Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided Explores the Dark Side of Positive Thinking

Last month, the front page of the New York Times style section ran an inadvertently depressing story about a group of young life coaches sometimes referred to as the “spiritual cowgirls.” These hip young women, who have lots of charisma but no professional qualifications, are setting themselves up as ersatz gurus to their questing peers. They charge hundreds of dollars for sessions that combine new age atmospherics with the kind of power-of-positive thinking nostrums that made a phenomenon out of The Secret.

“[N]ow there is a new role model for New York’s former Carrie Bradshaws—young women who are vegetarian, well versed in self-help and New Age spirituality, and who are finding a way to make a living preaching to eager audiences, mostly female,” reported the Times. One 31-year-old member of this eager audience is quoted praising her spiritual tutor Gabrielle Bernstein, a 29-year-old former nightclub publicist who lectures on using the “laws of attraction” to “manifest” one’s desires. “A lot of women look up to her,” the student says. “We need this guidance and we are searching for this guidance.” Bernstein’s audacity in marketing herself as a sage appears to be matched by the piteousness of her customers.

The Times story is evidence of the timeliness of Barbara Ehrenreich’s bracing, acidulous new book, Bright-Sided: How The Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. A broadside against exactly the sort of pabulum peddled by Bernstein, Bright-Sided reveals the historical roots and conservative uses of the positive thinking movement, showing how it encourages victim-blaming, political complacency, and a culture-wide flight from realism.

“The flip side of positivity is… a harsh insistence on personal responsibility: if your business fails or your job is eliminated, it must be because you didn’t try hard enough, didn’t believe firmly enough in the inevitability of your success,” writes Ehrenreich. “As the economy has brought more layoffs and financial turbulence to the middle class, the promoters of positive thinking have increasingly emphasized this negative judgment: to be disappointed, resentful, or downcast is to be a ‘victim’ and a ‘whiner.’”

It’s satisfying, in a cranky contrarian way, to watch a writer as smart as Ehrenreich take aim at something as universally revered as dogged optimism. Yet while America’s obsessive positivity might be risible, it initially seems like a stretch to describe it as dangerous. Nevertheless, Bright-Sided makes a surprisingly convincing case that positive thinking—which essentially teaches that one’s thoughts, properly harnessed, can control physical events in the world—is often delusional and sometimes actively dangerous.

Pentecostals call their version of positive thinking ideology “naming and claiming.” New age types call it the “law of attraction,” and business consultants peddle it in the form of quasi-mystical motivational exercises and paeans to visionary leadership. All of them promote a similar type of magical thinking, whose roots Ehrenreich traces back to the “New Thought” movement of the 1860s. “New Thought,” Ehrenreich explains, emerged as a reaction to harsh Calvinism: “In the New Thought vision, God was no longer hostile or indifferent; he was a ubiquitous, all-powerful Spirit or Mind, and since ‘man’ was really Spirit too, man was coterminous with God… The trick, for humans, was to access the boundless power of Spirit and thus exercise control over the physical world.”

From there, Ehrenreich shows how positive thinking evolved into a creed of capitalist motivation, largely by way of Norman Vincent Peale. She writes of the truly terrifying extent to which positive thinking is enforced in corporate America, where it seems to constitute a form of self-enforced mind control. In 2007, she points out, an employee at a Utah-based company called Prosper Inc., which specializes in corporate motivation, was waterboarded as part of a business exercise—his colleagues were urged to fight for sales as hard as he’d fought for air.

Rather than offering a refuge from the acquisitive creed of positive thinking, much of the evangelical world has embraced it, though not as egregiously as pentecostals have in the prosperity gospel, which holds that God rewards positive thinking with material riches. In one of the book’s most effective, maddening chapters, Ehrenreich travels to prosperity preacher Joel Osteen’s sprawling stadium of a church. For Osteen and preachers like him, she writes “success comes mainly through ‘reprogramming’ your mind into positive mental images, based on what amounts to the law of attraction: ‘You will produce what you’re continually seeing in your mind,’ Osteen promises.”

In a society with as much desperation and instability as ours, such promises are cruelly tantalizing. Hence the tremendous success of prosperity preachers, life coaches, and quasi-metaphysical self-help authors like Rhonda Byrne, author of the aforementioned positive-thinking bestseller The Secret. Byrne once claimed that disasters like the 2006 tsunami can only happen to people who are “on the same frequency as the event,” which appears to suggest that the victims brought catastrophe on themselves.

Positive thinking, then, employs sticks as well as carrots. “It ends up imposing a mental discipline as exacting as that of the Calvinism it replaced—the endless work of self-examination and self-control or, in the case of positive thinking, self-hypnosis,” writes Ehrenreich.

Indeed, such magical thinking extends to our perception of sickness and health. Bright-Sided begins with a chapter on the relentlessly insipid, pink-beribboned culture surrounding breast cancer, which Ehrenreich was plunged into after being diagnosed with the disease. Based on a widespread but flawed belief that positive thinking can improve one’s odds of survival, breast cancer patients are urged to eschew anger and find meaning and even uplift in the disease. “In the most extreme characterization, breast cancer is not a problem at all, not even an annoyance—it is a ‘gift,’ deserving of the most heartfelt gratitude,” writes Ehrenreich.

Those who can’t or won’t adopt such a sunny attitude may be ostracized or browbeaten. “[T]he sugar-coating of cancer can exact a dreadful cost,” she writes. “First, it requires the denial of understandable feelings of anger and fear, all of which must be buried under a cosmetic layer of cheer. This is a great convenience for health workers and even friends of the afflicted, who might prefer fake cheer to complaining, but it is not so easy on the afflicted.”

At this point, it’s easy to protest that there’s a difference between superficial cheer and, say, a hard-won self-acceptance, or a sustaining hope for the future. The biggest flaw in Bright-Sided is that it fails to distinguish between different kinds of optimism, to differentiate positive thinking from the healthy cultivation of mindfulness or gratitude. Instead, Ehrenreich tends to write as if all work towards improving the self is a diversion from the real work of improving society. “The threats we face are real and can be vanquished only by shaking off self-absorption and taking action in the world,” she writes.

That’s true to some extent, but the division between internal and external change isn’t entirely neat. Some variant of determined optimism, after all, is needed for social change. How else could Gandhi believe that he could get the British to leave India, or Martin Luther King convince himself and his followers in the possibility of winning racial equality? Barack Obama became president in part by imbuing millions of individuals with the wild hope that they could change the world. Isn’t that also a kind of positive thinking?

Clearly, Ehrenreich is not counseling a widespread embrace of despair, but it still would have been useful to see her explain how galvanic, inspiring varieties of optimism vary from the willful self-delusion she decries. It’s delicious to watch her demolish the smug pieties that rationalize so much American injustice, but even a committed pessimist can see that not all positivity is negative.