Perils of Positive Thinking
Perils of Positive Thinking: Author Ehrenreich Points out the Negative Influence of the Constantly Upbeat
Nancy R. Care2
I saw author Barbara Ehrenreich speak on Friday about her newest book, Bright Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. In Ehrenreich’s view, the opposite of positive is realist.
She notes that acknowledging that life isn’t always super-keen is not the same as being a sourpuss, which certainly seems reasonable. I first encountered Ehrenreich’s work through her 2001 book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, which described the author’s personal journey through a series of minimum-wage jobs. Her anger at the injustices and indignities born by the women she worked with made for a book more powerful than any happy-faced Hallmark card. By not “looking on the bright side” of the plight of the working poor, the author made a powerful case for positive change.
To Ehrenreich, being consistently upbeat and optimistic has two downsides. By refusing to look at potential negative consequences, we can delude ourselves about the harmfulness of our actions. She gave as an example the real estate bubble, where the delusion that housing prices can only go up ruled many decisions….and we all know where that got us. A second downside to positive thinking is the potentially cruel burden it can impose; for instance, expecting someone who is ill to be relentlessly cheerful in the face of difficulty only adds to the pain and suffering.
Has positive thinking been abused? For sure. The author focuses on certain “prosperity gospel” churches that promote getting wealthy by thinking about money (and by tithing copiously.) She points to the bestselling book The Secret, along with fanatically upbeat books promoting business success, which claim that by sending positive thoughts out into the universe, you will attract the good things (like wealth or a cute husband) to you. Ehrenreich rails against these delusionary tactics, blaming them for the misery of the economic meltdown, as individuals overreached their means in the belief that their thoughts would ensure prosperity and corporate CEOs banned naysayers from their staffs.
The most moving and personal example Ehrenreich gave of the abusive power of positive thinking came when she recounted her experience with breast cancer, and the relentless pressure she felt to be constantly upbeat and positive in the face of a challenging and awful situation. She attacked the “pink and pretty” products (the teddy bears, jewelry and cosmetics) that grew up around breast cancer treatment and community efforts. Ehrenreich views this as “infantilzing” women, and while perhaps over-stated, her words remind us that not everyone reacts favorably to relentless good cheer.
Breast Cancer Action Executive Director Barbara Brenner was in the audience on Friday, and Barbara Ehrenreich acknowledged her organization’s work. Ms. Brenner made some clear and impassioned comments about how breast cancer was being exploited by certain American corporations. She used the term Pink-washing to describe certain corporations’ support of “pink ribbon” campaigns, all while purveying products that contain potentially cancer-causing ingredients.
Breast Cancer Action’s motto is “Challenging Assumptions. Inspiring Change.” How fortunate we are to have brave women challenging the assumptions around positive thinking and around dealing with disease. Questioning the status quo, whether it be of positive attitudes or corporate relations, is the best way to inspire change.
Amy Goodman of Democracy Now interviews Barbara Ehrenreich here: