Today I finally finished Barbara Ehrenreich’s, Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America. It’s not that it’s a tough book to get through—I’ve just had too many books on my reading list over the last few months.
When I read Barbara Ehrenreich, I feel like I’m talking to an old friend. She’s logical, sensible, and funny, and is always challenging the status quo. If you’ve ever been criticized for not having a more positive outlook—by family, friends, or your workplace—then I highly recommend this book.
Barbara digs into the roots of the positive thinking movement and how it has affected America, including: breast cancer survivor culture, advice given to the unemployed or those who have lost their homes, and the motivational speaker circuit and its influence on both modern management practices and religion. She discusses the history of the anti-Calvinism “New Thought movement” as the basis of the modern positive thinking movement, and the pseudoscience of metaphysics. And she points out the effect it had on the recent mortgage and financial crisis.
On the pseudoscience of metaphysics—
The metaphysics found in the coaching industry and books like The Secret bears an unmistakable resemblance to traditional folk forms of magic, in particular “sympathetic magic,” which operates on the principle that like attracts like. A fetish or talisman—or in the case of “black magic,” something like a pinpricked voodoo doll—is thought to bring about some desired outcome. In the case of positive thinking, the positive thought, or mental image of the desired outcome, serves as a kind of internal fetish to hold in your mind.
On The anti-Calvinism “New Thought movement”—
Why spend so much time working on oneself when there is so much real work to be done? From the mid-twentieth century on, there was an all too practical answer. More and more people were employed in occupations that seemed to require positive thinking and all the work of self-improvement and maintenance that went into it. Norman Vincent Peale grasped this as well as anyone: the work of Americans, and especially of its ever-growing white-collar proletariat, is in no small part work that is performed on the self in order to make that self more acceptable and even likeable to employers, clients, coworkers, and potential customers. Positive thinking had ceased to be just a balm for the anxious or a cure for the psychosomatically distressed. It was beginning to be an obligation imposed on all American adults.
On Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness versus pop positive thinking. Barbara points out that studies from the new field of positive psychology are often misinterpreted or deliberately skewed in favor of pop positive thinking when reported to the media.
On how positive thinking destroyed the economy: She offers many examples of dissenters during the mortgage crisis that were penalized or fired for speaking up about the imminent collapse of the housing bubble.
On critical thinking, realism, and skepticism:
When our children are old enough, and if we can afford to, we send them to college, where despite the recent proliferation of courses on “happiness” and “positive psychology,” the point is to acquire the skills not of positive thinking but of critical thinking, and critical thinking is inherently skeptical. The best students—and in good colleges, also the most successful—are the ones who raise sharp questions, even at the risk of making a professor momentarily uncomfortable. Whether the subject is literature or engineering, graduates should be capable of challenging authority figures, going against the views of their classmates, and defending novel points of view. This is not because academics value contrarianism for its own sake but because they recognize that a society needs people who will do exactly what the gurus of positive thinking warn us to avoid—”overintellectualize” and ask hard questions. Physicians are among the highly educated professionals who dare not risk the comforts of positive thinking in their daily work, and as one of them, author and surgeon Atul Gawande, has written: “Whether one is fighting a cancer, an insurgency or just an unyielding problem at work, the prevailing wisdom is that thinking positive is the key—The Secret, even—to success. But the key, it seems to me, is actually negative thinking: looking for, and sometimes expecting, failure.”
Realism—to the point of defensive pessimism—is a prerequisite not only for human survival but for all animal species.