About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

#90 - Bright-Sided

Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Pursuit of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, by Barbara Ehrenreich (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2009).

Summary: "Americans are a 'positive' people -- cheerful, optimistic, and upbeat: this is our reputation as well as our self-image. But more than a temperament, being positive is the key to getting success and prosperity. Or so we are told.

"In this utterly original debunking, Barbara Ehrenreich confronts the false promises of positive thinking, tracing it from its origins as a marginal nineteenth-century healing technique to its enshrinement as a dominant, almost mandatory, cultural attitude. Evangelical megachurches preach the good news that you only have to want something to get it because God wants to 'prosper' you. The medical profession prescribes positive thinking for its presumed health benefits. Academia has made room for new departments of 'positive psychology' and the 'science of happiness.' Nowhere, though, has bright-siding taken firmer root than within the business community, where, as Ehrenreich reveals, the refusal even to consider negative outcomes -- like mortgage defaults -- contributed directly to the current economic disaster.

"With the myth-busting powers for which she is acclaimed, Ehrenreich exposes the downsides of positive thinking: personal self-blame and national denial. This is Ehrenreich at her provocative best -- poking holes in conventional wisdom and faux science and ending with a call for existential clarity and courage."

Table of Contents:
  • Introduction
  • 1. Smile or Die: The Bright Side of Cancer
  • 2. The Years of Magical Thinking
  • 3. The Dark Roots of American Optimism
  • 4. Motivating Business and the Business of Motivation
  • 5. God Wants You to Be Rich
  • 6. Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness
  • 7. How Positive Thinking Destroyed the Economy
  • 8. Postscript on Post-Positive Thinking
My Take: Barbara Ehrenreich is my hero -- who else could make a chapter on breast cancer funny? She manages, though, as illustrated by the following account of the mammogram that would ultimately reveal her cancer:
"I began to lose my nerve in the changing room, and not only because of the kinky necessity of baring my breasts and affixing tiny X-ray opaque stars to the tip of each nipple. The changing room ... contained something far worse, I noticed for the first time -- an assumption about who I am, where I am going, and what I will need when I get there. Almost all of the eye-level space had been filled with photocopied bits of cuteness and sentimentality: pink ribbons, a cartoon about a woman with iatrogenically flattened breasts, an 'Ode to a Mammogram,' a list of the 'Top Ten Things Only Women Understand' ('Fat Clothes' and 'Eyelash Curlers,' among them), and, inescapably, right next to the door, the poem 'I Said a Prayer for You Today,' illustrated with pink roses.

"It went on and on, this mother of all mammograms, cutting into gym time, dinnertime, and lifetime generally. ... I read the New York Times right down to the personally irrelevant sections like theater and real estate, eschewing the stack of women's magazines provided for me, much as I ordinarily enjoyed a quick read about sweatproof eyeliners and 'fabulous sex tonight,' because I had picked up this warning vibe in the changing room, which, in my increasingly anxious state, translated into: femininity is death. Finally there was nothing left to read but one of the free local weekly newspapers, where I found, buried deep in the classifieds, something even more unsettling than the growing prospect of major disease -- a classified ad for a 'breast cancer teddy bear' with a pink ribbon stitched to its chest.

"Yes, atheists pray in their foxholes -- in this case, with a yearning new to me and sharp as lust, for a clean and honorable death by shark bite, lightning strike, sniper fire, car crash. Let me be hacked to death by a madman, was my silent supplication -- anything but suffocation by the pink sticky sentiment embodied in that bear and oozing from the walls of the changing room. I didn't mind dying, but the idea that I should do so while clutching a teddy bear and with a sweet little smile on my face -- well, no amount of philosophy had prepared me for that."
The remainder of this chapter tackles what Ehrenreich calls "the sugar-coating of cancer," and breast cancer in particular: the all-but-universal belief that positive thinking is a must for anyone who wants to get better, and any other sentiments -- anger, fear -- just aren't acceptable. Trouble is, she argues, it doesn't work; there is no research which clearly demonstrates any real health benefits from approaching one's cancer with a positive attitude, and "without question there is a problem when positive thinking 'fails' and the cancer spreads or eludes treatment. Then the patient can only blame herself: she is not being positive enough; possibly it was her negative attitude that brought on the disease in the first place."

Subsequent chapters explore the prevalence of positive-thinking books, motivational speakers, and "life coaches" in contemporary U.S. culture; Ehrenreich seems to take special pleasure in picking apart the saccharine best-selling The Secret, which was more than OK by me. She argues that this trend had its roots in the early 1800s, when the "hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts and wild men" west of Puritan-dominated New England became instead, thanks to roads and eventually railroads, something that offered possibility and prosperity. The bulk of the book, though, is devoted to skewering the prosperity gospel megachurches and optimistic, non-rational, instinct-driven CEOs which have become so popular in recent decades, and blaming them in large part for the recent economic collapse.

Bright-Sided was certainly an original book, and an entertaining read to boot. I'm not sure, though, that I fully agree with all Ehrenreich's conclusions. I'm absolutely with her on the prosperity gospel (ridiculous church-lite) and richer-than-rich prima donna business leaders. I do, however, wish she'd been clearer about the distinction between critical thinking and pessimism. She also completely overlooks the distinction between the personal and broader societal impacts of positive thinking, which would have been valuable to at least touch upon. (On one hand, I think constructive anger is underrated; on the other, we all need to pick our battles, and sometimes, that means trying your damnedest to make lemons out of lemonade, if only to preserve your own sanity.)

No comments:

Post a Comment