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

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.

You take people who have been really victimized, and I use that word advisedly, with cancer and with lay-offs from unaccountable corporations. And then you tell them, "Well, you just have to change the way you think." And that's very clever.

EW: You write about how positive thinking started with Mary Baker Eddy and Phineas Quimby and how it was a response to Calvinism.

BE: I was actually kind of a fan of Quimby. Here was a blue-collar guy, basically a skilled craftsman living in Portland, Maine, and who had a sideline of being a metaphysician. What it's all about is he was rejecting a Calvinist worldview -- that people are damned, that we're wretched sinners and that we should spend all of our time examining our souls for sins and flaws.

And he said "Hey!" [She laughs.] He understood that that worldview was making people sick. It was kind of brilliant, I thought. He was part of a larger populist health movement arising against the regular medical profession.

EW: When does this idea of positive thinking change into being what you're saying it is now?

BE: It had ceased to be seen as a healing method, although that comes back. By the time I encounter it, breast cancer has come back into the health area. But in the early 20th century there was, for the first time, scientific medicine and the beginnings of some sorts of effective treatments. That kind of closed a door for the positive-thinking movement, which then increasingly in the 20th century addressed itself to prosperity and wealth and success.

EW: You write about the connection you see between positive thinking and the subprime-mortgage meltdown. Talk about that.

BE: I'm not saying this is the only thing that caused the financial crash. You can't rule out greed and the exceeding rapid nature of transactions and globalization and all that, but we had a culture that by the mid '00s was totally encouraging debt, the assumption of reckless levels of debt.

We often blamed the victim, the rather low-paid person who wound up with a subprime mortgage, but they were even hearing it from their preachers if they went to one of these megachurch, positive-thinking preachers who said God wants you to have a larger house.

Maybe you were never able to get any credit because of your race or your income, but you could be blessed suddenly! If someone offers you a mortgage that has no down payment and no proof of income, that's God coming down and saying, "Go get that house I wanted you to have."

Far worse, and on a far larger scale, was the role of this ideology in the corporations and in the finance industry.

I have traced how positive thinking became the corporate culture in America. It was mandatory to be positive.

So you had companies who would literally fire people for being negative, negative in the sense of maybe raising too many questions, maybe expressing a doubt.

One example is the man who was the head of the real estate division of Lehman Bros. in 2006 and told his CEO that he thought the whole housing thing was a bubble and they should start getting out, and he was fired for that.

So we had a culture of complete denial at all levels of the possibility that bad things could happen and maybe God doesn't want you to get rich.

EW: You mention how "Joe the Plumber" came out against the idea of Barack Obama raising taxes on people making over $250,000 because he said he was going to buy his plumbing business and be in that category himself, but in reality that wasn't likely to happen. Why do you bring that up?

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.

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