Accomplished social critic Ehrenreich (This Land Is Their Land: Reports from a Divided Nation, 2008, etc) eviscerates the positive-thinking movement, which she blames for encouraging us to “deny reality, submit cheerfully to misfortune, and blame only ourselves for our fate.”
The author argues that the promotion of unwarranted optimism began in the early days of the American republic, was taken up by 19th-century philosophers and mystics—William James urged people to repeat to themselves “Youth, health, vigor!” while dressing in the morning—and entered the American mainstream in the 20th century, when it became an integral part of consumer culture. Ehrenreich’s quarrel is not with feeling upbeat but rather with the “inescapable pseudoscientific flapdoodle” of life coaches and self-improvement products claiming that thinking positively will result in wealth, success and other joyful outcomes. Such magical thinking has become a means of social control in the workplace—where uncheerful employees are ostracized—and prevents action to achieve social change. With life coaches, business motivators and evangelical preachers promoting delusional expectations—“God has a plan” for those who have lost jobs and homes in the current economic crisis, says Christian preacher Joel Osteen—positive thinking can claim partial credit for a major role in such recent disastrous events as the Iraq war and the financial meltdown. Ehrenreich’s many interviews include meetings with psychologist Martin Seligman, whose “positive psychology,” she finds, offers little credible evidence to make it any different from the wishing-will-make-it-so thinking of writers from Dale Carnegie (How to Win Friends & Influence People) to Rhonda Byrne (The Secret). The author’s tough-minded and convincing broadside raises troubling questions about many aspects of contemporary American life, and she provides an antidote to the pervasive culture of cheerfulness—reality-based critical thinking that will encourage people to alter social arrangements in ways that improve their lives.
Bright, incisive, provocative thinking from a top-notch nonfiction writer.