In your new book, Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, you talk about optimism as if it's a bad thing. Haven't we been taught that a positive attitude is the key to success and happiness?
I know, I know. It does sound a little crazy, like I'm taking on world peace or motherhood. But what I'm talking about is the ideology of positive thinking, the idea that you have to work on yourself to be more optimistic.
I first encountered this eight years ago when I was being treated for breast cancer: I went looking for support, but what I found instead, to my horror, was this constant exhortation to be positive, to make lemonade out of lemons, to embrace your cancer as a gift.
Isn't it a natural human instinct to want to feel good when times are bad?
Not when it completely denies what you are feeling. I felt angry and I don't see anything wrong with acknowledging that feeling. But when you're told to change how you think about cancer, that it's up to you to be positive, then essentially you're being told to be passive in the face of the status quo.
Cancer is your starting point, but much of your book focuses on the tyranny of the positive-thinking ideology in the modern workplace. How did this attitude take hold?
In the 1980s, big companies began bringing in motivational speakers and buying up motivational books to distribute to their workers.
This was the beginning of the age of layoffs, and so you needed these motivational speakers and all their products for two reasons. First, to stop discontent among those being laid off: Just as with cancer, you tell them, "Hey, this is a wonderful opportunity, embrace your transition, it's a gift to you." And second, to squeeze more and more work out of the employees who survive the layoffs by providing the message that we can't have whiners around who are dragging everybody down with their questions and their doubts.
How does an upbeat workplace serve the interests of the corporate world?
Well, I don't think that it has served them too well! Nobody wanted to be the person who came to the boss and said, "I'm really worried about our subprime exposure with the mortgage company or bank." And so the culture of self-delusion that permeated corporate America fed into the financial meltdown in 2008.
American capitalism of the last 25 years has been increasingly permeated by the belief that leadership is all about gut intuitions. And these right intuitions are possessed by particularly positive people who happen to be the CEOs who emanate a mystical quality that inspires other people.
Were you surprised that an ideology like positive thinking has persisted in the face of massive layoffs and corporate downsizing? Instead of rioting in the streets, all those eternally optimistic people went out and bought houses they couldn't afford with money they didn't have.
Yeah, that really puzzled me. I was doing a project on white-collar unemployment, and I was seeing people being churned out of their jobs. Here's a constituency that should be furious. And yet you'd go to these networking meetings that unemployed white-collar people go to, and all you'd get is this positive-thinking message: It's your attitude that determines everything that happens to you.
Do you see parallels at the level of political leadership?
Absolutely. I don't think you could say you were a pessimist and win the American presidency any more than you could say you're an atheist. Ronald Reagan was the first exemplar of idea that the purpose of the presidency was to lift everybody's mood. And George W. Bush - well, he'd actually been a cheerleader at school.
Barack Obama has a reputation for being more open to critical thinking, so how does he fit himself to a positive-thinking world?
I think his balance has been to emphasize "hope," which has never appealed much to me. He does understand that he has to play this non-rational role, but I don't want to hear about a politician's hopes, I want to hear about his plans.
Many people connect American optimism with its entrepreneurial pioneer spirit. But you see it developing as almost an early version of New Age thinking, a way of clearing away Old World anxieties.
Yes, I trace the roots of the positive-thinking movement to the early part of 19th century, and I'm very sympathetic to it: These people were rebelling against the dominant Calvinist movement of the time which told them, you're damned, you're wretched sinners, you're probably predestined to burn in hell forever.
And these remarkable individuals answered by saying no, life is not that bad. You do have some control over life, and you can choose to feel better about yourself and your place in the world. But then in the 20th century, it goes away from being a healing method toward a way of gaining wealth and success.
You have more and more people working in the kind of jobs where they had to get along with other people rather than working with implements, with the land - white-collar drones began to proliferate. Pretty soon, making people positive and optimistic becomes a highly profitable business.
Let's adjust our terminology slightly. Isn't happiness the goal of life?
I'm pretty leery of the notion of happiness. I know how hard it is for me to answer when I take these self-administered happiness tests online. Am I satisfied with my life? Well, I'd be more satisfied with my life if we were to get Canadian-style health insurance. I can't say, "Yeah, I'm luxuriating in joy here."
And yet "Happiness Studies" has taken off as an academic discipline.
I know, but a lot of it is full of crap. Some studies show the more religious you are, the happier you are. But all that may mean is that churchgoers have more social contacts and a richer support system. Or how about the finding that people with children are less happy than people without them? Now, children are a kind of common event and taking care of them is a pretty routine part of human life. And yet it doesn't make us happy? What does that mean?
Children have been a huge source of delight in my life, but I know the burden of parenthood is vigilance. There's no such thing as being positive about what the toddlers are doing in the other room while you're in the kitchen. Are we like, "Well, I'm sure they're just reading Baby Einstein?" No, they're likely trying to kill each other. You've got to discard positive thinking at that moment.
It's interesting to read that you have a Canadian Presbyterian streak lurking in your dark soul. Could this be the reason you resist American optimism?!
Well, it was quite a rough doctrine. When I grew up, it was work hard, that's the only form of redemption. You don't slack off, you don't giggle at the dinner table, you had to be very focused and embrace the Protestant work ethic.
My mother also had a Christian Scientist side, so then it became, don't ever get sick, that's malingering.
As an activist, haven't you chosen a way of life that risks disappointment, since you end up fighting a lot of losing battles?!
Successful social movements manage to build in a lot of community reinforcement, a sense of being together that is so essential to feeling good. But I think there's also a whole mindset we're forgetting that involves courage and determination. The funny thing, if you look at our action-movie genre, it's never, "I'm going to win because I am so positive." It's always about people fighting unimaginable odds: Schwarzenegger looks like he's a goner, yet he picks himself up and keeps going.
We like to watch this because it inspires us. We're just not interested in tiny obstacles easily overcome by people whose optimism never declines.
BARBARA EHRENREICH TIMELINE
1941 Born in Butte, Mont., where her father worked in the copper mines.
1968 Graduates from Rockefeller University with a PhD in cell biology and joins a health-care advocacy group in New York City.
1970 Poor prenatal care spurs her activism in feminist health and publishing a pamphlet, Witches, Midwives and Nurses: A History of Women Healers . Eventually becomes a full-time writer.
1983-1995 Publishes nine books including The Worst Years of Our Lives: Irreverent Notes from a Decade of Greed, Kipper's Game (a sci-fi novel) and The Snarling Citizen (essays).
1991 Becomes columnist for Time magazine.
2001 Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America , for which she went undercover working low-wage jobs, becomes a bestseller.
2005 Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream.
2006 Helps launch United Professionals, a movement to fight against attacks on the middle class.
2009 Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America