Jessica Rettig

Ever get sick of people telling you to cheer up and think more positively? Author and commentator Barbara Ehrenreich sympathizes in her book Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. Bombarded by everything from self-help guides to motivational speakers, Americans are dangerously overwhelmed with messages of positive thinking, so much so that they have stopped being realistic about the world around them, argues Ehrenreich, author of the best-selling Nickel and Dimed. She recently chatted with U.S. News about the business of motivation, how optimism contributed to the recession, and why Americans should remove their rose-colored glasses. Excerpts:

Your book argues against positive thinking. Does that mean you don't think Americans should be happy?

No [laughing]. Happiness is another matter altogether. Positive thinking is a specific kind of ideology which says you have to act cheerful and optimistic and upbeat -- no matter how you're feeling -- if you want to get along in the world. And I think that is very, very different from happiness, joy, bliss, and those things.

The book discusses the country's roots in Calvinism. How did the culture transform to such a different stance now?

Calvinism was pretty harsh. The message was that we are all wretched sinners, doomed, probably, to eternal torment and hell. And there were some interesting independent thinkers . . . who rejected this Calvinistic notion and said, you know, "No, God doesn't hate us, and the world is more bountiful than you think." They just gave us a more upbeat response, which I think was good and necessary at the time. But by the 20th century, this had kind of mutated into a thing about how you could achieve success in financial matters or career things.

What is the business of motivation?

That's what corporations tried to do with the human-relations side of downsizing. The corporations themselves became a big market for the self-help books and the motivational speakers and other products. Before that, of course, there was always a market, but more from individuals.

Is the positive thinking of today more a secular or religious idea?

It's both. There are completely secular versions of it which will talk about the universe and how the universe is a big mail-order department waiting for our orders. And then the religious version -- which has really taken over evangelical Christianity -- is that God is the intermediary, that God wants you to be rich, God wants you to have a larger house. And you enlist him as a sort of personal assistant to get you those things you want.

How did positive thinking contribute to the financial meltdown?

Well, I don't think it's the only contribution by any means. But it's very clear to me that one of the things that was going on was that corporate decision makers were living in a bubble of forced optimism. That was the corporate culture by 2005 or 2006 or certainly even before that. From what I can gather from interviewing insiders -- corporate and Wall Street and finance industry insiders -- to be too negative was to risk being fired. You do not want to be the bearer of bad news. You do not want to be the one who says, "This business plan is going to get us in big trouble."

You talk about George W. Bush, the cheerleader. How was his positive thinking detrimental to the nation?

There are so many examples, but I think the big one was Iraq. We all remember the optimistic predictions of what would happen when the American troops went into Iraq, the cakewalk idea. And Condoleezza Rice told Bob Woodward that she occasionally wanted to raise some questions or doubts . . . but she was afraid to because the president hated "pessimists."

Why do you link the government's optimism to events like 9/11?

What was going on in the summer of 2001 as they got the information -- you know, reasonable intelligence -- that one, airplanes could be used as weapons against buildings, and two, that there were guys going to flight school who wanted to fly but not land airplanes? Somehow nobody got concerned. So, I think that is an example of "bright-siding." When there's a lot at stake, you have to think of the worst possibility, the worst-case scenario.

Has Obama's presidency shown that he has been bright-sided?

Well, for the most part, I'm very impressed by him as a thoughtful person who takes in all sides of an issue. When he was talking about hope all the time -- that didn't go down too well with me. I don't want to hear about a politician's hope; I want to hear about his plans. But I'm pleased, though, that he seems to be in the so-called reality- based community. You remember Karl Rove putting down journalists for being in the reality-based community. Well, I thank God we have a president who is a member of that little subculture.

You say that positive thinking has been a tool of political repression and social control. How has that happened in the United States?

When you tell people, you know, it's really not a bad thing to be laid off. It's really a great opportunity, and whatever happens to them is because of their attitude anyway. And if whiners and complainers are despicable, that helps smooth out any kind of defense there might be about those kinds of policies.

What is the alternative to positive thinking?

The alternative is, radically enough, realism -- trying to figure out what is actually going on and what threats there are in a situation and how we're going to get together and overcome them.

How can Americans change their mind-set?

Well, the easiest thing in the world -- it's not that difficult -- is to not put the effort into positive thinking. Positive thinking is work. If you read any of the self-help books, you'll see all the things you're supposed to be doing -- reciting affirmations every morning, creating a vision board where you put pictures of the things that you want, like a boat and a bigger house. I'm just saying, "Hey, put the burden down." Stop trying to pump yourself up. There are sources of real joy in the world, and this is not one of them.

Available at Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America






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