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Barbara Ehrenreich: The Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America

The author talks about how a plague of positive thinking is permeating our society, from medicine to business, and is even contributing to our financial crisis.

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BE: I'm saying this is an ideology that takes away all the indignation there might be about extreme economic polarization.

If you think you're going to be rich someday, why would you be resentful of million-dollar bonuses or $10 million CEO salaries, you know? You're going to be there, so it would be against your own self-interest to stand up for your class interests.

EW: You write that the alternative to positive thinking isn't despair. What do you see as the alternative?

BE: How about a little realism? How about not seeing the world so totally colored by our own wishes and emotions? For the positive thinker, that means everything looks rosy and everything is going to be all right no matter what, so you have to block out the little warning signs.

For the very depressed person, you're just convinced that everything is going to be miserable, that you're not going to enjoy anything you undertake, that you're going to fail at everything.

There, too, you're just projecting things. It's extremely hard to "see things as they are." It's a project -- we have to consult other people, we get other views, we sometimes have to question other people's views, but that's the only way to proceed, and that's how our species has survived as long as it has.

EW: Do you think the recession is gong to be an antidote to this?

BE: If I have anything to say about it [laughs]. It's crazy to me we haven't had an apology from Joel Osteen, America's most high-profile positive preacher, for this.

They should have said, "I'm sorry about the subprimes." We haven't had anybody coming forward from the corporate culture and saying, "Yeah, we kept our heads in the sand because it was so much more comfortable."

EW: Anything else you want to say?

BE: You could say, "Well, but it feels nice to be positive. I do all this work on myself and become more positive, and I feel better." And I say, "You might feel better if you stopped doing all that work on yourself."

This is a burden people take on. Just put that aside. Don't fuss all the time about your mood and your attitude. Try to deal with the world itself.

One of the major sources of misery in the world is poverty. We can do one of two things. We can tell poor people they need to change their attitudes, and there's a whole industry of that kind of thing -- motivational speakers that tell people to get over their bad attitudes towards wealth so it will just come to them.

Or we can say, "What's the cause of this? How are we going to get together and do something about it?" And I come down on that side.

Emily Wilson is a freelance writer and teaches basic skills at City College of San Francisco.

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