Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickeled and Dimed, has a new book out called Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. It sounds fascinating. She was on Democracy Now this morning:
BARBARA EHRENREICH: OK. This book could be called, you know, “What I Learned from Breast Cancer to Help Me Understand the Financial Meltdown.”
But I was diagnosed about eight years ago and started reaching out, as you would do, naturally, to find support and information on the web and all that sort of thing. What I found was very different. What I found was constant exhortations to be positive, to be cheerful, to even embrace the disease as if it were a gift. You know, if that’s your idea of a gift, take me off your Christmas list, is my feeling. And this puzzled me. But it went along with the idea that you would not get better unless you mobilized all these positive thoughts all the time, which, by the way, I’m happy to tell you, there’s nothing to that. I mean, there’s been sufficient scientific research now that we know that your mood does not, you know, dictate whether you will get better or not. But, you know, imagine the burden that is on somebody who’s already suffering from a very serious disease, and then, in addition, they have to worry about constantly working on their mood, you know, like a second illness.
AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about the research. I think that’s going to surprise people, what you just said. I mean, years ago, you were in biology. You were at Rockefeller University.
BARBARA EHRENREICH: Oh, yeah. No, I—and here it finally came in useful. I think there’s a widespread idea—it sounds so familiar that, you know, you would, you know, just let it go right by you—which is that your immune system will be boosted if you are thinking positively. Well, there’s not a whole lot to that. There’s not a whole lot to support that. And furthermore, more to the point here, it’s not clear that the immune system has anything to do with recovery from cancer or with whether you get it in the first place. Now, I had—I guess I had kind of accepted those things, too. But that is the ideology, though, that you find in so many other areas of American life, too, that if you—you can control things with your mind, if you just have the right thoughts and attitudes. There is nothing in the material world that’s causing your problem; it’s all within you.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And how did this ideology, this positive thinking movement, become so pervasive in American society? You document its rise in the culture.
BARBARA EHRENREICH: Yeah, well, I go back to the nineteenth century, because I’m always interested in history. But it really began to take off in a very big way in about the ’80s and ’90s, because the corporate world got very interested in it, got interested in it during the age of downsizing, because it was a way to say to the person who was losing his or her job, just as you would say to the breast cancer patient, “This is in your mind. You know, you can overcome this. If you—if something bad has happened to you, that must mean you have a bad attitude. And now, if you want everything to be alright, just focus your thoughts in this new positive way, and you’ll be OK.”
I can’t tell you how many times I have read people who have lost their jobs in this recession in the newspaper saying, “But I’m trying so hard to be positive.” Well, maybe there’s no reason to be positive. Maybe you should be angry, you know? I mean, there is a place for that in the world.
She seems to have had a busy day: she also appeared on Talk of the Nation today. NPR has the interview, and excerpt from the book.