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Books and Culture

Paul Beston
Glass Half Empty
Barbara Ehrenreich, scourge of smiley faces
8 January 2010

Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, by Barbara Ehrenreich (Metropolitan Books, 235 pp., $23)

While reading Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided, I remembered attending a wedding reception a few years back, where I had the good fortune to be entertained by a guest who had taken the concept of the open bar to heart. He’d reached a point of rarefied inspiration which, along with his inherent charm, made him seem like a stage character executing a brilliant riff. His daughter had just graduated college and, much to his chagrin, wanted to join the Peace Corps. A successful independent businessman, he found it difficult not to be contemptuous of this idea; he wanted her to get into the working world. He described conversations they’d had, in which she anticipated projects like laying more telecommunications infrastructure in Nigeria, working with budding entrepreneurs in Gabon, and so on. Concerned for her safety and frustrated with her sunny, can-do assurances, he let loose with a series of caustic variations on a pop-culture cliché:

“Sure, Dad, I might get malaria, but it would still be a really positive experience!”

“They don’t have electricity or running water over there, but it would still be a really positive experience!”

“Sure, I might get killed by a tribal gang, but it would still be a really positive experience!”

It’s that kind of cheery obstinacy that powers much of the American positive-thinking climate and that Ehrenreich documents in Bright-Sided. She got her own up-close look at it in 2000, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer and immediately came under the assault of pink ribbons, smiley faces, and the assurances of support groups and websites that cancer was actually a “gift,” an opportunity to get closer to God, and, in the words of one cancer researcher, “evolve to a much higher level of humanity.” Ehrenreich’s fear and despair sounded a discordant note, and when she gave vent to their companion emotion—anger—she was told by one website poster to “run, not walk, to some counseling.”

Bright-Sided tracks the inroads the positive-thinking message has made into most areas in American life, from the medical profession to the business and political worlds, from religion and publishing (think The Secret and The Law of Attraction) to the field of psychology. In tracing the “dark roots of American optimism,” Ehrenreich strangely dismisses the broadly held view that America’s forward-looking habits owe to the nature of life in the New World. Its wide-open spaces and free economic and political systems were the perfect breeding ground for optimists like Benjamin Franklin, whose Poor Richard’s Almanac furnished aphorisms that endure today—“Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise”—and that differ from today’s positive-thinking mantras in both being genuinely useful and acknowledging less happy realities: “Lost time is never found again.” Ehrenreich would have us believe that a people inspired by Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence and Thomas Paine’s Common Sense lived in a Calvinism-induced state of spiritual despair, a nation of bedridden depressives waiting for the end times. She instead traces the advent of American positive thinking to the nineteenth century, when the cultural ties of Puritanism and Calvinism began to loosen and open the way for spiritual alternatives. Starting from where she does, her argument is persuasive enough. In contrast with Calvinism’s often bleak realities, New Thought, as it came to be known, stressed happiness, materialism, and keeping the right frame of mind. It retained a link to the old faith, however, in its emphasis on whom to blame if things didn’t work out: no one but yourself, pal.

Mary Baker Eddy, founder of Christian Science, is the key player here, but she herself was deeply influenced by Phineas Parkhurst Quimby, a watchmaker, philosopher, “mesmerist,” and faith healer. Quimby treated her bout of “neurasthenia”—the nineteenth-century’s euphemism for depression—and gave her a new vision of life. Stressing the concepts of “supply” and “abundance,” Eddy came to view God as a benevolent being who bestowed on the world the things its inhabitants wanted and needed. From this seed spring most of today’s megachurch figures, whether they emphasize positive theology, like Rick Warren of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California, or the prosperity gospel, like Joel Osteen of Lakewood Church in Houston, in whose church, Ehrenreich writes, “Even God plays only a supporting role, and by no means an indispensable one. . . . Gone is the mystery and awe; he has been reduced to a kind of majordomo or personal assistant. He fixeth my speeding tickets, he secureth me a good table in the restaurant, he leadeth me to book contracts.”

Ehrenreich notes how very far from Christian ethics is the prosperity gospel and its self-centered focus; its view, which it shares with secular positive-thinking gurus, that external reality can be almost entirely shaped and controlled by our thoughts; and its obsessive emphasis on self-management and thought control, elevating narcissism to a kind of pseudo-spiritual discipline. “Positive theology,” she writes, “ratifies and completes a world without beauty, transcendence, or mercy.”

Positive-thinking tropes also predominate in the corporate world, where organizations try to spin even catastrophes into “opportunities.” Ehrenreich decries the continuing success of quasi-mystical business books like 2001’s Who Moved My Cheese, which counsels businesspeople to accept change, adapt, and move on—as if there were any other choice. The market for such books, practically devoid of content save their recycling of positive-thinking clichés through some insufferable parable—mice in a maze, in this case—shows no sign of drying up.

Ehrenreich’s argument that management embraced positive thinking en masse starting in the 1980s as a way of pumping up the morale of downsizing workforces has more than a whiff of conspiratorial thinking to it—especially when she herself chronicles how CEOs, too, have reached out for wisdom from gurus like Tom Peters and “motivational speakers” and “coaches” as a way of getting a handle on a supercharged, uber-competitive global business climate in which all of the old rules had changed. In her telling, upper management seems just as clueless about what to think or do next as the workforce, though they’re much less likely to lose their jobs. Ehrenreich unearths some depressing anecdotes of corporate motivation sessions for battered workforces. The worst comes from NYNEX (eventually Verizon), which in the nineties conducted an exercise that required employees to jump up and down in a room in as many different ways as they could imagine. The point was to show how creative they could be. Where is Howard Beale when you need him?

As inane and oppressive as these efforts can be, Ehrenreich fails to acknowledge the importance of genuine optimism in a workforce, or the corrosive impact demoralized employees have on company effectiveness. No organization can survive if its employees lose the motivation to do their jobs, and Ehrenreich’s desire to identify with the rank and file—she’s the bestselling author of Nickel and Dimed, after all—blinds her to the challenges managers face from disgruntled workers who show no interest in either shaping up or moving on. She points out the contemptuousness of many morale- and team-building exercises, but—unsurprisingly—makes no criticism of one of the American workforce’s most demoralizing and destabilizing influences: the union mentality.

Assertion-based positive thinking also played an important role in the economic meltdown, Ehrenreich argues. Consider the now-famous YouTube clips of Euro Pacific Capital’s Peter Schiff warning about the unsustainable economic boom a few years back, while he’s laughed off or shouted down by panels full of stock-market bulls. Of course there were other causes of the crash, like bad government policy (“Everyone should own a home”), greed, and ideological rigidity, but the ideological certitudes that helped create the bubble might be plausibly slotted as a subset of positive thinking.

Curiously, Ehrenreich does not visit the precinct of American life where positive thinking is most pervasive, and in fact a prerequisite: competitive sports. Most of us have heard pro athletes mouth the same mind-numbing affirmative platitudes after every game, win or lose, and wondered how anyone could go through life believing such things, let alone repeating them in public. Yet as David Foster Wallace once wrote, this very quality of unreflectiveness is essential to the great athlete’s art, perhaps because “clichés present themselves not as trite but simply as true, or perhaps not even as declarative expressions with qualities like depth or triteness or falsehood or truth but as simple imperatives that are either useful or not and, if useful, to be invoked and obeyed and that’s all there is to it.” Such thinking, Wallace suggests, is really a higher order of concentration, almost a kind of mental trance, and rather the opposite of the mindlessness that Ehrenreich generally describes.

Ehrenreich’s antidote to excessive optimism isn’t pessimism but something conservatives still claim a monopoly on: realism, which extends to an awareness of our limitations and inevitable mortality, and to a healthy respect for life’s capacity both to inspire us and to rip us to pieces. Reading Bright-Sided may or may not be a positive experience, but it should give readers a good dose of humility—one virtue the positive-thinking gurus are not likely to co-opt anytime soon.

Paul Beston is associate editor of City Journal.

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