Perils of Positive Thinking: Author Ehrenreich Points out the Negative Influence of the Constantly Upbeat

I saw author Barbara Ehrenreich speak on Friday about her newest book, Bright Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. In Ehrenreich’s view, the opposite of positive is realist.   She notes that acknowledging that life isn’t always super-keen is not the same as being a sourpuss, which certainly seems reasonable. I first encountered Ehrenreich’s work through her 2001 book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, which described the author’s personal journey through a series of minimum-wage jobs. Her anger at the injustices and indignities born by the women she worked with made for a book more powerful than any happy-faced Hallmark card. By not “looking on the bright side” of the plight of the working poor, the author made a powerful case for positive change.

To Ehrenreich, being consistently upbeat and optimistic has two downsides.  By refusing to look at potential negative consequences, we can delude ourselves about the harmfulness of our actions.  She gave as an example the real estate bubble, where the delusion that housing prices can only go up ruled many decisions….and we all know where that got us.  A second downside to positive thinking is the potentially cruel burden it can impose; for instance, expecting someone who is ill to be relentlessly cheerful in the face of difficulty only adds to the pain and suffering.

Has positive thinking been abused? For sure. The author focuses on certain “prosperity gospel” churches that promote getting wealthy by thinking about money (and by tithing copiously.)  She points to the bestselling book The Secret, along with fanatically upbeat books promoting business success,  which claim that by sending positive thoughts out into the universe, you will attract the good things (like wealth or a cute husband) to you. Ehrenreich rails against these delusionary tactics, blaming them for the misery of the economic meltdown, as individuals overreached their means in the belief that their thoughts would ensure prosperity and corporate CEOs banned naysayers from their staffs.

The most moving and personal example Ehrenreich gave of the abusive power of positive thinking came when she recounted her experience with breast cancer, and the relentless pressure she felt to be constantly upbeat and positive in the face of a challenging and awful situation. She attacked the “pink and pretty” products (the teddy bears, jewelry and cosmetics) that grew up around breast cancer treatment and community efforts.  Ehrenreich views this as “infantilzing” women, and while perhaps over-stated, her words remind us that not everyone reacts favorably to relentless good cheer.

Breast Cancer Action Executive Director Barbara Brenner was in the audience on Friday, and Barbara Ehrenreich acknowledged her organization’s work.  Ms. Brenner made some clear and impassioned comments about how breast cancer was being exploited by certain American corporations.  She used the term Pink-washing to describe certain corporations’ support of “pink ribbon” campaigns, all while purveying products that contain potentially cancer-causing ingredients.

Breast Cancer Action’s motto is “Challenging Assumptions. Inspiring Change.”  How fortunate we are to have brave women challenging the assumptions around positive thinking and around dealing with disease.  Questioning the status quo, whether it be of positive attitudes or corporate relations, is the best way to inspire change.

Amy Goodman of Democracy Now interviews Barbara Ehrenreich here:

October is Breast Cancer Awareness month. Learn more:

Photo: Amani Hasan via Flickr; Creative Commons license


John W.
John W9 years ago

Reality?--------- Positive thinking? Bah! Grow up, open your eyes, your minds and your hearts and learn about the world outside our cosy, wealthy, privileged and misinformed continent of North America.
I am appending below, a link to a movie that has had an enormous impact on my own knowledge and thinking.
It's rather long. But it's completely free. And I CHALLENGE you one and all, to watch it through to it's end!

Tamara A.
Tamara A9 years ago

Oh, John. Maybe you (and Dorothy and I) need one of these puppies:

You VILL smile und be HAPPY und you VILL ENCHOY IT!

Meanwhile, I'm sorry to hear about your situation and hope it gets better.

Tamara A.
Tamara A9 years ago

Right. So our thoughts can turn the sea into lemonade, as one French philosopher suggested. But what if our thinking's off, and the sea is salt water for a good reason? Our thinking and acting on what we thought had to be done, has gotten us into a real mess more than once.

Who defines "problems"? What about manufactured problems, like some surgeons a couple of decades ago who pulled some word out of their RDB for being small-breasted--and said it was a medical condition that needed treatment? What about some ignorant vermin who thinks my not wearing a head-to-toe slipcover is a problem?

And what happens when the cure for something that really is a problem turns out as bad as the problem was? I really love those antidepressant ads warning about suicide as a side-effect. (??!) As someone who's taken planning classes, I have 2 words for you: urban "renewal". Let me recommend Robert Hughes' _Shock of the New_, chapter on "utopia".

I'd still rather be pleasantly surprised if this (unwarranted in many cases) optimism is right, than unpleasantly surprised if things don't come out as I'd hoped. Again: expect the worst, but hope for the best. The worst you can do is be wrong and pleasantly surprised. If you think you're going to make things Happy Ever After, though, and turn out to be wrong, you _are_ in deep doo-doo.

Cheryl E.
Cheryl E9 years ago

There is a difference between positive thinking and dilusional thinking. Those of us who better understand the power of positive thinking and positive intention, understand that in order to make positive change, we must first recognize the need for change. It is not pessimistic to recognize a problem, nor is it delusional to believe in a positive solution to that problem. Science is already proving the power of positive intention/positive thinking and Ms. Ehrenreich, along with the rest of the human population, will eventually be pleasantly surprised at the power of our thoughts.

Anne M.
Anne Molinas9 years ago

What's a realist? What is reality? And who gets to define it? Every moment is changing and we perceive it as positive or negative or both or neither depending an a myriad of influences. We don't need to choose from extremes, viewing the world through rose-colored glasses or understanding the "cold, hard reality". One can be socially aware, deal with problems that arise, even overcome devastating circumstances and be at peace, free from bitterness, anger and the need to lash out at what is around them. That is what I consider positive.

John C.
John C9 years ago

It is a shame so many folks here do not get what this author is talking about, and all because she wrote ONE thing you are all focusing on. This is how people get run down in the middle of the road in large groups. "what's that?" "I don't know!" and then a few more folks follow suit until a large group gathers beholding the strange looking bespeckled cat feces that fell from the apartment above. Watch out for that truck... Oops!
As someone who was injured badly in 2007, the year I was finally meeting the people I needed to get my little contracting business going to where I might actually make a living and even employ a couple of people. Instead, I lost my life savings @ .40 on the dollar, lost my chance to put a down on a teensy piece of property to build a small cottage and maybe finally create a family, the GF left because I didn't have any more money, I have to leave the island where I live, so all my friends, support network family etc will be gone, I have nothing. Ya know the crap I get to listen to?
" Lucky your girlfriend left because now you know who she really is, lucky you had that money, lucky you have your health (I don't and still have not been able to work), well, you were lucky you got to be there while you did" "Look at the bright side" "things happen for a reason, something good MUST be right around the corner". There is nothing around the corner and I am now a chronic pain patient.
Chin up, positive thinking...
I'll take the realist rather than the BS

Dorothy L.
Dorothy L.9 years ago

While I wouldn't discard positive thinking altogether, the author is right that our culture has been on a positive thinking overload. As a teacher in a difficult school where many children did not make minimum passing scores on standardized tests and disrespect of authority and rules reigned, I could never get over how I was chided for being negative because I once suggested to an administrator that the noise level in our hallways was inappropriate and needed improvement. Or being taught how a teacher should say "Your attention please" in an even-tempered voice instead of a firm "Be quiet" to get a class's attention, when sometimes the latter was what kids need to hear when they are unruly.
Sometimes you have to call it like it is--but some school administrators, like the corporate leaders Ehrenreich discusses, are really out of balance from drinking a lot of positive thinking Kool-Aid.

Tamara A.
Tamara A9 years ago

We'll leave it at that and say you have some very different definition of "positive thinking" than what I (and many other people) associate it with: expecting that everything will be Happy Ever After, firmly convinced that this world is a Sunday breakfast buffet full of omelettes made w/o breaking eggs. Or refusing to call a spade a spade and acknowledging that the light at the end of the tunnel just _might_ be a train (and since we know that, we can BE PREPARED if that's true). Or believing in single cure-alls/magic bullets for complex problems. If you _can't_ explain it, then don't (though I _am_ kinda curious).

BTW, I AM an American, but DON'T "fall for anything". And I know a lot of others who won't, either.

sandra d.
sandra d9 years ago

Sorry, they are not optimists at all--they are cold, calculating, amoral brutes who couldn't care less about the Iraqi people or anyone else for that matter. Cheney, Rumsfeld, et al had been wanting to invade Iraq since the first Gulf War. All they were after was the oil and control of that region. Having gotten control of Iraq would mean it would be quite easy to take over the other small countries. Iran would be the only problem, but eventually as the other countries fell, Iran would do so eventually. The "smokescreen" for the American people was that the Iraqis would welcome us with open arms. That doesn't mean Cheney, et al really believed that. They knew they would be able to easily sell this "line" to the American people, who will basically fall for anything, like Sadaam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, when Cheney, et al knew he didn't. It's a shame that people are misconstruing what positive thinking is. It is not at all what they are arguing against, but it is too tiring to try to explain it to people who simply don't get it, and who don't want to. So be it. Each to their own.

Tamara A.
Tamara A9 years ago

No, they were cockeyed (emphasis on cockeyed) optimists. Bush and a lot of people sent to Iraq were confident we'd be welcomed with flowers and candy and didn't think of what happened before to set the stage--or prepare for what could really happen after the 2nd time around.

Hopefully, things will get better there with a change in foreign policy here...but I still think that being too optimistic falls in line with the old saying about insanity: doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.