Barbara Ehrenreich is an author of such books as The Hearts of Men which contended feminism ruined the nuclear family; Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, where she exposed the stupidity of the poor are poor because they refuse to work. Her latest book, Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, takes on optimism and positive thinking. She says Americans are simply too damned cheerful, and she ties this to the mortgage crisis, our media, even our religion.
She says that although Americans stress positive thinking more than any other culture, happiness is elusive if you compare us to other countries.
In an interview with Megan Hustad, Ehrenreich said, “it relates to all this work we do to make ourselves be more positive. Positive thinking is imposed on people in a lot of settings. If you’re in the typical corporate workplace, you are exhorted to be positive. You’re told nobody wants to be around a negative person—which could mean somebody who just raises questions now and then, questions like ‘Isn’t our subprime exposure dangerously large here?’ People were fired for that in ’05 and ’07, right up until the end of the housing boom. You just could not say something like that.”
“What really went on here is that companies began picking up on this motivational industry in the 1980s, precisely when the age of layoffs begins,” she said. “Massive layoffs are a reason to bring in motivational speakers. That’s a reason to give copies of Who Moved My Cheese? free to your workers. Because you don’t want them complaining. You want them to be accepting of their increasingly insecure status. And you want the survivors of layoffs to work twice as hard.”
When she moves on to how this forced optimism has affected religion she says, “Nowhere is this ambivalence toward source material more evident than in the Christian side of the positive thinking movement, she added. “Standard American Protestantism had always been either very ‘soft’ like Unitarianism, or rather grim and hellfire—the right-wing Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson contingent. Then you began to get this whole branch of Christianity, represented primarily by the megachurches, where the message you get on Sunday is ‘You can have it, God wants you to have it, God wants you to have nice things. And it’s not even a matter of praying to God, it’s a matter of visualizing those things coming to you.’”
When Ehrenreich was asked if there might be times when willful, defiant optimism can be a force for good, even for social progress, she states: “There’s a difference between being willing to take on really difficult things and being overly optimistic. I’ve taken on many things that turned out to be extremely difficult. I didn’t take them on feeling, ‘Oh, I’m going to ace this.’ I took them on thinking I was just going to do my damnedest, whether it was some sort of outdoor adventure or an intellectual task. That’s a very different spirit. It’s not, ‘I’m going to win because I know I’m going to win because I’m wonderful and God loves me so much.’ It’s thinking ‘This is so important, I’m going to die trying.’”