Blinded by Optimism—from 9/11 to Subprime
How the Relentless Promotion of
Positive Thinking Has Undermined America
By Barbara Ehrenreich
Metropolitan Books; 235 pp; $23 In 2000, Barbara Ehrenreich was "optimistic to the point of delusion" when it came to First World health care. Then she was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was during this emotional nadir that she slammed into the positivity police, the crowd of upbeat delusionals she accuses of rebranding cancer from a health crisis into an "opportunity of a lifetime," a "passport to the life you were truly meant to live," and "a makeover opportunity" (enabled by scalpel-happy plastic surgeons). When Ehrenreich's insurance company informed her that they regarded her biopsy as an "optional indulgence," she took to her keyboard, posting a rant on a cancer chat board with the subject header "Angry." Almost immediately, she says, a rosy mob was upon her, scolding her for her "bad attitude" and imploring her to "run, not walk, into counseling." God forbid you can't get with the Pink Ribbon.
Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America is the author's book-length examination of the booming, sparkly industry that she believes has been spawned by the positive-psychology movement. In chapters that consider the roots of American optimism, the business of motivation, the "God wants you to be rich crowd," and more, the author skewers what she sees as the source of the Panglossian puffery that is afoot in America today. A reckless and religious spread of positive thinking, argues Ehrenreich, has turned into a "mass delusion," the "ideology" and "tyranny" partly responsible for U.S. vulnerability on September 11, the Iraq War, the grim aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and the subprime mortgage collapse. Demon Positivity also exists in a symbiotic relationship with capitalism. Why else, Ehrenreich argues, would employees put up with more hours, less pay, and fewer benefits—especially when it's so obvious that the corporate master class is rigging the game? Positivity: the apologist for brute market forces.
Like her best-selling Nickel and Dimed, a study of the Brechtian horrors of working-class life, Bright-Sided is insightful, smart, and witty. Unfortunately, the author stumbles when she dismisses the serious academic research into happiness and positive thinking. This includes neuroscience that shows how the brain regulates our emotions.
Ehrenreich's penultimate chapter is titled "How Positive Thinking Destroyed the Economy." It's hardly as simple as that. But she makes important points about what happens to those who dare to warn of the worst. In pre-subprime America, delivering the news that we were all burning down the house was a career-ender. Nowhere was this more true than on Wall Street. One such martyr to the cause of financial realism, Ehrenreich writes, was Mike Gelband, who ran the real estate division of Lehman Brothers. Gelband warned Lehman CEO Dick Fuld about the real estate bubble in 2006. "Fuld promptly fired the misfit, and two years later, Lehman went bankrupt."
Ehrenreich is right to argue that we would be better off if we put more of our energy into social change—into attacking problems head-on rather than dismissing them. Too often, the self-help movement's nothing-is-real thinking is siphoning off energy that could be going into attacking substantive issues, including the mounting evidence that cancer's causes are environmentally related and connected to everyday products that are filled with carcinogens.
But it is simplistic of Ehrenreich to brand decades' worth of academic study as total claptrap, as she does in a chapter titled "Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness." At this point the body of evidence drawn from research into positivity and happiness is too vast, too long-standing, and too persuasive to be dismissed with a Swiftian savaging. Psychologists have revealed valuable insights into what makes us truly happy (spending time with friends and family, practicing gratitude, volunteering) and what doesn't (liposuction, commuting, and the lottery). Positivity (and its cousin, optimism) has been scientifically linked to better health, less depression, and longer life. These are benefits available to everyone. And they are free.
So, yes, bring on the vigilant realism. Trust, but verify. Just don't imagine that empiricism has to cancel out optimism—or negate hope.