Singin' in the Wane

The positive thinking movement -- panacea or national addiction?

Posted Oct 13, 2009

Barbara Ehrenreich has nothing against happy people; it's self-serving pseudoscience she questions. In her newly released book, Bright-Sided How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, she pillories disinformation's more insidious perpetrators, so that those few of us who have managed to avoid total bliss now have something to snarl at besides our mirrors.

Combining academic research and field work, (1) she traces the history of American mood swings from the dour Calvinism of the Puritans, through the "irrational exuberance" that preceded the sub-prime mortgage catastrophe. From there, she skewers current attempts - whether in the Psych Departments of the Ivy League  or the multimedia pulpits of megachurches  -- to market a culture of cheerful, and sometimes dangerous, self-delusion.

Positive thinking turns out to have a rather roomy date book, encompassing every practice from meditation to marketing and listing a tangle of concepts, including the fundaments of Christian Science, Buddhism, neurobiological materialism, and shameless auto-veneration.

Taken in sum, America's gushing geyser of mandatory good cheer can be very annoying, and Ehrenreich is delightfully annoyed. But when it comes to positive thinking's gobbledygook about mind-over-matter, she's more than annoyed: she takes it personally.

For years, breast cancer patients were told that a "positive attitude" will help them beat the reaper. Alas, there is no sound scientific basis for this claim. As the Chair of Sloane Kettering's Psych Department, Jimmie C. Holland, reports in her book, The Human Side of Cancer,  the pressure to paint smiley faces onto darker dispositions can actually do patients harm. Ehrenreich, who developed breast cancer after eight years of hormone replacement therapy, writes :

"Bad science may have produced the cancer in the first place, just as the bad science of positive thinking plagued me throughout my illness."

She has a dog in the fight for scientific rigor; and by implication, we do, too.

Because she is viscerally allergic to hucksterism, she has a rollicking good time in Chapter Six deconstructing Dr. Martin Seligman, ex-president of the American Psychological Association, the man who validated positive thinking and its marketing apparatus for the previously skeptical academic community.

Seligman, currently the author of Authentic Happiness, betrays a conservative bias that Ehrenreich wants to spotlight: He concedes that "circumstances" (like belonging to a disadvantaged group) might be a factor in human happiness, but grants it a tiny, wee piece of the happiness pie and discounts even that sliver of environmental impact as "impractical and expensive" to change. Notes Ehrenreich:

"This argument - ‘impractical and expensive' - has of course been used against almost every progressive reform from the abolition of slavery to pay equity for women."

It adds to her credibility when Ehrenreich isn't afraid of evidence that undermines the purity of her argument. She's pleased to report that though you can't smile away breast cancer, there is much sounder evidence that positive attitudes may help prevent heart attacks. If you want an excuse to cheer yourself up, she won't begrudge you. Go ahead. Pet a kitten.  Read The Little Engine that Could . Just don't chug-chug-chug yourself clear off the track.

To make sure you won't, Ehrenreich treads lightly over some of positive psychology's possible plus points (2) to focus on how staying upbeat has become an ideology rather just another useful option. (3)  In order to clarify the societal cost of optimism run amok, she is says too little about the more rigorous findings of academic happiness researchers.

Stumbling on Happiness author, Dan Gilbert, like Seligman, points out in his powerful TED lecture,  that a year after their change in circumstances, paraplegics and lottery winners report themselves equally happy with their lives. (4) His data, too, supports the anti-Marxist theory that human happiness depends more on psychological orientation -- genetic temperament and learned techniques-- than on material circumstances. But Gilbert exempts from this nimbus of self-induced bliss homeless, starving people -- whose very survival is at risk. He also emphasizes that our brains are wired for altruism as well as self-absorption.

Whether or not helping others makes those others happier, it's likely to bring joy to you. Be Emma Goldman if you find political agitation meaningful; just don't expect every  positive thinkers' gratitude.


Positive thinking, in other words, is not all bad; but even if was all good, it would not be enough for Ehrenreich.

If she is correct, the happier people become in the face of staggering inequality and rampant quackery, the more we'll need the happiness pushers to manage our pain, and the worse our world will become.

It takes an equal and opposite countermotion to slow an out-of-control juggernaut, and Ehrenreich, happily, is not afraid to apply the brakes with force.  Negative thinking - critical analysis and the kind of social progress ignited by self-interested discontent -- has great value for our species as well as our society. Bright-Sided reminds us to hang onto that realization as if our lives depend upon it. Because, of course, they do.

(1) As she did in her best-selling Nickel and Dimed - On (Not) Getting By in America.

(2) She also has nothing to say about a recently successful presidential campaign and Nobel Prize award both based almost exclusively around the word, and strategy, "hope."

(3) For an amusing defense against the self-esteem juggernaut, see by humor book, Self-Loathing for Beginners,  (Santa Monica Press) which is being released in Britain at the end of this month by Aurum Press Ltd. as I Can Make You Loathe Yourself.

(4) Ehrenreich says that Seligman now casts some doubt on the extremity of these numbers, though not the gist of them.



About the Author

Lynn Phillips

Lynn Phillips is the author of Self-Loathing for Beginners. She has written (sometimes as "Maggie Cutler") for a variety of publications, from The Nation to T Magazine.

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