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Positively Barbara Ehrenreich

Barbara Ehrenreich, Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America.  (Metropolitan Books, New York,  235 pages, $32.95).

I’ve just finished reading Barbara Ehrenreich’s new book, Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. This is an important book for a number of reasons. One is that everything Ehrenreich writes is important. She has been so consistently sensible, radical and original on everything from sex to socialism in 16 books and countless articles over 30 years that finally you must bump up against the word wise.

Ehrenreich is an alumnus of the small doorway in time called the Sixties—the political, or New Left, wing, not the hippie sex-drugs-and-rock-&-roll wing. She is a feminist, humanist, socialist, atheist and humorist. Anyone can be the first four of these simply by believing—I wish more were—but very few can be funny on the page. Her wit is pure bonus.

This is a book about America. If the habit of positive thinking isn’t quite uniquely American, it almost is. What other culture would produce pop tunes like “Put on a Happy Face,” “Let a Smile Be Your Umbrella” and “Pretend You’re Happy When You’re Blue”?

It’s hard to imagine anyone but Ehrenreich writing this book. No one else would produce a chapter titled “How Positive Thinking Destroyed the Economy,” referring to the ongoing crash of 2008. Linking culture and economics, she proceeds to make the case, demonstrating in detail how accentuating the positive and refusing to entertain the slightest hint of bad news sunk Lehman Brothers and produced the subprime mortgage collapse and all the other calamities.

Positive thinking is an old hobby horse of mine. I remember saying to a friend 20 years ago that the goal of positive thinking is to replace thinking. I meant it as a quip; Erehnreich shows how literally and sadly true it is: Critical thinking is the enemy. “Don’t intellectualize” is sage advice that greets all who wander into the tent of positive thinking.

The kind of uncritical—you might say magical—thinking that goes on in the name of positive thinking is abysmal, troubling and comic. Take “visualization.” Imagine something you want (this usually means money) and it will come to you—after you’ve signed up, paid the fee, bought the CD, said your prayers, etc. This idea is sometimes beefed up and called the Law of Attraction. In 2006, Michael J. Losier published a book called The Law of Attraction: The Science [sic] of Attracting More of What You Want and Less of What You Don’t. The mind is a magnet; it attracts, or repels, whatever it does, or doesn’t, want. Thoughts control reality and thinking makes it so. Slogans include “Ask, believe and receive” and “Name it and claim it.”

These ideas are infantile, literally. To oversimplify slightly: The baby wants food, it is provided; she wants to be held, it happens; she wants her diaper changed, it is done. As the child acquires language, the game becomes more complex. She learns to ask for what she wants, learns that the mother is “other” and might or might not grant the wish. The child is unlearning the Law of Attraction. Positive thinkers and toddlers cross lines on the cognitive maturation flow chart.

H. L. Mencken said that a puritan is one who fears that someone, somewhere may be happy. A positive thinker has the same fears about anyone who may be unhappy. The proper response to this sad-sack is shunning, and the message is blunt: “GET RID OF NEGATIVE PEOPLE IN YOUR LIFE,” bellows one motivational speaker. Another warns: “Negative people SUCK! . . . They suck the energy out of positive people like you and me. They suck the energy and life out of a good company, a good team and a good relationship. . . . Avoid them at all cost.”

In America, the shunning of negative individuals has an odd parallel. Ehrenreich points out how positive thinking helps to elevate nationalism into the unique kind of patriotism that promotes the belief, against mountains of evidence, that the U.S. is the greatest country in the world. It’s a small step from American exceptionalism to xenophobia and the shunning of others—let’s say other “negative” countries. To take a recent example, you don’t get much more negative than France, when it refused to join George W. Bush’s adventure in Iraq. The positive-thinking response was “freedom fries.”

Among the many branches of the positive thinking industry, one of the most important is found in the corporate world, which hires motivational speakers and “coaches” to keep employees functioning as upbeat, unquestioning team players. Perversely, it pitches the same cheery positive-think messages to workers it lays off. (Corporate downsizing eliminated about 30 million full-time jobs in the U.S. between 1981 and 2003.) It’s perverse, but sure enough, someone wrote a pop-business book called We Got Fired . . . And It’s the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Us.

Christianity has been infiltrated by the positive-thinking industry. Will Bowen, a Kansas pastor, is the author of the book A Complaint Free World. He is also the inventor of a purple complaint-free wristband, more than 4.5 million of which have been distributed worldwide. The purple’s a nice touch. I like to think of Bowen’s flock using the bracelets while engaging in obscene acts.

Christian “megachurches” have been all but remade by the invasion of positive thinking. Not only have negative concepts like sin and hell been edged off the stage, even Christ and the cross have been relegated to background roles. New messages include “Keep a good attitude” and “Don’t get negative or bitter.” God wants you to be healthy, happy—and rich. God wants to “prosper you.”

As it happens, the megachurch pastors—a.k.a. “pastorpreneurs”—are themselves rich, something for which they need not apologize. Their economic good fortune is evidence of providence shining upon them. The eye-of-the-needle maxim is too, well, negative.

There has been a lot of “research” on positive thinking. Some studies claim it to be related to much that is desirable. Like preventing cancer, or curing cancer, or extending the lifespan of cancer victims (Ehrenreich was diagnosed with breast cancer in the year 2000, and has a personal interest in this research), or strengthening the immune system, or generally contributing to a longer, healthier life.

There is also research that reports no connections between positive thinking and these good outcomes, though they are harder to find, and some actually claim to have discovered a negative relationship. Ehrenreich cites one long-term study in which “optimistic” children were found to have had shorter lifespans than pessimistic children. Another found that older people who were “pessimists” were less likely to become depressed after a negative life event, like a death in the family.

Ehrenreich has combed through the literature—I see this unpleasant task as pro bono work, like that of biologists who publicly debate creationists—and finds what is often found after a thorough review: The studies on positive thinking are inconclusive. No reliable generalizations can be made.  This should not come as a surprise. It’s very hard to discover genuine facts about human beings using the crude statistical methods employed in psychological experiments, especially when one of the variables is “psychological,” that is, vague and hard to measure, as in the case of positive thinking or optimism.

The theatre has two masks. The masters of positive thinking aim to banish the mask of tragedy and remold the mask of comedy into a smiley face. In the New Positive World, there will be neither tragedy nor comedy. I prefer the world of Woody Allen, who no one ever accused of positive thinking. He used to end his standup comedy act by saying, “I’d like to leave you with an affirmative message, but I don’t have one. Will you take two negative messages?”

1326 w.  January 21, 2010

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Lanny Beckman

Lanny Beckman lives in Vancouver and is the former publisher of New Star Books.

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