Ehrenreich Argues for Better Thinking, Not Positive Thinking

I will definitely need to read Barbara Ehrenreich’s newest book. Not only is she one of my favorite political writers, but now she is delving into cultural criticism related to the mental health field’s relentless pursuit of “positive thinking.”

Newsweek’s Julia Baird provides a short review:

[…] In her new book, Bright-Sided: How Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, Barbara Ehrenreich calls positive thinking a “mass delusion.” She argues that an unrelenting drive to train our brains to overlook problems and blame ourselves for failures has blinded us to inequality, incompetence, and stupidity.

The philosophy of positive thinking, she argues, developed both as a reaction to the negativity of Calvinism and a salve for the sick and anxious, but has, over time, been turned into a kind of blind optimism. At the heart of positive thinking is a belief that you can will anything you like into happening: recovering from cancer, getting a promotion, becoming a millionaire. Often, the worse things are, the more vehemently people are encouraged to be sunny. The more companies downsized and restructured in the ’80s and ’90s, the more popular affirmation-chanting, team-building consultants became. And all the while, as the country’s wealth shot up, the gap between rich and poor ballooned.

7 thoughts on “Ehrenreich Argues for Better Thinking, Not Positive Thinking

  1. This is great. Positive thinking is kind of like cup of coffee and a donut. Temporary lift, but if you don’t have more substantial nutrition you’ll crash in a few hours.
    I have been disputing the new age phrase ‘you create your own reality’ since my early Pagan days.
    We don’t create anything. We’re not god and we can’t break the first law of thermodynamics. What we can do is make the best of the circumstances we’re in, and engage in collective action and mutual aid.

  2. I think Ehrenreich is on the mark here, as she is so often. I’ve always been annoyed with the ‘best of all possible worlds’ crew, because the dark side (and yes, there is always a dark side) of the positive thinking message is a blaming-the-victim mentality: Hey, you were born into poverty and abuse? Your fault! Put on a happy face! Hey, you died of cancer? Your fault — you must not have smiled enough! Now, with books like “The Secret,” the whole thing has become degraded into some kind of cosmic get-rich-quick scheme: just put out positive vibrations and you, too, can win the lottery! Sorry, kids, but I don’t think it works that way.
    I agree, Nancy: rather than just dreaming nice dreams about wish fulfillment, we need to work together to actually make things better in our neighborhoods, states and the world.

  3. I believe that there is a middle ground here. Coincidentally enough, my wife and I were just talking about the “Law of Attraction” today, of (to?) which she is an adherent. She firmly believes that you can create a conduit, through which positive things can be made to happen. There is anecdotal evidence pointing to its possibilities and real potential.

    On the other hand, and this is where I play devil’s advocate, just wishing, willing, expecting, or otherwise attempting to manifest good things is a bit hippie-dippy for me, and cannot be counted on as a means to an end.

    It is in the middle ground between these two poles that I sit. One must always try to plan for the worst, yet never stop expecting that good things will come – if for no other reason than “I deserve good things.” If you stockpile food for the apocalypse, and the end never really draws nigh, is that food wasted? I think not. Rather, the food was a sort of insurance policy. (My lovely bride says that insurance, planning for the worst, and even locking your car at the mall are all forms of fear. I say Foofwa!)

    I don’t dismiss the power of positive thought. Who am I to say you cannot manifest $5,000 by thinking that you deserve it? Additionally, we as a species need optimists. The human race is predatory and fatalistic in nature, and anybody who can always see the glass as half full is okay in my book. We also need the cynics and realists to temper the optimists and round out the thinking. While we may not benefit from a society of “LoA” adherents, and the positive press is sure making in-roads, we definitely won’t benefit from a society of nay-sayers either.

  4. Wow, what a blast from the past! Adam Bush, you are the winner! You are the first Bolton High School Cohort to officially and properly (with your true identity) post on Kmareka! Congratulations! You are entitled to a great big cyber welcome with imaginary applause, cheering and ticker tape parade.

    Seriously, it’s great to hear from you, and coincidentally I also come down somewhere in the middle on this one. I do sometimes encourage my clients to actively envision their future in ideal terms because I think doing so helps you to realize what you are striving for and what you want in life, and possibly how to get it. I do not think it causes things to magically come your way, but I think it can be a therapeutic and dare-I-say useful exercise.

    Anyway, thanks for your comment, Adam, and welcome to Kmareka!

  5. I think too often people believe that LoA and Positive Thinking are the only things they need to do to get what they want and it is this mentality that gives these two ways of life a very bad rap. You can walk around saying: I live in a pretty, freshly painted house a million times a day but unless you get off your butt and start painting the walls, you’re not going to manifest a thing. Both LoA and Positive Thinking must be backed up with action that is in alignment with your thoughts and statements.

    For example, I was laid off and my Unemployment benefits weren’t coming through – shocking, I know! I spent months trying to fix this with useless phone calls, letters, etc. Money was really tight. Finally I started repeating a single mantra: I easily attract money into my life. I repeated it over and over for days in my head. I started reading a book on managing finances. I paid the bills before doing anything else with our money. I started telling the kids ‘no’ to all their little requests that whittle away money like a chipmunk with a stick. A week later I received a couple hundred dollars from the Monastery where I was volunteering. Five days later I began receiving child support for the first time in over a decade. The checks have arrived in my mailbox consistently for the last six months. And finally, my Unemployment benefits fell into place. The Universe responds to action and belief, not wishful thinking and laziness.

    As for preparing for the worst, to me that’s the same thing as inviting it into your life.

  6. Becca, I’m really glad things worked out for you, and your own actions have a lot to do with your change in luck.
    When I was in my twenties I had friends who took this to an extreme. They thought that people who suffer misfortune either brought it on themselves through negative thinking or else their karma required they incarnate in the middle of an earthquake or whatever.
    I don’t think we individually create our own reality, although we can change our own attitude so that we are primed to recognize opportunity–that is the value of positive thinking.
    We don’t create anything, but collectively we make the reality we live in. We all contribute to our world of cars, jobs, politics, war–everything nature didn’t provide. Collectively we change it for better or worse.
    I light a candle, or do a little spell from time to time. I can’t live only in the rational.

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