I've just finished Bright-Sided, writer Barbara Ehrenreich's new book slamming the "relentless promotion of positive thinking" in America. Ms. Ehrenreich, whose 2001 bestseller Nickel and Dimed memorably etched the often futile daily lives of the working poor, has a stiletto-sharp mind and a capacious social conscience, so anything she has to say about the faddish positive psychology movement, or the recent pseudoscientific approach to measuring happiness, or America's ongoing love affair with optimism, is worth paying attention to.
In her bright yellow-jacketed book - adorned with a satirical happy-face balloon - she rails against the "pink sticky sentiment" of today's breast-cancer movement. As a breast cancer survivor herself, she argues that its attachment to determinedly "positive" messages pressures women to claim they are grateful they got the disease because it changed their lives.
She attacks the promotion of positive thinking in the workplace as another capitalist tool to keep us all cheerfully plugging away at bad jobs and disappointing lives. And she is especially withering about the idea, embodied in such books as The Secret, that if you visualize what you want, you will surely get it.
No kidding. If that method worked, I'd be 10 pounds thinner and a whole lot richer, not to mention the winner of this year's Giller Prize.
But even though I agree with many of Ms. Ehrenreich's points, I have to admit I felt slightly patronized and uneasy about the way she dumps on optimism. Sure, there are false and venal forms of it - George W. Bush pursuing two wars and thinking they'd turn out just fine, Wall Street assuming the economic gluttony could go on forever. But I have come to realize that thinking optimistically is one more tool in the emotional arsenal needed to get through daily life - and strategically deploying it can work wonders.
I wasn't always this way. I still react with instant hostility if anyone mindlessly tells me in the middle of a crisis to "cheer up."
Yet studies have shown that you get more optimistic with age and more optimism leads to more resilience. What's so bad about that?
Parents of school-age kids are often desperate to inculcate resilience and optimism in their children. There's a way to do this without denying their reality, which is often, for a variety of reasons, quite grim. A school social worker once told me that if a kid comes home from school despondent about a devastating experience he's had, especially at the hands of his peers, a parent should acknowledge the pain and unfairness of it, but then ask "and what did you do to do recover?"
This question helps the child to see the experience as simply one event and not the way his life always will be. It also gives him the sense that his reaction to any experience, however awful, is something he does have control over. Those are key skills that will come in handy for the rest of life.
I have seen people with mental illness, addiction issues or just extremely challenging personal lives survive only because they found a way to believe that things would eventually get better. Some people call that feeling hope, others call it optimism, but it is essential to the human spirit.
Ms. Ehrenreich thinks there is an anxiety at the very heart of the American brand of positive thinking, because, well, if things are really going to get better, why make such a big deal about being positive all the time? Stop shoving optimism down our throats, she seems to be saying. Concentrate on other things that will really make life better, like improved health care and social justice. She's got a point.
But as much as I abhor group cheerleading activities, I'm finding it harder to sit in judgment on how anyone gets to a more optimistic place.
Whether it's religion or a self-help book or even getting up in a roomful of strangers and doing a happy dance, if it doesn't harm others and it works for you, I may be skeptical, but I'm glad. (Except for one thing: If you tell me you paid money to hear George W. Bush give a "motivational speech," then I am sorry but I have to draw the line. Optimism and positive psychology should not preclude rational thinking.)
To try to crystallize my feelings about looking on the bright side, I went trolling for some quotes about optimism and the usual brilliant minds showed up, like Oscar Wilde's droll assertion that "the basis of optimism is sheer terror."
But I ended up liking something that comedienne Joan Rivers once said: "I have become my own version of an optimist."
No groupthink there, just grit.