Is the promotion of positive thinking hurting the country? Best-selling author Barbara Ehrenreich thinks so, and she spells it out in her new book "Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America."
After she was diagnosed with breast cancer eight years ago, Ehrenreich turned to the Web for resources and support. Searching for a way to express anger about the disease and treatment, she was faced with message boards filled with advice to "just think positive."
Ehrenreich argues that America is obsessed with being happy -- or at least pretending to be happy. In an interview with ABC News, she laid out her case for why this kind of mindset can do more harm than good.
ABC News: Can you explain the title to anyone who might not know anything about the book?
Ehrenreich: It's a little hard to explain this book when I was working on it because it sounds so contrarian -- against positive thinking. But I'm looking at the ideology of positive thinking as if affects Americans in so many ways. For me, it all began with the experience eight years ago of being treated for breast cancer, and I naturally reached out for all the help and support and information I could get on the Web and through books and other things. And what I found instead was the constant advice to be positive -- to be upbeat and cheerful about the disease to the point of even embracing it and saying, "Hey, this is the best thing that ever happened to me. I'm going to come out of this being more spiritual and sensitive or something." That's not how I was feeling though. I did not feel like this was a good experience. And it was painful not to be able to say that -- not to be able to express grief, fear or anything. But then it took me a couple of years, I realized this was pretty endemic in American culture. You are not to be a complainer, you are not to be a "victim," you are supposed to look at the bright side of whatever is happening. And one of the big things this applies to is people being laid off from their jobs. They'll be sent to the outplacement firm where they'll hear motivational speakers tell them that this is really a great thing that's happened to them, a wonderful opportunity for a career transition. Or the people that are left behind after the layoff, they get the speakers and books and DVD's and everything to get the, to work harder to make up for all the people that were laid off.
ABC News: Is it just that too much positive thinking somehow led America down the wrong path? Is it just inaccurate for people to allow so much positivity?
Ehrenreich: I think that there are two problems with this culture of positivity. One is it's kind of delusional that you're not allowed to think bad things. This led or contributed to the financial meltdown of 2008. People in the workplace, including financial companies, including major corporations, were not allowed to say, "I've got a problem here, I'm worried." Like the head of the real estate of Lehman Brothers in 2006 went to the CEO and said, "I think this is a housing bubble and that we're going to be in big trouble soon if we don't change our business model in some way." He was fired then for being negative. And this happened throughout on Wall Street. People were never supposed to say a negative thing, to be a bummer. So we went into that crisis completely bright sided, not seeing reality because we were so, so many of us were so committed to this positive-thinking notion that everything is fine, everything is going to come out well. And we also encouraged people to take on debt that they really couldn't manage -- I mean companies as well as individuals. But that idea that, "Oh, it's all going to be OK. I might as well seize this opportunity." -- it's gotten us into a lot of trouble.
Happiness and the Recession
ABC News: So looking back at the recession that we're currently in and the elements that caused it: It's just that nobody on Wall Street would be taken seriously before the market crashed that had anything negative to say?
Ehrenreich: I have talked to and interviewed some Wall Street insiders for this book and they said you could not say a negative thing. You could not be the bearer of bad news to the boss. Your job was to make the boss feel happy and comfortable and to stroke him. Just nothing should interrupt this wonderful fantasy of how things are all going to turn out alright. It was kind of like a magical thinking that gripped America right up to the fall of 2008.
ABC News: Do you see that we're still in that even though we're in some trouble?
Ehrenreich: Well, what is going on now is kind of shocking to me. In some ways, its increased, that the idea that we can all get out of this if we could just be optimistic now. OK, Wall Street is doing fine [but] most Americans are not doing fine. We've never had unemployment this high, in my lifetime anyway. There's a lot of suffering out there. And the message is always just, "Swallow it, suck it up and put on a smiley face and do not descent, complain, protest or whatever."
ABC News: One of the chapters is called, "God Wants Me to Be Rich." Can you tell me about that?
Ehrenreich: Well, one of the areas of life that, surprisingly, positive thinking has crept into in the '90s and '00s is evangelical Christianity, which I kind of associated before with people like Jerry Falwell and real fire-and-brimstone-type guys. But in the last decade or so, the mega churches have flourished, and the mega churches feature nothing but positive thinking. You can go into one of these places, as I did for the research: There's no crosses, there's no pictures of Jesus because that would be a bummer. That would be a downer, having to think about suffering and sacrifice and things like that. So it's all about how you can have great stuff because God wants you to have good stuff if you will only visualize it and give God clear orders of exactly what you want.
ABC News: And that could be construed perhaps as a misinterpretation of a lot of the ancient writings?
Ehrenreich: Well you know, plenty of Christians have said this, that it's appalling, that it's an inversion of the idea of Christianity. But the idea behind the mega churches is we're not going to say things that upset people -- like talking about sin, that would upset people. We're just going to say nice things, have comfortable seats. We're not going to have those crosses around and [we will] tell people everything is great and can be even greater if you can focus your mind on getting everything you want.
ABC News: Going back to the first part of the book and your cancer diagnosis, the general theme of that seems to be that you encountered [the idea that it] was OK you have cancer. It's great. What did that first make you feel like?
Ehrenreich: Well, when you are going through a rough patch and people don't want to hear any of the downside of it, and you're told, "Oh, just be more cheerful. ... I remember going on one message board for breast cancer sufferers and I said, "I'm upset because of this disease. How come the treatments are so barbaric?" and all these sorts of things. And the response I got back was, one of them anyway, was, "Look Barb, you've got to run, not walk, to the nearest therapist." You know there were breast cancer support groups in the last year or two that have thrown out women whose [cases had] metastasized, because that would bring everybody else down. So that's the other thing I find so profoundly distressing about the positive thinking culture, is a lack of compassion. You're going to block out all negative things, get rid of negative people and just imagine that things are perfect.
Happiness at Work
ABC News: So there's an outer limit, and once you've reached that outer limit you're thrown out?
Ehrenreich: Apparently, as heartless as that sounds. I think a lot of people have told me too that when they suffer a bereavement and go back to work, after a week or so nobody's going to cut them any slack. It's like, "Hey time to move on, already." It's like we have a big empathy deficit and we can't take the time to say, "Yeah, what's happening to you is bad." You can't do much about it if it's bereavement. If it's unemployment, maybe we do have to think about some things we do about it and why we have an economy that has no use for so many people's talent and skills. That's called thinking realistically.
ABC News: Can you just give me a quick summation of all the places that positive thinking has cut through and, in your writing, not done good things?
Ehrenreich: I worry also about the inroads that positive thinking has been making into the academy, universities, college campuses, where a very popular kind of course these days is in "positive psychology," sometimes called the science of happiness, where the students are just urged to think happy thoughts and get in touch with her positive feelings and write letters of gratitude to people in their lives. And alright, sometimes college students could use a little cheering up, but this is not what we go to college for. We don't go to college to learn positive thinking, we go to college to learn critical thinking. And if we're losing that capability, then I think we are seriously undermined as a nation.
ABC News: Growing up, my dad was a cookware salesman and he was big on motivational speakers, and he certainly introduced me to the book, "Where Is My Cheese?" that you bring up.
Ehrenreich: "Who Moved My Cheese?"
ABC News: Excuse me, "Who Moved My Cheese?" Can you tell me about these motivational speakers?
Ehrenreich: Motivational speakers are a-- It's been a growing industry since the age of layoffs, when corporations got more and more interested in bringing people in to sort of control -- not control, but attempt to control -- the moods of employees and make them adjust to the fact that they are so disposable in today's economy. There are all kinds of people, you don't need any license or anything like that to be a motivational speaker. I could be a motivational speaker if I wanted to, I guess. And it's, probably the United States is the biggest manufacturer of motivational speaking. No doubt about it. And we send them all over the world. We have exported them all over the world. And the really big names would be people -- like Tony Robbins, I guess, that would be one of the biggest names. And these guys, they can earn tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of dollars a pop for speaking to a corporate audience. And at the same time, they sell their books, their DVD's, their I-don't-know, whatever little products they're selling.
Forcing Yourself to Always Appear Positive
ABC News: So what's wrong with trying to tell people to think positively if they're in a rut?
Ehrenreich: I think sometimes that people are in a rut and can get into a negative thinking mode where everything is going to turn out bad [and might think] "Why try in the first place you're not going to enjoy anything?" But that's not the alternative to positive thinking. The alternative is not to be in either of those states. But I'm going to make a radical proposal here that we try a little realism -- not how you see the world be totally dominated by either your fears or your wishes, but try to figure out what's really going on, and then how do we intervene in some way to make things better, to make conditions better for people?
ABC News: This is quite a lightning rod. Does this scare you at all to do? Or is it totally easy for you?
Ehrenreich: No, this book actually was a little bit scary at the outset. I've never been afraid to take on a controversial topic, but this time I felt really alone. How could I be against something that seemed so pervasive and ubiquitous? But ... I did a positive thing here: I pulled together a little group like a support group for myself of people who were also critical -- mainly academics, mainly university people who had been researchers who were looking into the biology of this. The guy who found that mood and attitude has nothing to do with whether you recover from cancer, he's one of my little group. And that made an enormous difference to me, to have these people to consult and get together with now and then and share work with.
ABC News: Is there any denying that real true joy in life could bring better things? If you're happy about something, perhaps you feel better. If you're fighting off a cold and you're happy, that might seem easier. Or is that all just gobbledygook?
Ehrenreich: I am all for joy and happiness and smiles and hugs. One of the more recent books I've written is called, "Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy." I wrote the book on joy. But this is not the same as joy, forcing yourself to appear positive at all times maybe taking a real toll on you internally. It's not the same as having a good time. It's a performance that we start usually when we go to work every day.