See how this article appeared when it was originally published on NYTimes. Barbara Ehrenreich wants to make clear that she is not a spoilsport. It is serious social history. Many of the 17 books that Ms. Ehrenreich has written during the past three and half decades have taken her into alien worlds. By contrast, this newest volume is based on her stay in a world that she became intimately familiar with: the smiley-faced, pink-ribboned, positive-thinking culture that surrounds breast cancer patients.
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Shelves: non-fiction , skepticism Barbara Ehrenreich was first exposed to the dark side of the positive thinking movement when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Early into her cancer journey, she discovered that normal emotions such as anger and fear were being aggressively denied by those who believed that a positive attitude was crucial to survival. Cultural skeptic that she is, Ehernreich poured through the literature on the subject and found that, not only did science fail to support the hypothesis that a positive Barbara Ehrenreich was first exposed to the dark side of the positive thinking movement when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Cultural skeptic that she is, Ehernreich poured through the literature on the subject and found that, not only did science fail to support the hypothesis that a positive attitude contributes to healing cancer, but that those who failed to recover from cancer often experienced an especially cruel form of victim blaming at the hands of those who were convinced that it was their own faulty negative thinking that kept them sick.
This experience led Ehrenreich to explore in more depth the concept of positive thinking and how it is currently experienced in America today. Though nowhere near as depressing as Calvanism, these philosophies still heavily emphasized personal effort and striving, teaching that perfection was attainable if one worked hard enough and that problems in the physical body or external world were a reflection of work still needing to be done.
Though hungry salesman have often sought comfort in the promises of these sorts of speakers, Ehernreich explains how, over the last few decades, these kinds of ideas have deeply penetrated all levels of corporate culture.
In a chapter titled "Motivating Business and The Business of Motivation," Ehrenreich details how corporations turned to motivational speakers to pump up workforces demoralized by layoffs and convince both those let go and those remaining that their attitude, and not the relentless pursuit of corporate profit, was responsible for their plight. Though the recent phenomenon The Secret is a textbook example of how badly the idea of positive thinking can be misused in the service of personal gain, Ehrenreich also explores how certain Christian "prosperity" churches have gotten into the act, convincing their parishioners that God wants them to be rich and will help them get that way if they just show a little faith by giving money to the church.
Her comments on how many of the devout poor were convinced the predatory mortgages they were being offered a few years back were a gift from God were particularly poignant. One might think that psychologists who extol the virtues of positive thinking would be on firmer ground than those who have a more openly exploitative agenda, but in an entertaining chapter in which Ehrenreich describes her futile attempt to pin down positive psych guru Martin Seligman, it becomes clear that the science of happiness is much murkier than it has been presented in the press.
While few would argue that being positive can feel good and many of us would prefer to be around "positive" people, how much we are actually able to control our reaction to circumstances and what effect that ultimately has in our lives is still significantly up for debate.
Americans are a uniquely positive people, more likely to believe they will move up in life than people in other countries do. This optimism is in direct contradiction to the fact that we are actually less likely to improve our station than more socialist-minded Canadians and Europeans. Ehrenreich concludes her writing with a discussion of the importance of learning to realistically assess both potential positive and negative outcomes of our choices instead of just focusing solely on what we hope will happen.
As she so thoughtfully points out, "We want our airplane pilots to anticipate failed engines as well as happy landings.
Author’s Personal Forecast: Not Always Sunny, but Pleasantly Skeptical
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