Barbara Ehrenreich’s book, Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America is an optimistic undertaking for a writer. She attempts to detail a history of positive thinking in our country and then concludes that such a mind set and philosophy is, in great part, responsible for the financial collapse of 2008.
Positive thinking is embedded in our culture, in the corporation, in certain congregations, in large parts of academia and has resulted in a huge positive thinking industry that promotes motivational speakers, life coaches, team builders, positive psychologists and a prosperity gospel.
Ms. Ehrenreich’s interest in the subject was piqued after her diagnosis of breast cancer brought her face to face with the “pink ribbon culture” which has the effect of using positive thinking “to transform breast cancer into a rite of passage—not an injustice or tragedy to rail against but a normal marker in the life cycle, like menopause or grandmotherhood.” Those who have had the experience of breast cancer might find this chapter interesting. Others will find it upsetting for she argues that positive thinking won’t have much to do with a cure. Cancer, in her case, motivated a study of the literature and personalities that have made positive thinking so pervasive in this country.
Reading her book I found that I had some resistance to her idea that so much positivity could be detrimental. After all, I consider myself generally speaking a positive person although I have been occupationally trained to be able to see the glass as half empty as well as half full. I’ve seen positivity at work in corporate culture at sales meetings and conventions. Positivity has it’s place.
I had an early exposure to positive thinking. My dad was a positive thinker from the school of Dale Carnegie (How to Win Friends and Influence People) and later Normal Vincent Peale who in 1952 wrote The Power of Positive Thinking, the book that popularized the phrase. Carnegie was big on smiling and my dad smiled almost all the time. It was, he said, his “natural expression.” So, as kids, my brothers and I had to contend with a very powerful personality who was also positivity personified. If we demonstrated upset or a bad mood he would literally sing to us the following: “Smile and the world smiles with you sing a song. Don’t be weary just be cheery all day long,” until we affected to feel better. He wasn’t much of a singer and the song was excruciating to me at least. But, I learned to pretend to be positive which is what Dale Carnegie recommended in his famous book. Dad was famous for asking people his blood type and then telling them with great pleasure that he was, “B Positive!” However, uncomfortable the positive approach to life made me feel I had to admit it worked well for my father so I’ve never discounted it as a life skill.
But it’s clear that one can go overboard and I saw that as well. And this is the thrust of Ehrenreich’s book—that, as it’s developed we have seen positivity run amok. She discusses the teachings of such people as Mary Baker Eddy, the aforementioned Normal Vincent Peale, Dale Carnegie, the best selling book The Secret, Napoleon Hill (Think and Grow Rich), happiness psychologist Martin Segilman and mega-church pastor/CEOs like Joel Osteen who preach that God wants you to have things. Positive thinking taken to extreme is not realistic.
The author argues for vigilant realism. She points out that when we drive a car we don’t expect that everything will go smoothly. We are vigilant. Aware that something could go wrong and making certain we are ready for it. Sometimes things do go horribly wrong whether we are positive about it or not. Recently, positivity guru Tony Robbins was in the news when a couple dozen people who he had coached in firewalking got their feet burned after he had told them how to do it. Thousands have reportedly firewalked without injury. More thousands have bungi jumped and skydived. I am apparently not positive enough because I wouldn’t care to participate in any of those activities.
Back to the subject: how did positivity undermine America and why didn’t more people see bad things coming? If one is predisposed to only positive outcomes, e.g. housing prices will always go up, the possibility of unpleasant or even catastrophic outcomes won’t appear on ones radar. A number of commentators did predict the housing crisis pointing out that it was a bubble. They were deemed to be “doomers” lacking in a positive outlook. I actually saw that one coming myself when in around 2004 a close relative, then unemployed, was able to get a loan on a second house! It was like a mass psychosis with people believing that real estate prices could go on forever and that so many people could afford million dollar homes.
Unfortunately, we are still locked up in positive thinking, believing that our economy is in a lull and will coming storming back. We are bright-sided which is to say we’ve been blindsided. It seems to me that vigilant realism makes more sense as the way to approach the future than just being positive that everything will work out, that the gas will keep flowing, that the food will be in the stores and that the ferry will be on time.
“A vigilant realism does not foreclose the pursuit of happiness; in fact, it makes it possible. How can we expect to improve our situation without addressing the actual circumstances we find ourselves in? Positive thinking seeks to convince us that such external factors are incidental compared with one’s internal state or attitude or mood.”