The Negative Side Of Positive Thinking

123109bookreview_170 Andrew Sullivan points to Barbara Ehrenreich's new book Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. Michael Fumento reviews the book in Forbes:

“Anybody who ever built an empire, or changed the world, sat where you are now,” says George Clooney's “termination engineer” to just-fired employees in the comedy Up in the Air. Satire? Hardly. “We Got Fired! … And It's the Best Thing that Ever Happened to Us!” declares one book title. There's a cottage industry built around convincing canned workers that they just won the lottery.

A whole chapter is devoted to it in Barbara Ehrenreich's brilliant exposé of our smiley-faced culture in Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. It's “an ideological force in American culture,” she says, “that encourages us to deny reality, submit cheerfully to misfortune, and blame only ourselves for our fate.”

Ehrenreich traces the roots of our nation's pathological positivity, ironically, to the dreariness of New World Calvinism and its fire-and-brimstone and pre-destination teachings. Society reacted to these by shooting off in the opposite direction.

First, many sought to take their health destiny into their own hands via Mary Baker Eddy, Christian Science and those ubiquitous reading rooms. Having done it with health, they tried it with wealth–the “Think and Grow Rich” movement that enthralls us. Beginning with Napoleon Hill's 1937 classic of the same name, it sometimes means just that: Envisioning something brings it to you.

In a subtler form it says that a positive outlook leads to positive circumstances. There's nothing that can't be solved with a bright smile and a grand effort to “Cheer up!” OK, so your wife left you for the young stud who also took your job, and the bank just foreclosed on your house. Just sing and whistle along with Monty Python: “Always look on the bright side of life!” After all, “There is no kind of problem or obstacle for which positive thinking or a positive attitude has not been proposed as a cure,” Ehrenreich observes. “Positive thoughts are even solicited for others, much like prayers.”

Ehrenreich notes 60% of female breast cancer patients attributed their continued survival to a “positive attitude,” yet studies repeatedly show no correlation between developing or surviving cancer and mental attitude.

Here's an interview with Ehrenreich over at KPBS, San Diego.