Her breast cancer diagnosis introduced writer Barbara Ehrenreich to an unfamiliar world of positive thinking — pink ribbons, pink teddy bears and even the idea that cancer is a “gift” that will make you a better person.
The author (“Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America”), who has a doctorate in cell biology, was appalled by the notion that a cheerful attitude is a key to beating this dreaded disease.
What followed was an exploration of the false promises of positive thinking. These included the mantra of motivators, life coaches, mega church pastors and self-help gurus that if you think positively, whatever you want — a great job, lots of money, good health — will be yours.
In a phone interview, edited and condensed here, Ehrenreich talked about her latest book, “Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America” (Metropolitan Books, $23).
Q: Did you ever want to stand up and scream when you attended those “think positive” success seminars?
A: No, I didn’t want to stand up and draw attention to myself because I felt like such a freak. If I were discovered to be a nonbeliever, God knows what would happen to me.
Q: Have you received hate mail because you’re not the positive, sunny person the true believers think you should be?
A: No, it’s very much the opposite. People saying, “Thank God someone said it. Now I feel sane.” Some of the kinds of people who are likely to write are 1. Cancer victims 2. People who have been laid off and were not getting anywhere and are sick of being told to be happy about it and 3. People who have actually lost their jobs because they weren’t positive enough.
That is quite a category. It doesn’t mean they were sullen or surly at work. It could mean they didn’t get sufficiently into the high-five culture.
Q: I was wounded by the idea that these “think positive” types say never again read a newspaper.
A: (Laughs) The last thing the newspaper industry needs. I thought the first few times I heard that, it was some idiosyncratic extreme. But noooo. You encounter that again and again: “Why are you reading the news? You can’t do anything about it, and it’s all negative.”
The idea you can’t do anything about it is the opposite of what I would call positive anything. Of course you can try to do something about whatever it is going on, in however a small way. Write your congresspeople. Stuff like that. And that just shows the extreme fragility of their position if you can’t let contradictory data in because you have no way of dealing with it.
Q: I’m sure your critics ask, “If not positive thinking, what?”
A: I say the alternative is not negative thinking. It can be just as delusional to think everything is going to turn out wrong and that everything you undertake is going to fail or be no fun or whatever. The sort of pale word for this (the alternative to positive thinking) is realism.
Q: You say you decided to look into the cult of happy out of a combo of anger and curiosity. Did you uncover any surprises in your research?
A: How widespread the ideology of positive thinking is in America. There’s almost no problem for which positive thinking has not been proposed as a solution.
Q: You hang some of the blame on Oprah?
A: She’s not the only one, let me put it that way. Her show has promoted one kind of guru after another or motivator, or something. But you could also put some of the blame on Larry King and Ellen DeGeneres and others that I’m not aware of.
Q: You spent some time in these mega-churches. What was that like?
A: I was just kind of bewildered. They have no images of Jesus, no religious icons of any kind anywhere. Kind of made me think, “Well, if you think too much about Jesus, that could be a downer. Poor guy, tortured to death, so why even have any reference to that to bring people down?”
Q: Not to get all positive on you, but one could make the argument that if you hadn’t been diagnosed with breast cancer and been exposed to what you call “the bright side of cancer,” you wouldn’t have written this expose of positive thinking.
A: If you gave me an option, I would just say let’s skip the cancer and I wouldn’t have bothered with this book.
Anybody who thinks that cancer is a gift, I just want them to take me off their Christmas list.