The chapter on corporate culture is the linchpin of Bright-Sided, because it perfectly encapsulates Ehrenreich’s real problem with positive thinking: not just its misguided optimism, but its relentless focus on the lone individual. Indeed, Ehrenreich’s ultimate quarrel seems really to be with American individualism itself, and the notion that success and failure are largely the result of individual effort rather than social circumstance or luck. For the author, individualism is pernicious because it blinds people to the need for social transformation, while eroding the possibility of solidarity and turning us into social isolatos. Even if you could use positive thinking to make your personal dreams into reality, she writes, you’d still be in a “God-awful lonely place.” On top of that, Ehrenreich disdains the individualist notion that the self is something you must constantly work on and try to improve. Instead of laboring so hard to change ourselves, she argues, we should be laboring to change the world.
This critique of individualism, though buried to a certain extent, gives Bright-Sided much of its oomph. At the same time, it raises certain questions about Ehrenreich’s thesis, including her insistence that positive thinking has “undermined America.” To begin with, while the peculiar Osteen/Robbins variant of positive thinking may be new, the American emphasis on the individual over the social and on the virtues of self-reliance and optimism are old, dating back at the very least to the Founding Fathers. One could argue, I suppose, that this Emersonian ethos has been undermining America for the last two centuries. But then it’s a bit hard to explain the enormous growth in the country’s prosperity over that time.
Let’s say we narrow the argument and stipulate that what is undermining America is the contemporary variant: magical individualism. Even then, it’s hard to know just how dominant positive thinking, as opposed to the broader individualist ethos, has become in American culture. To be sure, The Secret was a very popular book, and motivational speakers like Tony Robbins are hugely successful. Still, it’s a big leap from those facts to the assertion that many (let alone most) Americans subscribe to a smiley-face strain of positive thinking. And Bright-Sided doesn’t really help us answer this question, because it’s thin on the documentation side, citing very little polling data or longitudinal studies of people’s attitudes. That’s not shocking—the book is ultimately a work of cultural criticism. But to the extent that Ehrenreich is trying to make broader claims about the impact of these ideas, it would be nice to have some hard evidence that Americans have been blinded to the real troubles around them by the fetish of positive thinking.
It would also help, in that regard, to have a clearer sense of the difference between optimism and positive thinking. Ehrenreich’s target in the book is supposed to be the ideology of “thinking will make it so.” But at times, and especially toward the end of the book, it seems clear that her frustration is not just with those who think that mind can conquer matter, but also with optimism more generally—at least optimism about the workings of the market economy or, for that matter, the modern world. What we really need, Ehrenreich argues, is “vigilant realism,” avoiding the extremes of both positive thinking and depressive gloom. The goal is “to try to get outside of ourselves and see things ‘as they are’ or as uncolored as possible by our own feelings and fantasies, to understand that the world is full of both danger and opportunity—the chance of great happiness as well as the certainty of death.”
This is eminently reasonable and impossible to disagree with. The recent housing bubble, for instance, was undoubtedly caused by an excess of optimism. Had we had some vigilant realists running our country’s banks, we would all be much better off today. The problem is that Ehrenreich doesn’t really do much to clarify the difference between realism and depression, or realism and Pollyanaism. Instead, she just declares herself a realist, and in doing so presents her judgments about the state of the world as in some sense value-neutral. Yet clearly the bleakness with which she views the modern world has as much to do with her politics and values as it does with reality.