By Kate Tuttle
Sunday, November 15, 2009
When Barbara Ehrenreich was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2000, the sharp-eyed social critic found herself nearly as discomfited by the "pink ribbon culture" surrounding the disease as by the illness itself. Relentlessly upbeat, cloyingly inspirational, the breast cancer world, as Ehrenreich describes it, is a place where anger, fear and depression -- all perfectly reasonable responses to a potentially mortal diagnosis -- are frowned upon and the cancer itself is lauded as a great opportunity for spiritual growth. In this cocoon of optimism, the prevailing opinion is that cancer is a gift, a chance to become closer to God, to find life's true meaning. It's not a tragedy; it's a rite of passage with an enormous upside. "What does not destroy you, to paraphrase Nietzsche," writes Ehrenreich, "makes you a spunkier, more evolved sort of person."
Why, three centuries after the Enlightenment, is American culture so bewitched by magical thinking, elevating feelings and intuition and hope over preparation, information and science? Why do so many of us seem so willing to discount reality in favor of vague wishes, dreams and secrets? And has this gospel of good times delivered us not into a life of ease but instead into a worldwide economic meltdown?
Ehrenreich's examination of the history of positive thinking is a tour de force of well-tempered snark, culminating in a persuasive indictment of the bright-siders as the culprits in our current financial mess. She begins with a look at where positive thinking originated, from its founding parents in the New Thought Movement (inventors of the law of attraction, recently made famous in books such as "The Secret") through mid-20th-century practitioners like Norman Vincent Peale and Dale Carnegie, to current disciples ranging from Oprah Winfrey to the preachers of the prosperity gospel. We're not talking here about garden-variety hopefulness or genuine happiness, but rather the philosophy that individuals create -- rather than encounter -- their own circumstances. Crafted as a correction to Calvinism's soul-crushing pessimism, positive thinking, in Ehrenreich's view, has become a kind of national religion, an abettor to capitalism's crueler realities and an overcorrection every bit as anxiety-producing as the Puritans' Calvinism ever was.
Bouncing from cancer lab to motivational business meeting to mega-church, Ehrenreich tests the theses embedded in American positive thinking and finds them wanting. Studies proclaiming a link between a positive attitude and cancer survival, she finds, are full of problems and discounted by most researchers. Furthermore, she points out, the popular insistence that cheerfulness can help beat the Big C, while it can be "a great convenience for health workers and even friends of the afflicted, who might prefer fake cheer to complaining," leaves patients in the uncomfortable position of having to hide or deny their very real anger and sadness, even to themselves, for fear of being complicit in their own illness.
As for the tests and formulas devised by practitioners of positive psychology, an academic field that receives major funding from ultra-conservative groups (such as the Templeton Foundation, which also bankrolled the Proposition Eight campaign to overturn California's gay marriage law), Ehrenreich points out that the "real conservatism of [the field] lies in its attachment to the status quo, with all its inequalities and abuses of power." Unlike scholarship that aims to understand or ameliorate social problems, positive psychology focuses only on the individual's attitude toward those problems, meaning it's a short skip to the point of view that happiness or unhappiness is entirely a function of how a person feels about her circumstances. But what if your circumstances are awful? How on earth is one to parse the Satisfaction with Life Scale developed by positive psychologists? Can you say "In most ways my life is close to my ideal" if you've just been laid off, or face medical bankruptcy because you're uninsured? What if you're a slave or a refugee? If all that stands between you and the good life is a positive attitude, as positive psychology posits, then the only person you have to blame if your life isn't good is yourself.
The author deploys her sharpest tone to eviscerate the business community's embrace of positive thinking. Offered as a sap to those facing layoffs, used as a spur to better performance by those workers who remain (often while enduring cuts in pay and benefits) and relied on as an excuse to ignore unpleasant inevitabilities like bubbles bursting, American positivism reaches its giddiest and most dangerous heights in the corner office. Although our current economic mess has complex and varied causes, Ehrenreich's aim here feels all too true.
"Recall that American corporate culture had long since abandoned the dreary rationality of professional management for the emotional thrills of mysticism, charisma, and sudden intuitions," Ehrenreich writes. "Pumped up by paid motivators and divinely inspired CEOs, American business entered the midyears of the decade at a manic peak of delusional expectations, extending to the higher levels of leadership." Gripped by "runaway positive thinking," the markets rose and rose until reality receded into the far distance. Little wonder that it hit so hard when we all fell.
Kate Tuttle is a writer and editor living outside Boston.