Culture

It Takes a Village Atheist

Barbara Ehrenreich's jeremiad against cheerful thinking

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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.