I have just finished a hugely enjoyable book by the brilliant and very funny Barbara Ehrenreich. It’s called Bright-Sided, and is a much-needed puncturing of the “positive thinking” epidemic that has been slowly creeping over all elements of American society. With a wonderfully deft touch, Ehrenreich neatly skewers several juicy targets who have come to rely on vacuous optimistic mantras and tropes as their basic modus operandum. Whether it’s cancer victims (although of course you can’t call them victims), middle-management corporate pinheads, mega-churches, or the psychiatric profession, she artfully shows us what utter tosh it all is. Some of it could almost have been too easy – going after venal pastors who’ll say anything to get you to tithe is a bit like shooting proverbial fish in a barrel for a writer of Ehrenreich’s quality – but she handles it all with a deliciously light touch, and generally lets her subjects hang themselves with their own idiocies.
But amidst the hilarious ridiculousness of all this blinkered optimism, Ehrenreich has an important message. Adopting such an uncritical approach to life’s complexities can be a very dangerous thing. Successful species tend to survive because they’re cautious, and always watching out for the next source of trouble. Simply sticking one’s head in the sand and thinking good thoughts is not going to fix most problems.
It’s seems astonishing that such an assertion should need to be made at all. What’s fascinating is that the belief in positive thought has gained such extraordinary traction over recent years. It’s hard to know who’s to blame for it all. The self-help gurus who make audiences chant in unison come across as even more self-deluded than the poor souls who are forced to humiliate themselves in this way. The corporate suits who have embraced the movement as a way of improving productivity and offloading responsibility for the casualties of downsizing can hardly be blamed for doing their job.
I can’t help thinking that the real culprits here are the rest of us, who gratefully swallow this stuff without taking a moment to consider what arrant nonsense it really is. I can understand the appeal of believing that a positive attitude is all that you need to get a better job, afford a new car, and achieve other (usually material) ambitions. But that doesn’t make the idea any less absurd. It’s a total abnegation of rational thought, a toxic dumbing-down of complex, multifaceted issues so that the solution to every problem is just to close your eyes, cross your fingers, and hope.
Of the three, it’s the closing of eyes that’s the most dangerous.