According to Barbara Ehrenreich's Bright-Sided, the much-vaunted "power of positive thinking" won't cure cancer, make us rich, or necessarily even keep us happy. In fact, it may be harming us.
Ehrenreich made her name taking on the humiliations and inadequacies of American low-wage jobs in Nickel and Dimed, and in Bright-Sided she identifies a similarly large-scale enemy — a sort of positivity-industrial complex composed of big corporations (who want optimistic, obedient workers), motivational speakers and coaches (who want to sell materials on how to be more positive), and even medical researchers (who feel pressure to support the "sexy" idea of mind over matter). These forces combine, she argues, to enforce a "deliberate self-deception" that not only masks real unhappiness but has led our country into danger.
Bright-Sided is especially strong in its critique of Rhonda Byrne's The Secret, which Ehrenreich identifies as a rehash of earlier self-help books, and even of some principles of magic. She points out that the ideas promulgated in The Secret — say, that you can "attract" a life partner by making room in your closet for his clothes, or a car by putting a picture of it on a "vision board" — require a universe in which other people are slaves to your whims. She describes an interview in which Larry King found himself in "an odd situation for a famous talk show host — having to insist that he, Larry King, was not just an image on someone else's vision board but an independent being with a will of his own." A world where no one else has free will, Ehrenreich points out, is "a god-awful lonely place."
Ehrenreich also writes persuasively that the popularity of positive thinking in corporate America — she cites the rise of "self-described management gurus" like Tony Robbins and the book Who Moved My Cheese? as examples — has served to blind workers to their ever-decreasing job security. "Outplacement" firms teach the newly unemployed to think of layoffs as a good thing, and Who Moved My Cheese? tells readers that the most successful people (or rather, mice) are those who don't "overanalyze or overcomplicate things" — with the result that workers are less likely to complain about their employers' increasingly capricious control over their lives. Ehrenreich writes,
By and large, America's white-collar corporate workforce drank the Kool-Aid, as the expression goes, and accepted positive thinking as a substitute for their former affluence and security. They did not take to the streets, shift their political allegiance in large numbers, or show up at work with automatic weapons in hand. As one laid-off executive told me with quiet pride, "I've gotten over my negative feelings, which were so dysfunctional." Positive thinking promised them a sense of control in a world where the "cheese" was always moving. They may have had less and less power to chart their own futures, but they had been given a worldview — a belief system, almost a religion — that claimed they were in fact infinitely powerful, if they could only master their own minds.
The book can be unforgiving at times. Ehrenreich writes provocatively of her own battle with breast cancer, and of the criticism she faced from other sufferers for admitting she was angry. She also notes that the (highly questionable) claims that "positive" people are healthier can degenerate into a kind of victim-blaming — one patient said, "I know that if I get sad, or scared or upset, I am making my tumor grow faster and I will have shortened my life." And she cites one study showing that women who see benefits to cancer may even "face a poorer quality of life" than those who don't. At the same time, Ehrenreich doesn't make much distinction between negative events we can resist in some way and those we simply have to accept. She mentions that breast cancer therapies haven't improved all that much since the 1930s, but this isn't for lack of effort or research, and some women thinking of cancer as a "gift" hasn't stopped the search for a cure. Ehrenreich's critique of the whitewashing of her own and other women's feelings is apt, but at the same time, a cancer diagnosis represents for many people a powerful loss of control. It's little wonder that many try to find a silver lining, and a little inhumane to discourage them from doing so.
Other forms of positive thinking, especially that imposed by employers, are far more damaging to society. Ehrenreich mentions the role of optimistic yes-men in the financial crisis and the Iraq war, but she could have condemned even more strongly the movement that seeks to convince people that losing their jobs is awesome. While looking on the bright side of a layoff may make sense on a personal level, it also discourages any sort of collective action. Ehrenreich writes in her postscript that "positive thinking has been a tool of repression worldwide" and that "the threats we face are real and can be vanquished only by shaking off self-absorption and taking action in the world." The latter seems like the real key point of Bright-Sided — that convincing ourselves that things are already good can keep us from making them better, both for ourselves and for others — and I wish Ehrenreich had made it more forcefully throughout her book, not just in the postscript. It's a message that deserves to be heard.