Barbara Ehrenreich is not the kind of person you're likely to find brandishing a sign reading "When life gives you lemons, make lemonade"; you're more likely to find her picketing the vendors, demanding a more varied and tasty supply of fruit. If you're thinking of picking up any of her books, be prepared for Ehrenreich's typical trenchant and skeptical (but never cynical attitude to be applied to whatever topic she's tackling. In this case, that is the whole universe of the phenomenon known as positive thinking, which she debunks with gusto and flair.
In the past, Ehrenreich has sometimes gone out to encounter her stories; in this case, the subject for her book came to her, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer and found herself uncomfortably sharing her new world with people so eager to put a positive spin on a horrible phenomena that even women facing a terminal diagnosis were bullied into labeling themselves breast cancer "survivors", since 'victim' was simply too negative a word to be used. Dissenting from this perspective is a kind of treason, she writes, and apt to provoke the professionally-sunny tempered to suggest that she somehow earned the cancer by not being upbeat enough. More important than her personal observations and experiences, however, are the broader conclusions she draws from this experience. "The effect of all this positive thinking is to transform breast cancer into a rite of passage," she writes, "not an injustice or a tragedy to rail against but a normal marker in the life cycle, like menopause or grandmotherhood."
That's the important message of this book -- that by being relentlessly upbeat (to the point of becoming self-delusional) we miss out on what is authentic. Although neither a scientist or theologian, she is competent enough on both fronts to debunk the 'positive thinking' industry's fuzzy arguments based on quantum physics (she points out the gaping scientific flaws in the pseudo-scientific comments) and to point out how little the message of positive thinking 'pastor-preneurs' like Joel Osteen has to do with the uncomfortable core message of Christianity, which revolves around sacrifice and service to others, not wealth and feeling good about oneself. Indeed, the thread that runs throughout this book (although it's not as explicitly developed as it could have been) is that the positive thinking movement is essentially a very selfish one. Positive thinking is all about oneself: I am good at what I do, my worth will be recognized, I will receive all the wonderful things -- money, love and tangible goods -- that I desire; all with the subtext of a sense of entitlement. As Ehrenreich points out, the focus is never on others, or on broader society. "Other people are not there to be nurtured or to provide unwelcome reality checks. They are there only to nourish, praise, and affirm."
The problem with this blithe approach is that sometimes, ignoring reality can be dangerous. I became self-employed seven years ago, and know first-hand the importance of putting forward my most upbeat, can-do attitude when talking to potential employers, and the need not to be downcast when people say 'no'. On the other hand, simply being cheery, upbeat and entitled, isn't the answer, either; I need to be aware of the reasons people are saying no (it's not that I'm not upbeat enough; it may be that my skills aren't up to date or the proposal I presented didn't measure up). Ehrenreich tackles the real-world problems this attitude creates for all of us with her timely look at the impact of positive thinking as a contributor to the subprime mortgage debacle and the subsequent credit crunch; she hits the nail squarely on the head when she points out how the positive thinking-inspired sense of entitlement helped convince homebuyers or homeowners to take out mortgages that sober, realistic second thought should have told them they couldn't afford, while throughout the financial system, those providing the capital that fueled the credit bubble were equally susceptible to such magical thinking and focused on the short-term positives rather than the long-term risks.
While Ehrenreich's goal is to sound the alarm rather than provide counter-nostrums, she does urge us all, collectively, to step back and think about our lives and the society in which we live in realistic rather than idealistically selfish ways. She emphasizes the importance of critical thinking, which requires skepticism, and points out that most human advancement stems from that; at the same time, she makes a plea for us to step back from focusing on ourselves and what we want to our society and what it needs.
This is more uneven than some of Ehrenreich's books. At its best -- when she is making careful and well-reasoned points about the need to be realistic rather than draw smiley faces all the time -- this is an excellent book. (Do we really want airplane pilots who fail to plan for what might go wrong because that would be negative thinking? She doesn't mention Sully Sullenberger's name, but it's hard to escape the analogy.) She also points out the extent to which Americans delude themselves about their real position, and what that means, and introduces some data points likely to shock anyone willing to pay attention, such as the fact that while we prize the ideal of social mobility and assume (positive thinking at work again!) that it's there for us to grab if only we work hard enough at it, the French, the Scandinavians, the Germans and the Canadians are all more likely in fact to move upward from their socio-economic position at birth than we are. I would have been more impressed with the book, however, had Ehrenreich been able to distinguish between those who want to wear blinkers to screen out unpleasant realities and those who simply want a return to civility in public discourse. (After finishing this, I ran an errand and watched as someone bumped into another person on the sidewalk, and turned and verbally abused the person he had just nearly knocked over, screaming and shouting -- and this was a well-dressed individual.) Those who would like a civil 'civil society' may use some of the same language, but they're not advocating 'positive thinking' at all costs, just good manners.
In some cases, the arguments repeat those Ehrenreich has made in her previous books, notably the excellent Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, in which Ehrenreich spent many months living exactly the same lives as America's working poor, doing the same jobs they do and trying to make ends meet without s safety net. That stands as her tour de force for me, since she reported the lives led by people on the margins not as an outsider looking in, but as someone living that experience herself -- it's a five-star book that Ehrenreich draws on heavily for those parts of Bright-Sided that deal with job losses, employment laws, etc.
The various strands that make up this book -- the positive-thinking brand of Christianity, the wishful thinking in the subprime meltdown, etc. -- are none of them new or surprising to anyone who has been keeping up with essay-length articles in publications like the Atlantic, Harper's or The New York Times Magazine (among others). What Ehrenreich does here is pull those strands together and provide a framework for thinking about them as part of a trend that may be dangerous to our society in the long run. I'd recommend this to anyone as an intriguing read, although I strongly suspect that few of those she's hoping to reach will listen. They are more likely to criticize her for not thinking positively about the world -- if she did, I can almost hear them say, society would be so much better...