Over the past decade, we've seen positive thinking employed in various ways: to stir American nationalism during wartime, to perpetuate free market economies despite signs of an imminent market crash, to encourage people to reject victimhood in the face of staggering financial setbacks.
In her latest book, "Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America" (Metropolitan Books, $23), author Barbara Ehrenreich connects the dots and shows the damaging effects of positive thinking on American life.
A social critic and author of many books ("Nickel and Dimed," "Bait and Switch," "Dancing in the Streets"), Ehrenreich spoke recently about her new book in advance of her Oct. 21 book talk at the Seattle Public Library.
Q: In "Bright-Sided," you trace the existence of positive thinking to religion, business, politics, the economy and more. What role has positive thinking played in shaping American institutions?
A: I would say it's so pervasive that it's almost like a religion that we don't quite name — an ideology that says you should be positive, you should be upbeat, you should not complain, you should only blame yourself for bad things that happen to you — that is so widespread.
Q: Were there any surprises when researching this book?
A: I think I was most shocked to find out how much (positive thinking) had permeated the American corporate culture, really from the '80s and '90s and increasing into this decade. The idea that a perfect employee is somebody who is always cheerful, always upbeat, doesn't quibble, doesn't ask questions. There were real penalties in recent years for being "negative." You could be fired for raising too many questions.
My favorite example is the head of the real-estate division of Lehman Brothers in '06, who told the CEO of Lehman Brothers that he was very worried that there was a housing bubble and it was going to burst, and he was fired for that.
Q: A year after the financial collapse, do you think positive thinking has shifted at all? Have we been jilted from our tendency to see the glass half full?
A: I think it's a funny moment. I think there is no sort of recognition yet of how this kind of mandatory optimism set into the crisis. I think that optimism has been somewhat drained, except for the Wall Street guys, who seem to be as happy as ever.
I'm waiting for somebody like Joel Osteen, the prosperity gospel preacher, to say, "I'm sorry. I'm sorry I encouraged you all to take out subprime and adjustable-rate mortgages by saying that God wants you to have a larger house, etc. I was wrong." But we haven't heard anything like that. In fact, early indications are that businesses were hiring more motivational speakers ... to tell their employees to be positive as they laid them off.
Q: Is it irresponsible for public figures like Oprah, Martin Seligman and Joel Osteen to spread a message that we can will something to happen, if we only believe in it enough?
A: I'm sure they're saying what they believe, but I think it's time to also call them to account and say here's where that kind of optimism led. It led to an economy based so heavily on debt. (In) what frame of mind do you take on huge debt? Well, you're optimistic you'll be able to pay it back: you won't lose your job, you won't get sick, nothing bad will happen. Many average people were completely unprepared for the shock of the crash because we had absorbed this so thoroughly: the idea that we only have to think something to make it true.
Q: You've grappled with breast cancer, which you discuss in the book. What's the relationship in your experience between positive thinking and how cancer is treated?
A: Here in this book ... I'm writing about what I encountered as a breast-cancer patient, and that was all these exhortations to be positive, to be cheerful, to visualize my recovery from the cancer. And even going to the extreme of — and this is what really turned me off — of saying that I should regard, or any breast-cancer patient should regard, the cancer as a gift, because it's going to make me a more sensitive, spiritual, more evolved kind of person. This is nonsense, utter nonsense, I can report to you.
What I found so offensive about that is the implicit victim blaming: If you don't get better, it's because you didn't have the proper frame of mind.
Q: Are you seeing more examples of that in October, breast-cancer-awareness month?
A: I have to say I take issue with the whole pink-ribbon culture. I think it's great that we're open about breast cancer, as opposed to the way it was 40 years ago when it was something so stigmatized we couldn't even talk about it. I do want to see more research, not just on breast cancer but all forms of cancer. Right now, we don't have forms of treatment that are not toxic.
I personally object to the whole cuteness and pinkness and femininity that surrounds the pink-ribbon culture, as do many woman, (as) I've discovered as I've written about these things over the years. We don't think you can make breast cancer pretty.
Q: What do you think about the growing popularity of positive psychology in higher education and pop culture?
A: It frankly scares me a lot that some of the most popular undergraduate courses today are in positive psychology or this "science of happiness." ... We don't go to college to learn to be a positive thinker; we go to college to learn to be a critical thinker.
Q: I wonder how those courses are graded.
A: It would be terrible to think that anybody fails.
Q: You state that realism is necessary for survival. So if positive thinking isn't tempered with realism, how far could this trend go?
A: I hate to think it could go any further. I think we're maybe in a period of waking up from it, because I think it contributed to the financial meltdown. Now is the time to wake up ... to see what is really happening in the world.