The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2010

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MAR 2010 Issue

Turn That Frown Upside Down

In her most recent book, Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion Of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, Barbara Ehrenreich wipes away America’s sheen of unfounded, delusional optimism. She unravels The Secret, unmasks faux-Christian minister Joel Osteen, and even manages a few minor pokes at Oprah—all without sounding like a killjoy. Quite a feat.

Barbara Ehrenreich
Bright-Sided: How The Relentless Promotion Of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America
(Metropolitan Books, 2009)

Ehrenreich’s interest in positive thinking began when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, an experience she first documented for Harper’s in 2001. Still in the haze of her diagnosis, Ehrenreich is bombarded with the all-encompassing—and, it seems, rarely questioned—pink ribbon community. Most people are familiar with the ribbon as an emblem of solidarity. But Ehrenreich shows that it’s more than a symbol; it’s a philosophy, and one incompatible with anger or doubt. At its most innocent, this approach aims to keep patients from falling into complete despair. But in magazines, message boards and support group meetings, proponents of this attitude (who appear to be nearly everyone except Ehrenreich) make a more consequential claim: that positivity has real healing properties, which can boost your immune system and help you “win the fight” against cancer.

This strikes Ehrenreich, who has a Ph.D. in cellular biology, as dubious. And, propelled by the outrage she is discouraged from expressing, she methodically explains why this almost certainly isn’t true.

Ehrenreich uses science again when faced with the “quantum physics” of positive thinking that is the foundation of Rhonda Byrne’s wildly popular book, The Secret. (There are more than 3.8 million copies of The Secret in print and the book spent 148 weeks on the New York Times Best Sellers list.) In it, Byrne alleges that you can use the power of attraction, or quantum physics, to control the universe. If you want money, all you have to do is imagine it in your pocket and Voila!, wads of cash will appear. The same thing works if you want a boyfriend, a smaller waist or even a better job. Ehrenreich reveals Byrne’s scientific interpretation to be wholly inaccurate—no surprise to anyone with a healthy sense of skepticism.

Ehrenreich finds that despite its fluffiness, the positive thinking philosophy of The Secret has a long history in America. She traces it to a rejection of mid-19th century Calvinism, which was so focused on sin—and the avoidance of it—that faithful followers with too much time on their hands (women) often became incapacitated with fear. Enter Phineas Parkhurst Quimby and Mary Baker Eddy, two of the first prophets of New Thought. New Thought turned Calvinism inside out, suggesting that rather than sin, people should focus on banishing negative thoughts.

Fast-forward to late 20th century corporate America. New Thought has become the stuff of “motivational speakers” and “bonding retreats.” You are asked to always present a positive attitude and any failure—stagnant sales, unemployment—is blamed on a lack of enthusiasm.

Positive thinking has even found its way back to God through such unholy vessels as Joel Osteen, a Houston-based televangelist and megachurch leader who preaches in the 16,000-seat stadium formerly known as the Compaq Center. The gospel at Lakewood Church (and other megachurches throughout the country) relies not on Biblical scripture, but on the powerful law of attraction. It can be fairly boiled down to, “If you want it badly enough, He will provide it.”

On the surface, this philosophy, whether proselytized in the workplace or at church, seems ludicrous, annoying, and mostly innocuous. But Ehrenreich reveals it to be a beast of capitalism, one that feeds itself with CDs, books, and faithful tidings. And even more damning, Ehrenreich sees the positive thinking racket as the foundation of our current economic collapse. Led by unfathomably wealthy CEOs, we all held hands and wished the universe to provide continual and unchecked free-market growth.

It’s not surprising to find capitalism at the heart of Bright-Sided. The book could almost be seen as part of a trilogy along with Nickel and Dimed (2001) and Bait and Switch (2005), in which Ehrenreich examined the difficulty of surviving on the wages of unskilled jobs and finding white collar work in a “downsized” economy. Bright-Sided takes the inquiry one step further, with Ehrenreich looking for the cause of our economic woes. She makes a clear-eyed case indicting the ideology of positive thinking.

Bright-Sided was released late last year, and most of Ehrenreich’s reporting and writing took place before the ongoing persistence of nearly 10 percent national unemployment. Perhaps, you might be thinking, this has shocked the system. Maybe we will shed the cloak of false optimism and turn instead to logic and reason. (But don’t fool yourself; that’s just the positive thinking talking.)

And while it’s true, that Oprah, that most positive of positive thinkers, is retiring in 2011, she’s still got some steam left. Late last year, the talk show queen hosted Sarah Palin. The two upbeat ladies talked about Palin’s run for vice president, the infamous Katie Couric interview, and Palin’s son, Trig, who has Down Syndrome. Palin explained that when she found out her son would be born with a disability, she momentarily sympathized with the impulse to have an abortion. “Not so much a consideration, but an understanding of why a woman would go down that road of thinking that this is the easy way to handle the situation,” Palin confessed. “It also, though, really solidified my position that, yup, there are less than ideal circumstances in so many of our lives; it’s how we will react to those circumstances, how we will plow through them and make the most of what we’ve been given.” Hey! She should write a motivational book. It would be a runaway best seller.


Katie Rolnick

Katie Rolnick is a freelance writer and co-editor of the Brooklyn Rail Books section.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2010

All Issues