Barbara Ehrenreich Tackles Positive Thinking in New Book, 'Bright-Sided'

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.

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