“Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America” is a book by Barbara Ehrenreich, a honorary co-chair of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), the largest left-wing organization in the United States. (The Swedish translation has the title “Gilla läget: Hur allt gick åt helvete med positivt tänkande” – which in English would be “Cheer Up: How Everything Went Straight to Hell with Positive Thinking”)
The book takes the reader on a journey through the enchanting but ultimately disappointing world of “positive thinking”. Ehrenreich considers it to be a racket or borderline racket, intimately connected with neo-liberal capitalism spinning out of control. She is of course right, although the book has a certain tendency to paint “positive thinking” as the cause of our present predicament, rather than just its ideological reflection.
Somewhat surprisingly, Ehrenreich reaches the conclusion that positive thinking wasn´t originally associated with expansive American capitalism, rather, the original philosophy of the young republic was more on the Calvinist side: joyless, judgmental, workaholic, even depressive. At the very least, it caused depression among many people. Positive thinking was a reaction against Calvinism (or perhaps folk Calvinism or pop Calvinism). In its original formulation as New Thought (late 19th century), positive thinking was explicitly religious and equally explicitly opposed to the “traditional” view of God. Instead, God was seen as completely loving, non-judgmental and benevolent. By various spiritual techniques, the boundless love and energy of the Divine could be accessed and manifested as health, success and money in the life of the individual believer. Still today, much of positive thinking is dressed in Christian garb, in the form of the “prosperity gospel” and various mega-churches. The New Age version is represented by the bestselling book “The Secret” by Rhonda Byrne. Even New Thought and its old cousin Christian Science still exist.
Positive thinking has spread further, however, and now exists in secular and “scientific” versions. As American businesses downsize their workforces and strip the remainder of their benefits or high pay checks, positive thinking has become almost mandatory for many employees as a kind of control mechanism or brainwashing. The unemployed are also subject to indoctrination in positive thinking, as are the managers themselves. Or perhaps the latter simply brainwash themselves? Ehrenreich points out that the difference between a corporate manager, a charismatic religious preacher and a motivational speaker has become blurred in neo-liberal capitalism. They seem almost interchangeable. The most bizarre example of positive thinking mentioned in the book is the subculture around breast cancer victims, who are apparently led to believe that they can survive (or at least survive longer) by constantly thinking positive thoughts. Ehrenreich is a survivor of breast cancer herself, and her odyssey through “cancerland” is one of the most disturbing things I read lately! Another weird chapter in the book deals with the author´s surreal attempts to interview Martin Seligman, the main proponent of “positive psychology”.
My own experiences with positive thinking are, thankfully, less extreme. When I was unemployed, I had to go to mandatory classes for the unemployed (otherwise, no benefits!) where we “learned” such fantastic skills as, well, positive thinking and took Myers-Briggs personality tests. Still, no hard feelings – it was good ethnography to get an insight into the latest fads and illusions of the privileged middle & chattering classes. Or, as they say: Cheer up, it might never happen!
Ehrenreich points out in one of the last chapters that, contrary to received moderno-American wisdom, negative thinking might actually be a good thing. Or, to be more precise, “defensive pessismism” and a kind of hardnosed realism. Such people might even live longer than the over-optimistic types, since the latter might take larger risks and hence die younger (I also wonder how many get nervous breakdowns when they realize that the cosmos isn´t going to deliver the goods, after all). Likewise, people with a realistic appreciation of their place in the social hierarchy might actually be happier than optimistic people who think they are more popular than they really are. Ultimately, Ehrenreich´s proposal is to join the political fight for a better America, by which she presumably means a more “Social Democratic” one. She claims that we can have a lot of fun on the way.
“Bright-sided” was published in 2009. Today, the author would probably have included chapters on both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Trump is the ostensible author of several self-help books (usually starring a certain Donald J Trump as the main character), but he was also sharply attacked for his “negative”, “dark” and “dystopian” portrayal of the state of the Union in his acceptance speech at the Republican convention. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton´s campaign was – according to rumor at least – a virtual hive of positive thinking, mindfulness meditation and see-no-evil-hear-no-evil. We all know how the presidential race ended, don´t we?
Yes, we do need more defensive pessimism and hardnosed realism. Otherwise, we might all end up “bright-sided”…