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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.

When Barbara Ehrenreich went to be treated for breast cancer, she was exhorted to think positively; and when she expressed feelings of fear and anger, she was chided for being negative.

Ehrenreich, the author of 16 books, including Nickel and Dimed and Bait and Switch, which examine the blue- and white-collar job markets, took on what she sees as an epidemic of positive thinking in her new book: Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America.

Positive thinking is different, she says, from being cheerful or good-natured -- it's believing that the world is shaped by our wants and desires and that by focusing on the good, the bad ceases to exist.

Ehrenreich believes this has permeated our culture and that the refusal to acknowledge that bad things could happen is in some way responsible for the current financial crisis.

In her new book, Ehrenreich examines how the positive-thinking movement was started by Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science, and an amateur metaphysician named Phineas Parkhurst Quimby in response to Calvinism; how being positive became mandatory in corporate culture; and how she thinks prosperity preachers, such as Joel Osteen of Lakewood Church in Houston encouraged a culture of debt by telling their congregations that God wants them to have a big house and a nice car.

Emily Wilson: At the beginning of the book, you talk about going to be treated for breast cancer and being told to think positively. Was that what started you thinking about this?

Barbara Ehrenreich: That was my first exposure to positive thinking as an ideology. I was just astounded and dismayed by it. Here I was in a real crisis in my life, and people were trying to market pink ribbon teddy bears to me, and where I thought I would find sort of sisterly support on the Internet, I found instead the constant exhortations to be cheerful and to embrace my disease [she laughs].

EW: What is the difference between being told to try and stay upbeat and to have a good attitude and positive thinking?

BE: I think it's a slippery slope. Once you start on how you have to face your problem with a good attitude, they start looking for justifications for that, and it became you actually get better only if you are upbeat, only if you visualize your recovery and so on.

EW: Were the doctors telling you that?

BE: The doctors don't say much, but there are books they have written, or psychologists have, trying to get in on the breast cancer business, but to my chagrin I was often encountering it from fellow sufferers. Individual women have written books, too, like my favorite, The Gift of Cancer, and it seems to be pretty ubiquitous. I wasn't finding any dissent, and when I tried to dissent on a message board, I was told to run, not walk, to therapy.

EW: You write a lot about how positive thinking is in all aspects of life. Do you think this is the most insidious about it -- this idea of a disease being your fault?

BE: I look at it with a little bit of sociological detachment. It's a brilliant system of social control. When bad things happen to people you say, "Well, it's really your attitude that has to change."

The second big place where I encountered all this was in the kind of motivational services that are offered to laid-off white-collar workers, where every networking event or seminar you get the same message about how it's really your attitude that is going to determine if you're going to get a job and probably has something to do with why you lost that last one.

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