Glass Half Full?

Two new books with clashing takes on American optimism
November 17, 2009

Given the generally grim mood of the American public these days, it might seem like an odd time for Barbara Ehrenreich to publish a book called Bright-Sided, in which she levels both barrels at the American propensity for positive thinking. After all, with the economy still inching back from the brink of catastrophe and unemployment near double digits, doomsayers have never been more in vogue. Far from anticipating the next boom, most Americans seem wary of looking beyond their next paycheck. If anything, some argue, what we need now is a dose of hopefulness.

From Ehrenreich’s perspective, though, our current bout of pessimism is at best a long-delayed confrontation with reality. For decades now, more and more Americans have insisted on looking only on the bright side of things. And that kind of pathological optimism, argues the author, is one of the biggest reasons why we find ourselves in our current mess, and why it’s going to be so hard to get out of it in a sustainable fashion. If we seemed to walk into this financial crisis in a confused daze, Ehrenreich insists, it’s because positive thinking has become the opium of the American masses.

“Positive thinking,” in Ehrenreich’s formulation, is more than just motivational mush. It is a specific ideology with a couple of key elements. First, it encourages people to believe that, on the whole, things are pretty good and that they’re getting better all the time. On top of this generic optimism, though, positive thinking adds a crucial ingredient: the faith that “if you expect things to get better, they will.”

In other words, positive thinking emphasizes the individual’s power over circumstance. According to this supremely irrational creed, people’s thoughts can literally shape the world around them: “Negative thoughts somehow produce negative outcomes, while positive thoughts realize themselves in the form of health, prosperity, and success.” This is the world of books like The Secret, of evangelical preachers like Joel Osteen and motivational maestros like Tony Robbins, a world in which thinking makes it so. The problem is that to be a truly successful positive thinker, it isn’t enough to be optimistic in the face of difficulty. You have to go further than that: you need to deny that the difficulties exist, blocking out bad thoughts and focusing only on the good.

There’s a longstanding strain of positive thinking in American culture, which Ehrenreich dates back to the mid-nineteenth century and what was called the New Thought movement (which gave rise, among other things, to Christian Science). In the twentieth century, a similar philosophy flourished in the hands of popularizers like Dale Carnegie and Norman Vincent Peale, whose promises of personal success through glad-handing and an upbeat attitude captivated millions. But it’s really in recent decades, Ehrenreich contends, that positive thinking has moved from the margins to the mainstream, becoming an indispensable part of the workings of the U.S. economy, and fundamental to the way myriad Americans experience the world.

The heart of Bright-Sided lies in that intersection between the cult of positive thinking and the American capitalist system. But the author begins her book in a very different place: namely, among cancer patients.

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In 2000, Ehrenreich was diagnosed with breast cancer. And during the years she spent battling the disease, she discovered something curious: the support groups and online communities that exist to help cancer patients seemed to have little tolerance for anger, fear, or doubt. Instead, people were almost militantly positive, unwilling to focus on anything but the prospect of getting better. A handful even expressed gratitude that they had been stricken with the disease, because of the way it had changed them. This might look like the stiff upper lip in action: Why complain if it won’t do any good? But Ehrenreich argues that what these people were really engaged in was a form of magical thinking. They had convinced themselves that if they adopted the right attitude, they would be able to defeat the disease.

As the author sees it, the problem with this approach is not simply that it’s delusional (while there is evidence that things like stress can adversely affect the immune system, there’s no convincing proof that attitude makes a material difference to cancer outcomes). It also discourages patients from asking questions about the efficacy of conventional treatments, and fosters an unwillingness to consider the very sort of environmental factors that may be responsible for the startling jump in the percentage of American women with breast cancer. Paradoxically, it made people more passive, not less, in the face of their disease.

In some respects, opening the book with this chapter feels jarring, because so much of what these cancer patients are doing can be understood (and empathized with) as literally whistling past the graveyard. It’s hard to avoid the sense that most sick people cling to positive thinking not because they really believe it will work, but because they have nothing else to hold onto. But in fact, the role that positive thinking plays among cancer patients ends up providing a template for Ehrenreich’s broader critique of American culture. Time and again, she argues, objectively bad circumstances are imposed on people from without, circumstances that most are ill-equipped to deal with on their own. And instead of working with others to come up with collective solutions to their problems, people cast about for magical answers.

The author spends much of Bright-Sided eviscerating the flapdoodle spread by books like The Secret and by the so-called personal coaching industry, which have turned the perfectly useful sports technique of visualization into an imaginary recipe for personal success. In many cases, mantras are the primary teaching tool. “Ask, believe, and receive,” commands one. “Name it and claim it,” chimes another. These messages, Ehrenreich points out, are essentially traditional folk magic, dressed up in pseudo-scientific language (some advocates invoke the power of magnetism or quantum physics to explain how an individual can literally shape the universe to her wishes). Yet millions of Americans who would be wary of someone claiming to be Gandalf the Grey have happily embraced The Secret.

In a similar vein, Ehrenreich traces the discomfiting rise of enormously successful preachers whose primary emphasis is not the need for spiritual redemption but rather the enormous temporal rewards that Christianity supposedly promises true believers. Of course, Christians have always believed that God can intervene in the material world—that prayers may be answered. But preachers like Osteen have taken that idea to new and literal heights. “You will produce what you’re continually seeing in your mind,” Osteen writes, while suggesting that God can help you find a parking space or get a seat in a crowded restaurant.

As these examples suggest, most of Ehrenreich’s subjects in Bright-Sided are proverbial fish in the barrel. And since it’s clear from the start that she has absolutely no patience for positive thinking, there are no real surprises in store. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing: Bright-Sided is a polemic, after all. But in part because her targets are so obvious and self-indicting, Ehrenreich’s cultural analysis is often less illuminating here than in her earlier work like The Hearts of Men.

There are, happily, some exceptions. The most convincing and powerful chapter in the book traces the relationship between changes in the workplace and the boom in the ideology of positive thinking in the corporate world. Over the last thirty years, we’ve seen the breakdown of the traditional corporation, the erosion of the old compact between companies and workers, and the vitiation of unions—all of which have put enormous pressure on individual workers, who are now forced to think of themselves (and market themselves) as free agents. The rhetoric of positive thinking, though, turns this minus into a plus. Hence the profusion of motivational gurus declaring that “job loss presented an opportunity for self-transformation, that a new batch of ‘winners’ would emerge from the turmoil.”

For some people, that scenario may hold true. For many others, the new world of work has meant less money, less stability, and frightening uncertainty. In either case, though, the ideology of positive thinking makes people feel completely responsible for their own failure or success. In doing so, it draws attention away from the structural changes that have made the American economy a more volatile, less secure place for ordinary workers. This isn’t to say that attitude can’t make a difference. But millions of manufacturing workers haven’t lost their jobs over the last thirty years because of a lack of positive thinking.

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.

Consider, for instance, Gregg Easterbrook’s Sonic Boom. Easterbrook’s take on the world is almost directly opposed to Ehrenreich’s in two crucial ways. First, far from suggesting that we’re deluged by positive thinking, he argues that the public reaction to the dramatic economic and social changes of recent decades has been overly negative. Second, he argues that, on the whole, these changes have been for the better. “The larger context of recent generations has been persistent focus on the negative, with little heed paid to the positive,” Easterbrook writes. “To achieve perspective, both positive and negative must be considered. There’s an ample supply of negative. Yet most underlying global forces have been mainly good in recent decades.” Ehrenreich, by contrast, asserts exactly the opposite: “Has the human outlook really been improving over time? For affluent individuals in peaceful settings, decidedly yes, but our overall situation is as perilous as it has ever been.”

Yes, they both live on the same planet, and yes, they both have evidence to back up their claims. Ehrenreich points to global warming, the potential arrival of peak oil, the extinction of species, and the persistence of poverty as proof that things have not been getting any better. Easterbrook points to the fact that the percentage of the world’s population living in absolute poverty has dropped sharply in recent years, with hundreds of millions of people in China and India making their way into the middle class. Democracy is spreading across the world. There are actually fewer wars, not more. In the developed countries, the air and water are cleaner than they’ve been in many decades, and in the U.S., life expectancy, education levels, environmental quality, and personal freedom have all continued to increase. He concedes that the changes wrought by globalization and new technologies have come at a cost—increased anxiety and volatility, and less security for people in the developed world. But if you look at the global picture, on balance, he argues, these changes have been for the better.

You can make your own judgment as to whose picture of the world is more convincing (certainly Easterbrook is sailing into a stiff wind, given the current state of the world economy). The important point is that Easterbrook’s argument in this book, like Ehrenreich’s, can plausibly be thought of as realist. He’s not a positive thinker in the “wishing makes it so” sense. He spends a good deal of time in Sonic Boom on the downside of societal change, and on the need for policy to deal with it. And his disagreements with Ehrenreich don’t stem from a belief in mind over matter. Instead, they reflect profound differences of opinion about how one should evaluate social outcomes, and balance improvements in one area of life against declines in others. And those are not differences that an appeal to “realism” can resolve.

In that sense, Ehrenreich overplays her hand. Bright-Sided ultimately seems to suggest that optimism itself is a kind of false consciousness, which keeps Americans from seeing the grimness of their situation and the need to collectively change it. But while the author is right to inveigh against magical claptrap, it’s far from clear that if Americans do abandon their penchant for positive thinking, they’re going to adopt Ehrenreich’s dark view of, say, the nature of capitalism. After all, you can enjoy her demolition of the positive thinkers, and believe that motivational speakers are purveyors of nonsense, and still be an optimist. Sometimes, at least, realism is in the eye of the beholder.

James Surowiecki is a staff writer at The New Yorker and the author of The Wisdom of Crowds.