I’d seen this book kicking around a lot of different places. I’m not sure when it was written, but it seems to come up a lot, discussed briefly in other books, seen on the shelf at the used bookstore, mentioned briefly in conversation. I finally borrowed a copy to read it for myself. Ehrenreich is best known for the book Nickel and Dimed, about how the working class gets screwed in this country. (I don’t think I’ve read it, but it’s another one of those books that seems to come up a lot so maybe I ought to.) Judging by this book, and what I know of that book, Ehrenreich may be one of the most cynical writers in America.
But maybe cynicism is what we need. After all, who else has even dared to take a critical look at the positive thinking movement? It’s absolutely unquestioned. Ehrenreich’s own experiences with breast cancer and the number of people who insisted that her health or death would hinge entirely on her emotional outlook made me grit my teeth in sympathy. The worst side of positive thinking is absolutely awful; it’s a kind of “blame the victim” mentality that ignores real-world action in exchange for wishful make-believe. Telling someone they got cancer because they weren’t thinking the right thoughts is not just fatuous, it’s wicked. The other thing I dislike about it (which Ehrenreich seems to agree with) is how much self-deception this movement involves. You’re basically lying to yourself, telling yourself that things are great even when they aren’t. No one likes to be lied to. The truth is that mildly depressed people see the world more accurately. Mildly anxious people respond faster to dangerous stimuli. Cynical people are more able to call shenanigans on unfounded pseudoscience, such as the idea that you can wish something into being just by pretending it will happen.
I think you’ll find more people in this country who disbelieve in God than people who disbelieve that positive thinking is crucial for success and/or health of any kind. But even the truth can get annoying. This book got tedious about halfway through. Yes, positive thinking has got a lot of silly woo-woo BS surrounding it. Yes, evangelist types use it to make themselves lots of money. Yes, corporate America’s optimistic myopia got people into massive economic trouble just a few years ago, but that could just as easily be attributed to the manic greed and idiocy that always accompanies bubble economies from tulips to railroad stock to muskrat money or what have you. After a while I got tired of the cynicism, it was like having dinner with a militant atheist, who kept reminding you that you didn’t really have a soul and that everyone would cease to exist when they died. Yes, I get. Fido isn’t in heaven, Grandma doesn’t know we’re at her grave, and Santa isn’t real either. Now can we let it drop? You’re sucking the life out of the room.
Because here’s what positive thinking can do, if you don’t overdo it: it can make you happier. Thinking things are probably going to turn out okay makes you worry less. Trying to have a sunny outlook makes you more likeable and fun to be around. And yes, I know that writing my wish to be a bestselling author on a slip of paper and tying it to a tree will probably not result in my wish coming true, but your lottery ticket isn’t going to pay out millions either. So what? It’s mostly harmless, and occasionally does a lot of good.
I’m really glad that America has Barbara Ehrenreich, because we need cynics and skeptics. I’m glad that she decided to douse cold water on some of the “Secret” type crap that gets out of hand. But there really wasn’t enough here to convince me that positive thinking is undermining America. The history of the positive thinking movement was mildly interesting, but her arguments against it don’t hold. Whether you think tomorrow will be sunny or whether you think tomorrow will be rainy doesn’t really have any affect on the outcome, so what’s the harm in a little optimism? Just remember to pack your umbrella.