I like a book that makes me think, even if I don’t agree with everything the author has to say. Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America is one such book. In it, author Barbara Ehrenreich, best known for Nickel and Dimed, points out the various ways that the positive thinking movement actually causes problems.
She begins by describing her bout with breast cancer and her frustration at finding a place to express her grief. In fact, at one point she gets lectured about her attitude as she tries to get information on the downside of treatment. She tells the story of one woman who freaked out whenever she felt angry or scared because she thought that she was feeding her tumors by feeling this way. She doesn’t want to look at the bright side of any potential “gifts” of the illness.
I haven’t had cancer, so I can’t tell anyone what to think or feel about it. However, I have had a long illness that was a gift to me. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t frustrating and at times infuriating to be sick, but I did see the gift over time, and I’m sorry she hasn’t had that experience. I will agree, though, that we all need to have a place where we can grieve, and even rage when we have to, without having someone try to cheer us up. Once we do that, we are better able to cope with the difficulty at hand.
I think she’s more effective when she starts talking about the workplace. I had a greater understanding for what was happening in the office of my last corporate job. Our director was constantly reading motivational books and demanding that his managers do the same. While this may sound like a good idea in theory, it was really a set-up to make sure that no one complained or brought problems to management’s attention for fear of being labeled “negative.” This sets up a scenario where a corporation stretches the limit of legalities because no one is putting the breaks on — something we have certainly seen in recent years with the burst of the housing bubble.
Ehrenrich’s premise also may explain the current backlash against the unemployed and underemployed — and in particular, an odd lack of compassion toward the working poor espoused by so-called religious people. Herman Cain said in his campaign that the unemployed needed to blame themselves. We blame joblessness on attitudes, ignoring the mass outsourcing that has occurred over the past several years, eroding opportunities. We’ve actually heard politicians state that poor children need to be exposed to a work ethic, ignoring the fact that the working poor are some of the hardest-working Americans that we have. If they change their attitudes, these politicians say, they’ll be more successful.
Still, we can benefit from certain aspects of positive thinking. I used it to heal some of the chronic negative thought-loops that went on in my head when I was younger. Sometimes, to do that, we have to fake it to make it. Studies show, for example, that smiling actually helps us feel better. We can watch comedies when we need a laugh. We can exercise and eat well, creating hormonal balance that helps us find joy. We can surround ourselves with people who love life.
It’s a balancing act, to allow all of our feelings, including the so-called negative ones, without letting them run our lives. Although Ehrenreich doesn’t mention this, I think when we label anger, fear, or sadness as “negative,” we set ourselves up for problems. What we feel is not the problem…it’s how we respond to those feelings. If we accept and allow those feelings to be there without shame, they will move through us and out, often leaving us with greater power and clarity.
While I think that Ehrenreich misses the boat to some degree, I enjoyed reading the book and am grateful to her for the food for thought.