From Oprah to New Age philosophy, ‘positive thinking’ has become a hugely influential movement in business circles, the religious sphere, in pop medicine, and elsewhere. In Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, Barbara Ehrenreich makes the case that the movement is poorly thought out and damaging. Her arguments are convincing, especially when it comes to situations where positive thinking is used to blame the victim when they suffer as the result of developments beyond their control: be it the movement towards corporate downsizing (which corresponded with the rise of motivational speakers in the workplace) or the unjustified assertion that cancer patients are responsible for their own worsening or recovery, on the basis of the mental attitudes they maintain.
Ehrenreich highlights how relentless optimism leads to dangerous groupthink, in which risks are downplayed and those who raise legitimate worries are sidelined. She provides ample evidence that these factors played a role in the inflation of the global house price bubble, and have continued to have important economic and political effects. These include the weird state of deluded isolation in which society’s richest people now reside. She also spends considerable time discussing the warped theology in which god is seen as a sort of mail-order service, happy to send you whatever good things (houses, cars, promotions) you are able to ‘manifest’ for yourself, simply by fervently desiring them.
Positive thinking involves a weird reversal, when it comes to dealing with risks. They cease to be external (concern that your company might fire you to improve their short-term profitability) and become entirely internal (fears about what your state of mind might do to you). It is also tied fundamentally to the notion that happiness is not most important in itself, but rather insofar as it influences events: “Nothing underscores the lingering Calvinism of positive psychology more than this need to put happiness to work – as a means to health and achievement, or what the positive thinkers call ‘success.'” The former tendency puts people in danger of worrying about the wrong things, while the latter strategy puts them at risk of seeking to achieve particular outcomes in nonsensical ways. That is especially dangerous when it comes to making big purchases on credit, firm in your belief that the universe will provide you with the means of dealing with it later.
Ehrenreich’s points are well-taken, though the book can be a bit tedious to read at times. There are also some partial contradictions. It is repeatedly asserted that there is no medical evidence that thinking positively improves health outcomes, yet it is taken as plausible that George Beecher was able to speed his demise through negative thinking. In the course of her analysis on the medical evidence, Ehrenreich claims to be “not in a position to evaluate” evidence that those with a positive outlook may have some protection against heart disease, but is seemingly happy to evaluate research on other illnesses that confirms her hypothesis.
All told, Ehrenreich makes important points about the poisonous institutional culture that accompanies an excessive focus on positivism – and the view that individuals are almost entirely responsible for what happens to them. Her concluding call for ‘realistic’ thinking is certainly appropriate enough, though perhaps she does not go far enough in suggesting how the empire of positive thinking she has mapped the outlines of might be deconstructed. As the world continues to grapple with real problems, magical thinking cannot be a substitute for dispassionate analysis, risk management, and contingency planning. How we get from our world to one more like that, however, remains mysterious.