Barbara Ehrenreich

The Great Lie of positive thinking is that if only you want something badly enough, you can have it. No, you will have it. If you don’t get everything you want, it’s your own fault for not wanting it enough.

When Barbara Ehrenreich was diagnosed with cancer, she soon discovered that her physical illness wasn’t her only challenge — she was bombarded by the exhortation that she see the disease as an opportunity for growth.

Ehrenreich’s negative response to the cheerleaders of the cancer community was a major prompt for her 2009 book examining the positive thinking industry.

Having been blind-sided by cancer, she titled her book Bright-Sided, after the assaults on realism with which governments and corporations work to reduce scrutiny, criticism, and the impulse to reform.

The theme of the book is right up front, in the complete title: Bright-Sided, How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America.

Ehrenreich proclaims, “We need to brace ourselves for a struggle against terrifying obstacles, both of our own making and imposed by the natural world. And the first step is to recover from the mass delusion that is positive thinking.”

After recounting her own battle to remain “real” during her cancer treatment, to resist the notion that breast cancer is not a serious problem at all — it is a “gift,” a life-change opportunity deserving of the most heartfelt gratitude — Ehrenreich spends the rest of the book deconstructing the positive thinking industry, showing how it benefits not only the individuals who flog it tirelessly but also the larger interests that have a huge stake in maintaining the status quo.

The drive toward positive thinking is everywhere. It is “like a perpetually flashing neon sign in the background, like an inescapable jingle.”

This endless pumping-up is “not just a diffuse cultural consensus, spread by contagion. It has its ideologues, spokespeople, preachers, and salespersons—authors of self-help books, motivational speakers, coaches, and trainers.”

Ehrenreich devotes a good deal of space, perhaps too much space, to profiles of these positivity promoters; but the book’s real interest lies in her identification of the often unspoken and deeper social goals of the optimists.

One outcome of relentless indoctrination in the upbeat is that positive thinking has become a core value of society, and woe to anyone who refuses to grin widely and feel good:

What has changed, in the last few years, is that the advice to at least act in a positive way has taken on a harsher edge. The penalty for nonconformity is going up, from the possibility of job loss and failure to social shunning and complete isolation.

Being the lone pessimist at the management table can cost you your career, and so can joining your company’s “voluntary” team-building weekend camping trip with insufficient enthusiasm. In 1984, the important thing wasn’t just to scream and shout during the Two-Minutes Hate — you had to really feel the required emotions.

But, Ehrenreich notes, “it is not enough, though, to cull the negative people from one’s immediate circle of contacts; information about the larger human world must be carefully censored.”

Don’t watch the news — you can’t do anything about it, anyway. Don’t read serious books — they’ll only sap your positivity. See no negativity, hear no negativity, and you will speak no negativity.

The Great Lie of positive thinking is that if only you want something badly enough, you can have it. No, you will have it. If you don’t get everything you want, it’s your own fault for not wanting it enough.

The world isn’t unfair; you’re not positive enough. Bad luck didn’t knock you for a loop; you were thinking negative thoughts.

As Ehrenreich correctly points out, the idea that the world can be your very own oyster is little more than a modern version of traditional magical thinking: “The positive thought, or mental image of the desired outcome, serves as a kind of internal fetish to hold in your mind.”

But it’s not just the individual who is attracted to this dream of on-demand wish fulfillment. For quite different reasons, corporations love positive thinking.

The downward spiral of the wage-earning classes has been well documented elsewhere, so we won’t repeat it here. The more important point that Ehrenreich makes is that positive thinking has become a powerful weapon in the hands of the corporations doing the downsizing, the outsourcing, the stripping of benefits and pensions.

What a corporation needs in a time of upheaval and uncertainty is to change the focus, to more the spotlight off itself and onto its economic and social victims:

With “motivation” as the whip, positive thinking became the hallmark of the compliant employee, and as the conditions of corporate employment worsened in the age of downsizing that began in the 1980s, the hand on the whip grew heavier.

You can’t change what’s happening to you. You can’t stop us from exploiting you. But you can stop feeling bad about it. So let’s stop talking about us and what we’re doing to you, and instead start talking about you and what you can do for yourself!

The motivation industry could not repair this new reality. All it could do was offer to change how one thought about it, insisting that corporate restructuring was an exhilaratingly progressive “change” to be embraced, that job loss presented an opportunity for self-transformation, that a new batch of “winners” would emerge from the turmoil. And this is what corporations were paying the motivation industry to do.

Not only didn’t most of us see through this cynical ploy — most of us bought into it:

By and large, America’s white-collar corporate workforce drank the Kool-Aid, as the expression goes, and accepted positive thinking as a substitute for their former affluence and security. They did not take to the streets, shift their political allegiance in large numbers, or show up at work with automatic weapons in hand.

Of course, this was written before “Occupy” went viral on Facebook, but it remains to be seen how much, if any, real change comes out of that.

The epidemic of positive thinking affected governments as well as corporations, as both the Clinton and Bush II administrations relied on rosy forecasts of unending growth, instead of regulating an out of control financial system and making provision for an inevitable cooling off — or, in the current case, falling off the cliff.

Ehrenreich is concerned about more than short-term politics or even mid-term economic woes. Far worse, the cult of positive thinking threatens the rational core at the heart of our scientific and cultural growth:

Human intellectual progress, such as it has been, results from our long struggle to see things “as they are,” or in the most universally comprehensible way, and not as projections of our own emotions.

Rejecting what is in favour of what we’d like is part of the American psyche, a key component of the unending allure of the American Dream. To criticize, to look at the negatives as well as the positives, is more than unpopular — it’s un-American.

“Within the United States, any talk of intractable problems like poverty could be dismissed as a denial of America’s greatness. Any complaints of economic violence could be derided as the ‘whining’ of self-selected victims,” writes Ehrenreich. “The effort of positive ‘thought control,’ which is always presented as such a life preserver, has become a potentially dead weight–obscuring judgment and shielding us from vital information.”

Information about reality is vital because without it we have no hope of addressing our problems as a society. In fact, in a culture of positive thinking, society has no problems — only people who persist in negative thinking have problems.

I’m reminded of the Soviet practice of committing dissidents to psychiatric hospitals. After all, the USSR was surely and demonstrably the world’s greatest country, so anyone who didn’t embrace that idea was either clinically depressed or dangerously delusional, or both.

So stop whining about the economy or your pending foreclosure — and smile, buddy, smile!


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