Last week I went to see the celebrated writer and activist Barbara Ehrenreich (best known for Nickel and Dimed, her undercover exposé on minimum wage living) talk about her new book, “Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America” (here on Amazon). Yes, that’s right, someone finally wrote a book about the banality of positive thinking. So flush the happy pills down the toilet and get in touch with your inner sourpuss!
The fact that this sounds so evil only supports Ehrenreich’s contention that America’s insidious “mandatory optimism” has turned us all into soul-leeched smile zombies (my words, not hers). As Ehrenreich said, “People wonder how I can take a stand against positive thinking. It’s like taking a stand against world peace, or motherhood, or Ellen DeGeneres.” (Actually, I’m sure thousands of God-fearing Americans would take a stand against Ellen DeGeneres, but they probably weren’t sitting in the audience at the Brattle Theater in Cambridge, Mass.)
But what Ehrenreich argues against is not positive thinking per se, but the ideology that everyone must be happy, and if you’re not happy, something is wrong with you. Ehrenheich’s crusade against the cult of positive thinking began when she battled breast cancer in the early 2000s. She was angry, because she wanted to know why she got breast cancer, she wanted to know why the survival rates are dismal, and she wanted to know why the treatments are so horrific. But what she got from the cancer support groups were pink ribbons, teddy bears, and reassurances that positive thinking could cure cancer, a claim that Ehrenreich says is unsubstantiated by research (and substantiated somewhat by the fact that Ehrenreich survived breast cancer despite not viewing cancer as a “life-changing growth experience.”)
Ehrenreich began to notice this “happiness industry” that uses positive thinking to prey on people, emotionally and monetarily. From “Life is Good” t-shirts to inspirational knickknacks to motivational speakers to self-help books to megachurches, all of these speak to the belief that there is not problem that cannot be solved by changing your thinking. Need a job? Positive thinking! Need money? Positive thinking! Have cancer? Positive thinking!
She holds up George W. Bush as the perfect example of the dangers of optimism. GWB could not stand to have pessimists around him, he dismissed generals who warned about possible doom in Iraq, and he ignored any hint that the economy could collapse. Bush just beamed optimism. Even when his Presidency was in shambles, he remained convinced that history would vindicate him, which is so optimistic as to be batshit delusional.
What Ehrenheich advocates as an alternative to optimism is not pessimism, but realism. Realism won’t make you happy, but you can’t have happiness without it. If we truly want to alleviate poverty and unemployment, we have to stop hoping it will get better and start making it better. If we truly want to help cancer sufferers, we have to stop waving around commercialized pink ribbons and start asking tough questions about the causes of cancer. America has an international repetuation as ‘artifical optimists,’ but as Ehrenheich jokes, “I’m positive that we can overcome it.”