cancer, and even by the widely touted “science” that indicated her negativity might have caused her sickness to begin with. The onslaught from support groups, Web message boards, and recovery literature more or less insisted that Ehrenreich approach her illness in an upbeat manner, embracing it as she might one of the ubiquitous pink-ribboned, breast-cancer teddy bears thrust her way. (“Certainly men diagnosed with prostate cancer do not receive gifts of Matchbox cars,” Ehrenreich snaps after wondering about the sexist, childlike products offered by what she terms the “breast cancer marketplace.”) Yet far from being pumped up by all this cheerleading, Ehrenreich found herself burdened by this second disease of positivity, which gifted her only with an introduction to the American ideological force that “encourages us to deny reality, submit cheerfully to misfortune, and blame only ourselves for our fate.”
Given this rude kick in her negative pants, Ehrenreich set off to trace the nefarious course of the cultural infection called positive thinking. By investigating the theories and practices of such famous (or infamous) champions of positivity as Norman Vincent Peale (author of The Power of Positive Thinking), Phineas Parkhurst Quimby (founder of the nineteenth-century New Thought movement), and Mary Baker Eddy (founder of Christian Science), along with modern-day progenitors (evangelist Joel Osteen of Houston’s Lakewood Church and leading positive psychologist Martin Seligman, to name but a few), Ehrenreich argues for a direct link between positive thinking and the old American Calvinism it originally set out to oppose. She uncovers what she sees as the Calvinistic core of positivity, which demands constant “self-monitoring” and puts happiness to work in pursuit of greater material gain—happiness itself cannot (or should not) be an end in itself, the positive thinking movement tells us. As Osteen preaches: “Start thinking as God thinks. Think big. . . . Think more than enough.”
For any reader unfortunate enough to have found him- or herself ensnared by the corporate cubicle, Ehrenreich’s passage into the viral positivity of corporate America will feel sickeningly, if humorously, familiar. (Her mention of “power animals” brought to mind my stint as a corporate panther, a period in which, during especially stressful and turbulent times, I would chide an agitated co-worker to focus and find his inner squirrel.) Yet beyond the comic—a stance intelligent workers, I’ve found, must adopt in order to stomach the nonsense—Ehrenreich invites us to see the relationship between corporate and religious America, with CEOs becoming spiritual leaders and megachurch preachers presiding like CEOs over their musical motivation factories. Before long, she has woven a convincing narrative about positivity’s ability—like that of other faith-based movements—to slip stealthily beyond the comic and become a societal menace, attracting unquestioning adherents and spitting out dissenters as traitors.
Her message could not be more timely, released not only within the stretching economic crisis but amidst our heated national debate over health-care reform and just months before the United Nations climate-change conference in Copenhagen. The heated arguments over each of these issues too often belch the decaying odor of positivity, specifically that acrid stench emitted by our incessant desire, as if by right, for more. How often are we implored to trust Wall Street and the Federal Reserve, though they continue to appear one and the same and are lit as the beacon for the prosperity we all should wish to attain? How often is the moral drive toward some form of universal health care stalled by concerns over diminishing or eliminating insurance company profits? Why, in the face of more and more dire scientific predictions do our leaders feel we can take, baby steps toward restoring the environment? At the heart of each of these arguments is the insistence (and willful ignorance) that everything will work out fine if we just believe it. “Ask the universe for it,” was the job advice once offered me by a seemingly intelligent acquaintance. “Name it and claim it,” Ehrenreich writes, quoting adherents to the Law of Attraction. The American dream has fed—and was and continues to be fed by—our willingness to suspend reality in exchange for believing that we can have anything we want if we just want it badly enough. This is, as the reasoning goes, our American birthright. What’s so frightening and necessary about Ehrenreich’s book is its ability to reveal the depth of this positive infection in our everyday lives, and the author’s contrarian insistence on doing so! In the end, she calls for an increase in critical thinking, implores us to ask the hard questions and for the individual to stand up and challenge groupthink. It’s hard not to feel positive about all that.