Book 7 in Cannonball Read 2
Bright-sided: How the Relentless Pursuit of Optimism is Undermining America is a Barbara Ehrenreich’s takedown of positive thinking. To some, this may seem needlessly negative, a knee-jerk cynical response to other folks optimism. However, Ehrenreich’s writing makes a great deal of sense, especially to me - it fits well with my worldview.
Ehrenreich is not railing against hope or optimism, but rather the head-in-the-sand approach of positive thinking that has become increasingly ubiquitous due to books such as The Secret. The Secret is based on the premise that if you wish for something really hard, and send positive thoughts about it out into the universe, it will happen. I’ve never read the book, because holy jeezy creezy, I do not want to sit through hundreds of pages of that crap. You see, the problem with this ‘positive thinking’ is not so much that it encourages people to think positively, as that it correlates positive thoughts with positive outcomes in such a way that not only are we being told that positive thoughts, not hard work and sometimes luck will result in positive results, but it results in a dangerous, victim-blaming corollary: if you don’t have positive outcomes, you must have not put out enough positive thoughts. After all, if really wanting to have your dream job and visualizing it can make it come true, then isn’t that unemployed guy down the street probably just not visualizing hard enough?
Ehrenreich opens the book with her experience after being diagnosed with breast cancer. She was repeatedly told to ‘be positive’ and even told by other cancer patients that having a negative attitude (in this case a ‘negative attitude’ was being angry that her insurance company was dicking her around and that her treatment options didn’t seem too great) would harm her chances of survival and recovery. Ehrenreich digs into the reality, which is that positive attitudes have been shown to have no effect on outcomes. Not only that, the ‘positive attitude’ meme has been debunked as a way to make caregivers feel more comfortable with cancer patients, while making those patients suppress negative emotions such as doubt and fear.
Ehrenreich talks to various corporate leaders and speakers, and details the ways in which criticism and bad news was suppressed before the economic downturn. Some corporate leaders were acolytes of positive thinking, ignoring bad news and signs of bad things to come in favor of hiding their heads in the sand and hoping for the best. Condoleezza Rice is quoted concerning the taboo on negativity and criticism in the Bush administration, which arguably contributed to 9/11. Ehrenreich piles on example after example of ways in which positive thinking and false optimism has taken the place of real planning or risk assessment.
These examples, and the themes that Ehrenreich highlights, add up to a tiny powerhouse of a book. I was pretty hard on Ehrenreich in Nickel and Dimed, but this book is totally different, calling out trends in our culture that are invisble but everywhere.
Beyond the political and economic implications of positive thinking, I find this trend alarming because it attempts to blot out a huge part of the human experience and suppress naturally occurring - and sometimes necessary - negative reactions and emotions. It’s pretty deplorable to tell a cancer patient to stop being so negative, or their continued cancer is their own fault for thinking bad things. I mean, they have fucking cancer, let them think through those negative thoughts - like ‘I might die’ and ‘chemo is crap and makes me feel like death’ - without forcing them to put on a smile and a pink ribbon for your benefit. Not only is negative thought allowed when you have fucking cancer, it’s allowed all the time. I know folks these days can be a bit too self-obsessed, and the tiniest thing can lead to wallowing in self-pity and exclaiming ‘poor me’, but the answer is not to ban all negative thoughts. Without allowing people to express doubts, hopelessness, despair, worry, and anger with one another, those happy smiles and mindless optimism don’t have much meaning - they’re just a happy mask put over empty, shallow lives.