It Takes a Village Atheist

Barbara Ehrenreich’s jeremiad against cheerful thinking

Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, by Barbara Ehrenreich, New York: Metropolitan Books, 256 pages, $23

One of my earliest memories is no more than a command: “Smile.” The directive was delivered by my father, standing over me in a church pew, definitely not smiling. I wasn’t so much a morose kid as a deeply internal one, and whatever expression I made while lost in thought lacked the cheerfulness expected of little girls. As I would learn soon after that day in church, an American female with a downward-sloping mouth cannot escape the tyranny of smile-pushers. My dad’s request was echoed by teachers (“Try to look interested”), relatives (“Why so glum?”), and, much later, random construction workers (“Smile, baby!”).

So it’s more than a little refreshing to know that Barbara Ehrenreich doesn’t care whether you smile. Indeed, she’d rather you not. In Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, she accuses positivity freaks of corrupting the media, infiltrating medical science, perverting religion, and destroying the economy. In her attempt to link starfish-shaped “reach for the stars” beanbags and global economic devastation, Ehrenreich gets ahead of herself, but along the way she pushes back against a kind of cultural pressure so totalizing we sometimes fail to notice its existence.

All the Oprah-ready gurus you would expect to populate this polemic show up to share some advice—here’s Joel Osteen warning us never to “verbalize a negative emotion,” there’s Tony Robbins exhorting us to “Get motivated!” In turning the United States into a 24-hour pep rally, charges Ehren-reich, these professional cheerleaders have all but drowned out downers like “realism” and “rationality.” Their followers are trained to dismiss bad news rather than assimilate or reflect upon its importance. Motivators counsel an upbeat ignorance—the kind of illusory worldview that might, say, convince a president that his soldiers will be greeted as liberators in a foreign state, or a mayor that his city’s crumbling levees can withstand the force of a hurricane.

But Ehrenreich seems less worried about what positivity fans value than what they ignore. Her idea of a life well-lived, as she repeatedly tells us, involves storming into the world and demanding progressive political change. Positivity’s decidedly inward focus—in which the solution to every problem lies in a mere attitudinal shift—thus seems troubling, a “retreat from the real drama and tragedy of human events.” When a Kansas City pastor declares his church “complaint-free,” Ehrenreich sees a demand that Americans content themselves with their dismal lot. When companies hire motivators to boost morale in the workplace, she sees “a means of social control” by which disgruntled employees are brainwashed into acquiescence. “America’s white-collar corporate work-force drank the Kool-Aid,” she writes, “and accepted positive thinking as a substitute for their former affluence and security.”

Life coach/professional-motivator-types are soft targets. They don’t seem particularly bright, they use verbs in dumb ways (as in “God will prosper you”), and they cultivate a general air of overcaffeinated quackery. One wonders how anyone takes them seriously. But no one takes them more seriously than Ehrenreich, who believes them capable of driving Americans toward a bizarre array of conflicting behaviors. In blaming so much evil on positive thinking, she casts optimism as both an opiate—numbing us into a kind of stoned complacency, as with the wronged employers—and a stimulant, pumping us up for an ill-advised investment or attack on a foreign nation. She’d do far better to pick one. Does positivity lull us into quiescence or spur us toward risk-taking?

Whichever it is, the effects cannot be comprehensively awful. If we believe Tony Robbins can motivate an investment banker to throw billions into a risky investment, shouldn’t we also grant him the power to motivate good risk-taking—say, helping a timid woman leave her domineering husband? Maybe it’s true that “executive coaches” can quash dissent among employees by encouraging gratitude rather than opposition. But if the positivity coaches really can help people find happiness in what they already have, they’ve surely convinced some followers to forgo an unaffordable new McMansion or a flashy new car.

Ehrenreich weighs down her argument with dubious chains of causation and ponderous overstatement, but her central point still shines through the mess. Platitudinous happy-talk seems so harmless that most of us barely notice it, yet it can be a burdensome, even bullying, attempt to enforce emotional conformity. Consider, for instance, the “pink-ribbon culture,” a rose-tinted world Ehrenreich steps into when she is diagnosed with breast cancer.

“Positive thinking seems to be mandatory in the breast cancer world,” she writes, “to the point that unhappiness requires a kind of apology.” Dour pathology slides are out; “remembrance” teddy bears are in. The women Ehrenreich encounters insist that cancer isn’t a morbid tragedy but a life-transforming “gift.” The words “victim” and “patient” are frowned upon; the preferred terminology is “survivor.” Survivors “battle” or “fight” toward their “survivorhood,” while those who die from the disease, in Ehrenreich’s telling, are barely mentioned at all. When she posts a mildly angry message on an Internet message board, she is chastised for her “bad attitude” and told to “get help.”

What is disturbing about the culture she describes is its uniformity, the sense that there is no space for those who might react to trauma with something other than plush toys and perkiness. As Ehrenreich confronts her diagnosis, she tends toward a hard-edged realism, and she feels increasingly isolated from the group. She resents—rightly, I think—the attempts to coach her into infantile gratitude for a disease that threatens to kill her. (As she points out in a fascinating summary of the literature, the supposed link between optimism and cancer survival rates is mostly myth.) Here, as in nowhere else in the book, one senses the group bearing down on the individual, pushing each new patient toward the desired emotional response.

It’s no surprise that I was first told to smile while sitting in a church pew. The world of positivity is one of preachers, sacred books, incantations, revival meetings, and mystical teachings, all emanating from the idea that happy thoughts have the power to transform the physical world. For some people, sometimes, this fulfills a real need. But in the absence of critics like Ehrenreich, we run the risk of passively absorbing this dogma as it seeps into our lives, gently diminishing the sense that some circumstances really are beyond our control. Positivity is a secular religion. Sometimes it takes a village atheist to remind us that we can choose not to believe.

Kerry Howley (khowley@reason.com) is a contributing editor for reason. A version of this article originally appeared in Double X.

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  • John Tagliaferro||

    I am usually suspicious of people who act happy all the time. Glad to see another reality-based person out there.

  • Citizen Nothing||

    I'm happy most of the time John, but I try to act pissed off as often as possible. Is that OK?

  • John Tagliaferro||

    I can spot your kind a mile away. GET OFF MY LAWN!

  • Silentz||

    "You say to a guy, "How are ya?" He says, "Fine and dandy." Not me. I never say that. You know why? because I'm never both those things at the same time. Sometimes I'm fine. But I'm not dandy. I might be close to dandy. I might be approaching dandy. I might even be in the general vicinity of dandyhood. But not quite fully dandy. Other times, I might indeed be highly dandy. However, not fine. One time, 1978. August. For about an hour. I was both fine and dandy at the same time. But nobody asked me how I was. I coulda told 'em, "Fine and dandy!" I consider it a lost opportunity."
    --George Carlin

  • hmm||

    You SICK LITTLE MONKEY!!!

  • Old Mexican||

    So the same author wrote the despicable "Nickel and Dimed"?

    Uh, no thanks.

  • qwerty||

    Agreed. For a far better book on the virtue of pessimism, try John Derbyshire's "We Are Doomed".

  • ||

    The market keeps rewarding Ehrenreich for writing her books, even if they advocate a progressive world view. Oh, the bitter irony for libertarians.

  • ||

    Not at all Mark, there is no theory that states that ALL market transactions are rational or positive.

    Libertarians, real ones at least, would say it is a victory for the market, as someone that is obviously not much of an expert and talking to hear themselves, can still make some decent money just talking.

  • ||

    A positive attitude is altruistic - it makes people around you happier, and makes you less of a drain on them.

    Wandering around like Eeyore makes other people miserable.

    I don't have a problem with encouraging people to be altruistic. The worst they can do is say no.

  • NeonCat||

    Happy people are draining.

  • ||

    If you think happy people are draining, try living with someone who has nothing nice to say about anyone or anything.

  • The Man||

    Whether it is altruistic or not, is I guess, open to some discussion. But maintaining a positive attitude is for optimistic suckers who always think the glass will be half full even after they've drunk 3/4 of it. These sorts should be dragged out into the street and fed to the dogs until they see the error of their ways---but alas, this will probably never happen. Too bad, I was really hoping that it would. Yet another disappointment.

  • ||

    What if I have a positive attitude only because I love my life?

  • The Man||

    Then you would be insane.

  • Jim||

    I don't think you exist.

  • ||

    Altruism is pure evil. It is based on self-deception. People aren't altruistic because they want to help others, they do it because it makes them feel better. They just won't admit it to themselves.

  • Lester Hunt||

    So it sounds like someone on the left is thinking like John Derbyshire in "We are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism." In both cases, they may be reacting to that damfool optimist, G. W. Bush.

  • Old Mexican||

    But in the absence of critics like Ehrenreich, we run the risk of passively absorbing this dogma as it seeps into our lives, gently diminishing the sense that some circumstances really are beyond our control. Positivity is a secular religion. Sometimes it takes a village atheist to remind us that we can choose not to believe.

    Yes I can sleep better at night knowing there are people like Ehrenreich pointing out the obvious.

    Give me a break. The woman is a big time sourpuss, and a total economics ignoramus, and I am supposed to take my cues from her? Bullshit.

  • The Man||

    Does the sourpussedness exacerbate the ignorance or is it the other way around? Or are they independent sources of irritation for you?

  • Old Mexican||

    Re: The Man,

    Does the sourpussedness exacerbate the ignorance or is it the other way around? Or are they independent sources of irritation for you?


    Yes, no and . . . Yes [it is not an either/or thing - I can be equally irritated by her ignorance and her sourpussedness, even if one reinforces the other.]
  • ||

    The world of positivity is one of preachers, sacred books, incantations, revival meetings, and mystical teachings, all emanating from the idea that happy thoughts have the power to transform the physical world.

    Have you read some of the sacred texts or listened to some of the old-time preachers? Does the term "fire and brimstone" mean anything? I think you could make a strong argument that the positivist Joel Osteens of the world are an example of religion bending to societal trends and not the other way around.

  • Religious Guy||

    Karl Barth would probably appreciate the dark irony of our situation. A little bit of World War and a dash of Nazi regime helped cure him of the positivist drivel he'd been preaching before and got him back on the hellfire-and-brimstone lecture circuit. He could still be a pretty cheery guy, though.

  • ||

    I had to read Nickel and Dimed in college (some bullshit sociology class on "inequality", IIRC). The only thing more painful than the text was listening to my guilt-ridden prof whine/brag about his own experience slumming with the poors (he chose to live with the homeless for several months). God, that was an annoying class.

  • Jim||

    Why must you insult our academic betters?

  • mark||

    The worst part is that professors around the country get paid to teach that book and Ehrenreich gets paid for every book assigned. And students' parents pay hundreds of dollars for the class, and it reduces future earnings of the students who become disillusioned as a result. It's one big economic black hole.

  • ||

    What pisses me off about that book is the idea that she has to go undercover as one of "the poor" to see how they live. Why not, I don't know, interview some people working low wage jobs about what it's like and how they get by?

  • ||

    Because she might discover that most people learn to get by on whatever it is they make, and that what she thinks she "needs" is colored by her true economic circumstances?

    Just a thought.

  • ||

    Agreed.

    Since only an idiot with too much money thinks it is possible to "go undercover" as a poor person.

    If you know that at anytime you can walk away from being poor, then you don't understand the experience at all.

    It is like when western academics move out to live with tribes to study them and get to know them and understand the tribe and the tribes values.

    Most times they come out with a poor or distorted view of things, because it isn't the academics culture or way, the academic is just pretending.

    I can play cops and robbers or cowboys and indians with my kids all day, but that does not confer any deep understanding of any of those things on me because I did so.

  • Brian Sorgatz||

    ...and, much later, random construction workers (“Smile, baby!”).

    It's surely a mixed blessing to be a beautiful woman—especially one who doesn't conform to expectations of peppiness and perkiness. [sigh; head shake]

  • The Man||

    There's no such thing as a mixed blessing. Things always get worse; mathematically speaking worse is a strictly monotonically increasing function of time.

  • Ebeneezer Scrooge||

    Except for the present moment, when it is clearly increasing exponentially.

  • ||

    an exponential increase is monotonic, scrooge.

  • thumb's up||

    What works for me is that I have learned how to choose MY attitude, and that puts ME in charge of my life. There's nothing much in it for me if I change what is real just to please someone else. (I'm not a freakin' politician ya know!)

    That being said, I will choose to please myself. I can choose a attitude that will enhance my own sanity and/or survival. I sometimes choose pissed, sometimes cynical, and sometimes I choose grin and bear it... etc.

    In any case, I choose whatever I can that works for ME at a given moment.

    Sometimes other people like what I have chosen, sometimes they don't. So it goes. They get to choose their attitudes about me too.

  • The Man||

    You are deluding yourself. You haven't chosen your attitude, you're just cheery and pretending to be a curmudgeon from time to time. Another indication of your delusional state is your belief that you are in charge of your life---you have no idea what awaits you.

  • Barack Obama||

    I am in charge of your life, every last one of you ungrateful idiots - even the ones who voted for Me, shall feel the crush of My Holy Jackboots upon your pathetic heads.

  • Rahm Emanuel||

    Yeah, and me an' my boys in the SEIU will be doin' the head-stompin', see?

    THEN, we're gonna stick yer arm in a garbage disposal, then tell you how you'll get extra fingers when we're done. An' yer gonna like it, see?

  • ||

    Check out Dan Ariely's "Predictably Irrational". You are not necessarily in command of the decisions you "choose".

  • ||

    When she posts a mildly angry message on an Internet message board, she is chastised for her “bad attitude” and told to “get help.”

    If Babs is looking for a respite from unending optimism, she should hang out here for a while. Surely no one on H&R would be so uncouth as to make accusations of a *gasp!* bad attitude.

  • ||

    You have a surprisingly negative attitude. Are you having your period?

  • ||

    I'm optimistic about some things, pessimistic about others. Being optimistic or pessimistic about things in a way insanely contrary to the facts is, of course, silly.

  • The Art-P.O.G.||

    I can't disagree with that, Pro Lib.

  • ||

    Is that an optimistic or a pessimistic position, The Art?

  • Spock||

    The glass is neither half-full, nor half-empty; it is at fifty percent of capacity.

  • Shannon Ewing||

    I was surprised to see this somewhat supportive review of Ehrenreich's latest work in Reason. She does raise an interesting issue in the current American obsession with positivity, but she also uses this need for more pessimism as support for her argument for a larger welfare state. She contends that we got ourselves into the recession through the belief that "things will work themselves out" and we should revert to a more crisis-centric attitude in order to better support poor people. She does not acknowledge the power of believing you can pick yourself up in times of trouble, but rather in the power of government welfare and "it's not my fault" thinking. We did not arrive at our powerhouse status through our forefathers' dependency and we will not pull ourselves out of the economic quagmire we're in by waiting for Obama to wave his hand and make it all better.

  • ||

    Exactly. This is the reason that the Left is always angry and pessimistic - because we can't make it by ourselves and we have to have the government to help us out.

  • ||

    Right. Our forefathers' all had bootstraps...err slaves.

  • Dagney Taggert||

    Your just pissed about that coaches are dismissed as a joke.

  • ||

    Why label this book as "pessimism" because it challenges "optimism?" Perhaps it's call for realism...the gray area between mind-souring pessimism and mindless, cotton-candy optimism.

  • ||

    Also: mildly angry statement elicits an even milder, albeit negative, reaction? Oh noes. Shouldn't Ms. Positivity be thrilled at such a non-cheerful response?

  • The Art-P.O.G.||

    Your statement does make sense, Dagny.

  • ||

    I detest all workplace motivational morale-building team-bonding bullshit. If your workplace needs morale-building events, perhaps the resources expended on them might be better used in finding the source of low morale, and fixing it. Nine times out of ten, it's an asshole in a managerial position.

    The notion that work is inherently miserable is bullshit, and seems to come mostly from those who make work miserable for others.

    Positivity is good, but it really needs to be genuine positivity arising from actual good, rather than this inane cheer slathered over the top of misery like cheap plaster over a crumbling wall.

  • ||

    I couldn't agree more. This whole idea that perception is actually greater than reality is crap. In the workplace, it's typical HR bullshit.

  • Capitalist||

    Well, work does tend to suck; otherwise you'd be doing it for free. Getting rid of the horn-hairs in middle management probably is a good way to raise morale, but the most successful way to raise morale, so far as I know, is to slash the morale-booster budget to zero and distribute the savings to the employees as bonuses. You'd be surprised how much Special High-Intensity Training you can stand in return for a nice check for a thousand bucks in your hand.

  • ||

    I wouldn't work for free--my family needs the dues.

  • Barack Obama||

    And I need at least half of your ill-gotten income, Pro Liberate.

    For The Children, you know.

  • Joe Biden||

    Not your children of course, somebody elses's.

  • Barack Obama||

    Back to the basement with you, Joe. Thank God there's not an open microphone handy. You are SUCH a dipshit.

  • Joe Biden||

    Ah, the basement. Folks, this is where we hide when there's a terrorist attack.

  • Ebeneezer Scrooge||

    I only wish that workplace motivational morale-building team-bonding bullshit was the only BS we have to put up with today.

    Now, we are also expected to see "diversity" as our "strength". And by this "strength" we now promote increasingly incompentent assholes, ever higher up the chain, while the competent are left to rot on the lower rungs.

    All of which creates the need for even more workplace motivational morale-building team-bonding bullshit.

    But don't worry, be happy.

  • ||

    But, the competent can now whine about being victims who are left to rot on the lower rungs, thus affirming Ehrenreich's idea that everyone is a victim.

    It's all good.

  • ||

    "Her idea of a life well-lived, as she repeatedly tells us, involves storming into the world and demanding progressive political change."

    Is she serious? Jill lives a well lived life if she intrudes on Jack's life to get him to act in accordance with her wishes, instead of his own? Is she this blind to not see the serious damage that precisely this type of thinking has caused over the last century?

    Anyone who claims that the solution to our problems is to politicize them doesn't know what they are talking about.

  • The Man||

    "Jill lives a well lived life if she intrudes on Jack's life to get him to act in accordance with her wishes, instead of his own?"

    Obviously Ken you have never been married---even to a cheerful woman and most women begin marriage being fairly cheerful. It's only later that a peculiarly competitive sort of sourpussedness begins to be expressed. A kind of "Was that as bad for you as it was for me" oneupmanship that could be very unattractive. But being a sourpuss myself I can see how things could easily be worse, much worse, so it's only unattractive in a minor way.

  • anarch||

    A kind of "Was that as bad for you as it was for me" oneupmanship that could be very unattractive.


    You in New York?

  • ||

    Religion is, indeed, the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world.

    Man is the world of man—state, society. This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world.

    Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d'honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification.

    It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality.

    The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.

    Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering.

    Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.

    It is the opium of the people.

    The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness.

    To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions.

    The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.

  • ||

    Hmm. Your ideas are intriguing to me and I wish to subscribe to your newsletter.

    And if that Engels fellow has a newsletter I'll subscribe to that too.

  • Old Mexican||

    Re: Constitutu,

    What you wrote is an example of what I used to call during my college years a "mental handjob."

  • ||

    PROTIP:
    Time spent in prison does not equal college credits, liebertarian guy.

  • Old Mexican||

    Ooohhhh, nice comeback there, Constitutu.

  • ||

    You comeback was as silly and inane as your original writing.

  • ||

    Huh?

  • Old Mexican||

    Jaysea,

    It's a mental handjob - just let it be or you can get squirted.

  • The Libertarian Guy||

    Hell, crayon can't even spell. How can we expect him to have actually written the long-winded post above?

  • ||

    Rest assured TLG, crayon didn't write one line of that, he's not that articulate. I don't feel like looking it up right now, but it sounds familiar and if I am not mistaken at least part of that cut and paste job was written by Karl Marx.

  • The Libertarian Guy||

    That would not surprise me in the least, Hyperion.

  • ||

    Kill by laughter.
    Laughter is an instrument of human joy.
    Learn to use it as a weapon of destruction.
    Turn it into a sneer.
    It’s simple.
    Tell them to laugh at everything.
    Tell them that a sense of humor is an unlimited virtue.
    Don't let anything remain sacred in a man’s soul – and his soul won’t be sacred to him.
    Kill reverence and you've killed the hero in man.

  • ||

    Make man feel small.
    Make him feel guilty.
    Kill his aspiration and his integrity...

  • ||

    Very sound analysis and an excellent explanation for the permanence of religion. Western liberals may succeed in destroying christianity but people will just convert to Islam.

  • Doc Merlin||

    Spoilsport.

  • ||

    these professional cheerleaders have all but drowned out downers like “realism” and “rationality.” Their followers are trained to dismiss bad news rather than assimilate or reflect upon its importance.

    These are the people who make short-sellers rich.

  • ||

    "The most manifest sign of wisdom is continued cheerfulness". - Michel de Montaigne
    The most manifest sign of ignorance is continued happiness in the face of reality,
    and the belief the happiness is wisdom.

  • Fluffy||

    We could throw all the positivity crap overboard tomorrow if we just gave everyone a prescription to Ritalin.

    Ahhhhhhhh. Sweet, sweet Ritalin. How I miss you.

  • ||

    Crushed up and snorted methylphenidate (Ritalin) is indistinguishable from cocaine in terms of effect. Plus it's legal with a prescription (bring it on the plane with you!) and you always know it hasn't been stepped on.

    Just something to consider.

  • ||

    What a windbag of liberal bullshit. Both Ehrenreich and Howley come off as 'I am woman, hear me whine' left wing assholes, slipping in bitching about anything 'not progressive'. What a terrible article!

  • Barry Loberfeld||

    Who still takes Ehrenreich seriously — about anything? From here:

    Barbara Ehrenreich, once considered one of the few reasonable feminists left, when called upon to explain why, despite the alleged persistence of male privilege, “fewer men are going to college,” revealed that “they suspect that they can make a living just as well without a college education; in other words they still have such an advantage over women in the non-professional workforce that they don't require an education.” An intriguing theory, to say the least. Would she ever inform us that “fewer blacks are going to college” because “they suspect that they can make a living just as well without a college education; in other words they still have such an advantage over whites in the non-professional workforce that they don't require an education”? (You know, why not: If she can read the minds of young males, why not of young blacks?) And of course: When “fewer” women were going to college, was it because “they still had such an advantage over men in the non-professional workforce that they didn't require an education”? But her assertion is crazy on its face: Why would the Learned Elders of Patriarchy maintain male privilege in the non-professional workforce? Except for sports prodigies, who does better — or even “just as well” — without a college degree?
  • Old Mexican||

    Barbara Ehrenreich is nothing more than another bullshit artist that wraps herself with some appealing political ideal to purvey her bullshit, be it atheism, be it feminism.

    And as an atheist, I am offended by her ignorance and her opportunism.

  • N.O.W.||

    Misogynist!

  • Old Mexican||

    Make that PROUD misogynist, N.O.W.!

    ;-)

  • Ed||

    The writer has a very nice smile in her bio picture. What gives?

  • The Man||

    Obviously photoshopped.

  • ||

    Barbara Ehrenreich "One of my earliest memories is no more than a command: “Smile.” The directive was delivered by my father, standing over me in a church pew, definitely not smiling. I wasn’t so much a morose kid as a deeply internal one, and whatever expression I made while lost in thought lacked the cheerfulness expected of little girls."

    One of her earliest memories as a child, and she was a 'deeply internal' kid and she was 'lost in thought' as a child? I am calling BULLSHIT!

    This lady thinks way too much of herself and her pretend life. I can see her autobiography now... "I was born a serious infant female, introspective, deep, and racked with guilt over the life of our poor wretched sisters..."

  • The Man||

    I think it was Kerry that lived in the smile-free zone not Babs. And lots of us remember being told to smile (or in my case "stop frowning"). But going immediately for the negative makes you one of us, even if you do smile too much.

  • The Libertarian Guy||

    What happend to Eleanor Clift? Talk about someone who never smiled...

  • The Man||

    You have to be human to be a sourpuss, I'm afraid dear Eleanor fails that requirement. On the other hand, I'm sure that the community of unhappy weasels would welcome her in a modestly less negative manner.

  • Slap Happy Jones||

    Ehrenreich is read by educated people who think they should be running the world. Kind of like the New York Times.

    Or people who are smart, but not that smart, who have been validated by an education model which is easy to master, and requires little real intelligence to conquer.

  • ||

    I'm not surprised Ehrenreich would come out with a book against positive thinking. Her attitude was so unrelentingly self-defeating in "Bait and Switch", I cannot figure out how she got a publishing deal for books!

    Yes, obviously there is a mean between the extremes and it is suboptimal to think positively in the face of a problem and do nothing. But in my experience, far more people know they have a problem somewhere and sit around worrying about it instead of solving it. Entrepreneurs are characterized as being so positive as to be naive. What is more important, having your outlook be closer to reality or achieving more?

  • The Man||

    The true sourpuss would ask "What's worse, finding out the light at the end of the tunnel is your train or finding out you've missed your train?" You cheery types seemed to be really put off by the negativity of the sourpusses. Relax, don't take the question so seriously, there'll be a worse one along soon. The first lesson to be learned for coping with the inevitable adverse outcomes to every endeavor is to not take things so personally. The universe is out to kill all of us, not just you.

  • Paul||

    But Ehrenreich seems less worried about what positivity fans value than what they ignore. Her idea of a life well-lived, as she repeatedly tells us, involves storming into the world and demanding progressive political change.

    I'm glad you noticed. During her interview with NPR, this odyssey of hers got started when during her breast cancer ordeal, she posted a message about how angry she was that we hadn't discovered the institutional cause of breast cancer. Unfortunately, Ms. Ehrenreich, that's a form of positivity. The belief that no matter what happens to us, no matter what events unfold, we can find the cause and thus prescribe a remedy (and apply blame if possible).

    Sometimes, Babs, you just get breast cancer.

  • ||

    You cheery types seemed to be really put off by the negativity of the sourpusses.
    The Man,
    And obviously vice-versa considering the subject of the post.
    Also, the universe is not trying to kill anyone, it just doesn't care. That is an optimist view.

    As far as my view, I don't think either optimism or pessimism is necessarily better than the other when properly done. Follow whichever one (or mix) makes you happier.

  • The Man||

    You're right, optimists do believe that the universe just doesn't care. Sourpusses know that the universe is a malignant evil. Remember not too hot, not too cold, but just right "when properly done" is about as hopeful a statement as it is possible to make. You have outed yourself as an unreserved optimist. Don't deny your nature, embrace it, go for the gusto, be all that you can be, don't worry, be happy.

  • ||

    If you always expect the worst, you may occasionally be pleasantly surprised. At least you can take comfort in the knowledge you were right.

  • VikingMoose||

    *strolling on by humming*
    happy happy joy joy
    happy happy joy joy...

  • Ren||

    You feelthy bloated sack of protoplasm! How DARE you be happy??!??

  • ||

    During her interview with NPR, this odyssey of hers got started when during her breast cancer ordeal, she posted a message about how angry she was that we hadn't discovered the institutional cause of breast cancer.

    So she wasn't angry because she had breast cancer, she was angry because she couldn't figure out how to blame it on the Patriarchy.

    What a total head case.

  • ||

    My take on the global issue:

    I believe your attitudes/reactions tend to be self-reinforcing and self-fulfilling. So there's that.

  • mark||

    Agreed. And with some self-awareness, you can choose how to react to things, and take the better path. Controlling one's emotions is called maturity, for the love of God.

  • ||

    One of the cable channels did a show of her idiotic book, Nickle and Dimed. It was two hours of whining bullshit, except for five minutes of none other than Walter Williams talking about, gasp, personal responsibility. His few words described every single one of the sob stories presented to show just how damn unfair America was.

  • The Libertarian Guy||

    Walter Williams is a national treasure. We need a lot more like him.

  • qwerty||

    +1

  • Kryton||

    “Secular religion”? Argggh (string of very large exclamation marks) let's bury that oxymoron. A religion is just a religion OK?

  • Old Mexican||

    A religion is just a religion OK?

    Agreed. For instance, collectivism is a religion and not a secular religion. "Warmism" is a religion and not a secular religion. Obamanism is a religion and not a secular religion.

    And so on...

  • Ratko||

    +1

  • ||

    Libertarianism is a religion and not a secular religion.

  • Old Mexican||

    In what way, Crayon?

  • Ebeneezer Scrooge||

    To those who believe no explanation is necessary because theirs is science b'god.

  • Kryton||

    The "science" of libertarianism? I've never heard anyone use that term before. I thought it was the Marxists that rationalised atrocities the world over by claiming their ideology as rational “science” while Western Europe rolled around in self-loathing and the US in Christian mystic nonsense.

  • anarch||

    they use verbs in dumb ways (as in “God will prosper you”)

    Racist.

  • Tim2||

    I think the reason that Barbara got a reasonable hearing here is that the "positive thinking" crowd can be just as bad to progressives as it can be to libertarians; dismissing any criticisms of public policy or cultural norms as mere negativity.

    I'm smart enough to respond to rants about the patriarchy or to criticism of allegedly "conservative" economic policies of President Bush by saying that such policies were wrong; but lots of dumb people and opportunists out to defend the status quo they benefit from will just dismiss criticisms as negative, rather they come from the left wing progressive feminist perspective or the free market perspective.

    At the very least I have a better chance to have a reasonable discussion of the issues with someone like Barbara, as opposed to some uninformed soccer moms who think that if everyone just gets together and sings kumbaya the ghost of George Washington will descend on our polity and endow us with the true form of good public policy.

    Nobody likes some jerk who won't even engage you on the issues but rather just claims that the fact that you said something makes you somehow a bad person and part of the problem. Of course there is a difference between whining about your personal problems all the time and criticizing public policy, but some of the above posters seem to forget that Barbara was also talking about important political issues; and while it may make sense not to go around being a sourpuss all the time the same argument does not apply to political debate.

  • ||

    Good for you Tim.

    Allow me to introduce myself and probably draw some flame I suppose. I'm a former libertarian, now ... not quite progressive. Iconoclast, I guess. Or social libertarian/ economic progressive, or radical, or observation-driven seeker.

    One observation I'd like to make is that just as the gooey liberal chatboards seem to overflow with the icky positivity Ehrenreich takes issue with, so the libertarian and technophile chatboards seem to overflow with snark. Both snark and smarm are attitudes of course, and attitude always gets in the way of clear thinking. Both types of forum seem to have their share of question-begging and bias.

    This question-begging and bias is one reason I stopped subscribing to the paper Reason and later stopped reading Reason online: the bias and snark permeates this magazine more than some others. I was surprised to find this article here, coming from aldaily.com. It's fairly well balanced; the author maintains a reasonable perspective on Ehrenreich's main thesis without muddying the waters too much with her politics. It's refreshing to see a progressive take a stand against smarm and I'm very glad to see the sense of this thesis recognized without too much concern over the author. It's a reasonable article and Tim I think your response is the most reasonable lengthy response I've read here so far.

    Back in the early nineties, positivity wasn't so pervasive, but political correctness was definitely on the uptick. I've had the thought over the years that positivity is merely political correctness with a new name and with a broader reach, or perhaps it's the mind-set necessary for dealing with the demands of politically correct non-criticality. Would anyone disagree or have something to add? Either way, it, like pop-psych and pop-econ, is dangerous and seductive and I'm glad to see a left-right discussion on the topic.

    Best.

  • Joe||

    Fuck depressing people like Barbara Ehrenreich. I'm sick of their doom and gloom bullshit. You hate your life? Who gives a shit? Fuck off and die. I could care less. I enjoy mine most of the time and when I don't I try to make it better or at the very least get through the tough times. Keep your discontentment to yourself, you whiny little bitches. Stop ruining everything for the rest of us.

  • Ratko||

    But it makes Barbara sad to know you are enjoying your life without her making all your choices for you.

  • ||

    But, but, but....our way of life is ruined! We're now a communist country with a socialist dictator! How the fuck can you not be discontent!

  • Ratko||

    The downfall of the Third Ehrenreich came about due to serious design flaws and substandard workmanship in the construction of her shoddy foundation.

    To buy into the concepts and beliefs being sold by the Ehrenreichs of the world we must first put on blinders to prevent ordinary reality's truths from causing us to question the special reality's bullcrap they are selling us.

    If attitudes are responsible for the war and the economy it would be easy argue that the negative attitudes that help sell Anthropogenic Global Warming, devastating healthcare reform, Islamic extremism, and so on, are more logical candidates for blame than Tony Robbins meddlings.

    Whether they are smart or not doesn't amount to a lot. If the most intellectually brilliant and highly educated person in the world lacks common sense they amount to little more than an idiot made more dangerous by their illusion of credibility.

  • The Man||

    Ehrenreich, Ehrenvolk, Ehrenführer!

  • Jennifer||

    Bleah. I got the same "smile, sweetie" bullshit as a child that Kerry did, and some 40 years before either of us were born Florence King did, too. She wrote about it in her autobiography; I particularly loved her line "A pretty girl was supposed to be a melody, not a misanthrope."

  • zoltan||

    I think most women who aren't completely heinous-looking get it. I've sworn and meanly gestured at many an old and unattractive man who instructed me, a complete stranger, to smile. I just ask myself and many of my male friends--would you say that to a male complete stranger and what would you expect as a reaction if you did say such a thing to another strange man?

  • alan||

    I adore Florence King and have most of her books, but I wont share them with my lady friends because she disapproves of certain sexual acts, and we all know it only takes a stern opinion of one strong willed woman to influence any other in her vicinity. It is hard enough to make it in the world as a perve as it is.

  • ||

    Ehrenreich is really just saying that its not okay for people to think the status quo is ok, or even ...GASP! good.
    All of her bullshit disguised rhetoric about over-optimism is just a veiled diatriabe against people not being constantly outraged at the things she "knows" we should be outraged about. if you dont feel the same way, you are insanely optimistic.

  • Joe||

    Since Kerry is a fan of stark realism and telling it like it is, I will opine that she is not beautiful by any objective standard. She's not fat, not ugly and not old. She will potentially be all three in due time. Then she will really have something to be all mopey about.

  • zoltan||

    Oh no, a woman is not really beautiful in her youth and will inevitably be ugly in later life! That must be why she is so depressed!

  • The Man||

    Joe, being a sourpuss does not compel you to deny the beauty of an undeniably pretty girl. That's just sour grapes because you know she's never gonna call you. The true sourpuss is never so narrowly self-interested.

  • ||

    What an interesting mix of comments we have here, including those denouncing "LIBRULLS!"

    Anyway, it should be no surprise that a country like ours, dependent as it is on a consumer-driven economy, should be infested with sappy optimism. How else do you think SALES SALES SALES are driven?

    I thought this was a pretty well-balanced column. The author notes that, indeed, positive thinking could dig people out of some deep holes. It's not *all* bad.

  • alan||

    Oh, I see. Liberals don't deserve the castigating shit storm coming their way. If you find yourself someday against a wall being blindfolded and asked if you have any last words don't say we didn't warn you.

  • ||

    There's a radio commercial for a cancer hospital near me that plays up how wonderfully caring their staff and doctors are (and I have no doubt that they are). But the voice-over cancer survivor says "Most people think of cancer as a negative" but that their awesome care has made it "one of the best things that's ever happened to me."

    REALLY???

  • alan||

    When I got a ticket from the po po a decade ago for driving an unregistered vehicle (actually it was registered, I was punished by Raleigh for switching insurance carriers), I received literally dozens of letters from local attorneys in the mail. The letters that warned of grave and negative consequences I threw to the side because no matter what happened, I was not going to jail over the stupid shit. One letter caught my eye, the attorney explained a way to get me off the hook Scot free. I called him right away and he put his scheme in to action.

    So, I can understand why that facility advertised their services the way they did. Positive results pay off, negative ones don't.

  • ||

    And in any of the literature you received from the attorneys, was there anything meant to convince you that getting the ticket was one of the best things that ever happened to you?

  • alan||

    Human nature foils leftist agenda, what is so new about that?

    Also, my happiness is the biggest 'fuck you' I could possibly broadcast to the rest of the world, so why would I stop smiling?

  • ||

    Your Dad making you smile in Church has nothing to do with "positive thinking" ...
    Its called disipline ... he didn't think that making you smile was going to make you like church ... ever ...

    I assume the "positive thinking" she was attacking was the "self esteem" nonsense being spotted everywhere ...

    anyone who actaully looks at Tony Robbins work would argue that he doesn't not ask his students to ignore bad news or reality ... quite the opposite ...

  • ||

    The world of positivity is one of preachers, sacred books, incantations, revival meetings, and mystical teachings, all emanating from the idea that happy thoughts have the power to transform the physical world.

    Yes, the entire positivity notion is largely a secularlized equivalent of religious teaching. And Ehrenreich’s prattling is little more than third-rate, warmed-over "opiate of the masses" BS. Everyone has reason to be unhappy from time to time. Most of us grow up and recognize this as a reason to change our situation.

  • ||

    The pessimist's take on "people need to be controlled because..." is nothing new.

    I find that most libertarians are realistic, not pessimistic; while most on the far, thought-through left are pessimistic, and completely unrealistic. I guess what I'm saying is, Babs' worldview frightens the shit out of me, and I think Howley could have done more to capture the scary.

  • The Bukkainator||

    I still have positive thinking in that one day Kerry Howley will star in a Bukkake porn.

  • EscapedWestOfTheBigMuddy||

    So the same author wrote the despicable "Nickel and Dimed"?

    I've started giving copies of "Scratch Beginnings" to people who recommend that too me. The author sets out to show how Ms. Ehrenreich was simply doing it wrong: that is she showed that she couldn't pull herself up by the bootstraps. Mr. Shepard, on the other hand, could.

  • ||

    Positivity can easily be both an opiate and a spur to bad action, much as the Church has been. It can spur those with too much power(political or economic) to have the confidence to screw-up badly by not troubling themselves with nasty 'thoughts'; it can simultaneously convince those without enough that their problems are ones of their own attitudes, rather than defects of things-as-they-are which should be changed (whether you think that change is one to Libertopia, or aren't horribly wrong).

  • Roderick T. Long||

    "they use verbs in dumb ways (as in 'God will prosper you')" -- yeah, using "prosper" in that dumb way that Shakespeare and the King James Bible use it.

  • Corey F.||

    "It’s no surprise that I was first told to smile while sitting in a church pew. The world of positivity is one of preachers, sacred books, incantations, revival meetings, and mystical teachings, all emanating from the idea that happy thoughts have the power to transform the physical world."

    Not in orthodox Christianity at least. Traditional theology emphasizes the notion of contemptus mundi, that we inhabit a "vale of tears." Or, as Egeus claims in Chaucer's Knight's Tale, this world is not "but a thurghfare ful of wo,/ And we been pilgrymes, passynge to and fro" (2848-9). Joel Osteen and the prosperity Gospel do not reflect genuine Christian doctrine or belief, regardless of what you might otherwise believe. This is not, of course, to say that Christians are to be dour folk but that all things should be considered under the aspect of eternity.

  • ||

    And then there are the perpetual grouchers for whom anything short of a perfect world is cause for complaint, and who know how to fix things if only people would listen.

  • ||

    Positive thinking is what made us vote for obama. If we thought the way Ehrenreich wanted, we would have voted for McCain, certainly not for a black guy coming out of nowhere with no business experience, little government experience, associated with extreme left wing anti american types.
    Positive thinking of the kind that she derides has everything to do with liberalism, with the belief that liberal progress is natural and inevitable, that human nature is infinitely malleable, that humans have no real need to associate with others that are like us, that all "prejudices" can be taught to go away, that everything can be submitted to reason, and many other similar beliefs.
    The US is a nation of strangers. Optimism and smileyness have been emphasized from the beginning of the republic, as such qualities are needed to form bonds with those foreign to us, to live in communities with those alien to us, to cooperate with strangers with whom we have no historic bond of religion, nationality, or race. Without positive thinking there is no liberalism. There may be leftism or communism, however.

  • ||

    America's problem number one is not positivity but a plethoric dose of adjectivitis-whole flocks of adjectives. Witness this article!
    Positivity is just boosterism.

  • ||

    As someone who writes obituaries for a living, I read reviews of Barbara Ehrenreich's book after enduring a different set of daily experiences than most. Every day brings a fresh round of interviews with people who are grieving the deaths of family members or friends. In each obituary I write for The Boston Globe, I try to avoid words such as "victim" and "patient" -- which, as Kerry Howley points out in her excellent review, are frownwed upon by those in what has been called the "pink-ribbon culture" -- but I also try to avoid "battle," "fight," and "survivor." One reason is that these words have become cliches in any piece of writing about someone who is ill. Another is that none of the words are particularly precise. I base that observation on having seen friends and relatives through cancer and other terminal illnesses. "Battle," to me, lumps everyone diagnosed with cancer into one faceless army. "Survivor" or "victim" do much the same. I think one aspect of Ehrenreich's book and its arguments that has gone less noticed is that subscribing to the groupthink of relentless positivity gradually erases our individualism. Each illness, each person, is unique.

  • ||

    all part of the American denial of tragedy

  • ||

    Oddly, Florencence King has been saying the same thing for decades.

  • ||

    Yes, Florence King is a conservative and not an optimistic conservative who rejects the basic premises of liberalism.

  • ||

    If you act a bit as if you feel happy, you end up feeling happier. Telling a glum child to smile is reasonable. This doesn't mean all problems can be solved by doing this. But, it does help somewhat. I'm sorry for those of you who haven't noticed this.

  • ||

    Seneca had it right. Click here to read. http://www.city-journal.org/20.....imism.html

  • ||

    Ever notice that sourpusses can't stand for others to be happy? Go ahead and be a pessimist, studies show that you will be correct in your assesments, but those with an optimist point of view will be happier. So do you want to be happy, or right?

  • ||

    Here are two points from Howley regarding Ehrenreich's book that I think some people are missing: " Their [the positivity gurus] followers are trained to dismiss bad news rather than assimilate or reflect upon its importance." And: "Positivity’s decidedly inward focus—in which the solution to every problem lies in a mere attitudinal shift—thus seems troubling, a 'retreat from the real drama and tragedy of human events.' . . . " This is the thrust of Ehrenreich's argument, and I can testify to the pernicious affects this "philosophy" can wreak.

  • Lou Wilson||

    Choosing not to believe doesn't make you an atheist. It makes you an agnostic. Atheists choose to believe in the non-existence of the higher power of their particular choice.
    ---a fundamentalist agnostic

  • wffwe||

    Here are two points from Howley regarding Ehrenreich's book that I think some people are missing: " Their [the positivity gurus] followers are trained to dismiss bad news rather than assimilate or reflect upon its importance." And: "Positivity’s decidedly inward focus—in which the solution to every problem lies in a mere attitudinal shift—thus seems troubling, a 'retreat from the real drama replica omega and tragedy of human events.' . . . " This is the thrust of Ehrenreich's argument, and I can testify to the pernicious affects this "philosophy" can wreak.

  • abercrombie milano||

    My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I'm sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane. Even some cursory knowledge of Hebrew and doing some mathematics and logic will tell you that you really won't get the full deal by just doing regular skill english reading for those books. In other words, there's more to the books of the Bible than most will ever grasp. I'm not concerned that Mr. Crumb will go to hell or anything crazy like that! It's just that he, like many types of religionists, seems to take it literally, take it straight...the Bible's books were not written by straight laced divinity students in 3 piece suits who white wash religious beliefs as if God made them with clothes on...the Bible's books were written by people with very different mindsets...

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