Barbara Ehrenreich (NICKLE AND DIMED, BAIT AND SWITCH) is always an interesting observer of contemporary culture. Her latest book takes on the cult of happiness in this county, and BRIGHT-SIDED: HOW THE RELENTLESS PROMOTION OF POSITIVE THINKING HAS UNDERMINED AMERICA is thought-provoking.
Ehrenreich's basic thesis is this country is caught in a relentless barrage of "put on a happy face." Upbeat is not only the new beat, it's the required one. Employers want to hire positive-thinking, upbeat employees. Churches insist that God wants you to be happy and prosperous. Self-help books as well as professional counselors tell us to shed those people in our lives who spread gloom and doom. A positive attitude, the belief goes, is an aid to health, long life, and fighting disease. Have faith in the future and you can conquer all difficulties.
One by one, she takes apart these stances. The positive-thinking employee is valued over the dour and competent one, but in the long run it's competence that keeps business moving. The nay-sayers in your life may actually be providing important reality checks. A blind faith in the future, whether assisted by God or not, is part of the cause of the current economic collapse, through all those people signing for mortgages they could not afford because "Dare to dream in the present and the future will come through." There is no scientific evidence that health responds to a positive attitude. Worse, the idea that if you stay positive you can fight off, say, cancer, means that all those people who die of cancer just weren't positive enough. It is therefore their own fault.
Ehrenreich sometimes overstates her case, but so does the other side, and she offers many studies to corroborate her views. My favorite is a 2001 study actually conducted by a proponent of positive psychology, David Seligman (AUTHENTIC HAPPINESS), which found that among older people, pessimists were better able than optomists to weather a major negative life event such as the death of a family member.
Sometimes the emphasis on positivism can turn absolutely ghoulish. Popular positive-thinking guru Rhonda Byrne stated about the 2006 Asian tsunami that disasters like a tsunami can only happen to people who are "on the same [thought] frequency as the event."
The result of this kind of thinking, Ehrenreich argues, is a culture of forced, false illusions that blames victims of illness, poverty, and -- yes -- even tsunamis for their own misfortunes. As such, it turns away from social cooperation that might change things, from compassion for others, and, finally, from reality itself. Be happy! Don't worry! Visualize good things ten times each day and they will come to you!
Sometimes they don't, and sometimes there are things out there to worry about. You can only cheat reality for so long.