Barbara Ehrenreich is looking through a half-empty glass in her new book, Bright-Sided, which takes a critical look at America's culture of positive thinking and explains how this seemingly innocuous coping tactic is actually damaging our society.
In an interview for Elle magazine, Ehrenreich blasts the ideology surrounding thinking positively which changes an optimistic outlook into a demand for complacency in the face of life struggles. She argues the need for people to silence those who are critical is stifling the development of society. However, what I found most compelling is what she says in Elle about the impact "positive thinking" has on social justice:
BE: Two weeks ago, I was in Fort Wayne, Indiana, at a meeting where people who were about to be laid off told their stories. A woman next to me said that when her unemployment insurance runs out, she'll live in her car. Then, another woman said, "Well, we have to remember to be positive, and that means don't watch the news, don't read the newspaper, just concentrate." Oh my God, I ask, how can this be happening? It's about how unattractive whiners and complainers are, and how they should be shunned.
ELLE: Can we draw out any other dynamics between positive thinking and the kind of winner-take-all social order we've shaped ourselves into, beyond the way business has employed the doctrine to manipulate employees and sell mortgages?
BE: You don't worry about social inequality if you're a positive thinker, because you, too, can become rich just by modifying your thoughts. So why be concerned that some people are off in the stratosphere in their personal jets while you're waiting for the bus?
ELLE: And if you're poor, you must not be thinking right.
BE: It's your own fault. In fact, most of the measures of quote-happiness-unquote that positive psychologists offer are really about how much we can accept the status quo. So even though I consider myself a fairly energetic and upbeat person, I never do very well on happiness tests.
ELLE: Surveys are always showing that conservatives are happier than liberals, traditional moms are more happy than feminist moms.
BE: If you're not at all bothered by human suffering – great. But if you have a vision of human happiness that includes all those people who are currently suffering, you've got to do something about it.
I believe, in some ways, agitating for social change is the most positive form of thinking there is. In order to do so, we must believe that one person can make a difference, that our opinion is worth voicing, and that the world can become better – if we are willing to make an effort to shape it that way.