Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America
When I lived in Chicago in the Nineties, I used to listen to an AM radio station that broadcast nothing but recordings of motivational speakers all day long. The idea, as I understood it, was to provide a sort of service to the itinerant salesman, whom Barbara Ehrenreich describes as “lonely and wounded” but still required to “pick himself up and generate fresh enthusiasm for the next customer, the next city, the next rejection.” By listening to a string of these three or four minute pep talks, the city’s sales force would be able to psyche themselves up to face their next prospect.
As for the station’s content, it was pretty much unrelenting sunshine, megadoses of motivation; the main feature distinguishing the various speakers was the homemade theory or idea with which they had souped up the great American idea of positive thinking: Not just positive thinking but positive envisioning. Happy Bible verses. Tricks to make yourself seem like an optimistic person. Words whose letters actually stood for other words that, taken together, were really, really awesome.
Positive thinking is one of those things that you either embrace enthusiastically or else dismiss as a harmless form of escapism, as benign as the Top 40 songs they’re playing on the next station over and just as formulaic. After all, how can you object when someone advises you to direct your feet to the sunny side of the street?
Well, maybe it’s time we started taking it more seriously. Positive thinking inundates American culture, from megachurch to motivational seminar. As Ehrenreich makes plain in her new book, Bright-Sided, it is not merely masscult banality; it is also ideology. It rationalizes things we ought to find unacceptable; it leads us to expect improbable results and to blame ourselves—for insufficient positivity, of course—when the world somehow fails to comply with our wishes.
In certain reaches of business culture positive thinking is hegemonic, with exhortations to stamp out negativity—and to eliminate negative people—coming from bosses, management books, and so on right down to office tchotchkes.
We are accustomed to brilliance from Barbara Ehrenreich. She describes the darkness in the corners of our business civilization with such effortless genius that you come to expect it; all she has to do, you start to think, is turn on her computer and out come the polished sentences and the penetrating apercus.
But this book is special; it will hit close to home for almost everybody. Positive thinking is something we all know about, or think we know about. And its costs have been staggering. At its feet, in part, Ehrenreich lays Americans’ passivity in the face of downsizing, our acceptance of the bizarre skewing of wealth, and our almost complete failure to anticipate the disaster that was coming from the late real-estate bubble. This is a book that makes large, controversial claims about a beloved American idea.
And it does so in a way that will be hard to forget. If you don’t follow this part of American culture, many of the scenes Ehrenreich describes will be shocking: The motivation gurus selling a form of Xtreme covetousness, in which you are simply supposed to long for an object in order to “manifest,” or receive it. (“Name it and claim it.”) The dealers in motivation who found it appropriate to waterboard an employee. The preachers of a “prosperity gospel” who boast of their own high-living ways and who imagine God intervening in the minutiae of everyday life right down to securing the faithful a good seat at a crowded restaurant. The management book that includes this passage:
- Place your hand on your heart and say . . .
- “I admire rich people!”
- “I bless rich people!”
- “I love rich people!”
- “And I’m going to be one of those rich people too!”
What I suspect will be the book’s most noticed chapter describes Ehrenreich’s own experience with breast cancer, and the weirdly sunny, upbeat culture that the disease’s victims have built. The chapter is called “Smile or Die,” and in it Ehrenreich describes how, in some circles, the optimism has been taken so far that cancer is thought of as a “‘a gift,’ deserving of the most heartfelt gratitude.” (“What does not destroy you,” she writes, “. . . makes you a spunkier, more evolved sort of person.”) The problem here, as well as in the culture at large, is that in building up the power of positivity we blame those who fail—in this case, who die—for their own misfortune. They simply weren’t optimistic enough.
Uplift has consequences, and the myth of positive thinking may cost us more than we can afford.