Barbara Ehrenreich Exposes the Myth of Positive Thinking



Ehrenreich is a critic of positivity

Author and journalist Barbara Ehrenreich describes herself as a myth buster. In her book, published as Smile or Die in the UK and Bright Sided in the States, she ruthlessly criticises the positive thinking movement and from what I can see she does have a point. But I think it is unfair to lump in positive psychology with the ideas that she is criticising.

I agree that a positive attitude can be helpful in some circumstances but not when it is just delusional preventing you seeing dangers. This is why the authentic strand of positive psychology is so important.

As Barbara Ehrenreich points out, we can see positive thinking gone mad in the financial meltdown a few years ago. Of course we should be encouraging and I believe in hope and optimism but I must agree they do need to be doused in a good helping of caution and realism.

Poor people are not lazy

In 2002 Barbara Ehrenreich wrote a book Nickel and Dimed about her experiment of surviving for three months on the minimum wage working in a number of different jobs across America.

She showed that contrary to a lot of people’s opinions those living like this don’t do so because they are lazy and need to take some personal responsibility.

It is good to encourage people who want to steps to get jobs or start in business but I agree that it is cruel to suggest that hard work and a positive attitude will automatically result in success.

Don’t feel guilty for not being happy

In a recent article in the Independent Tim Lott commented that we have followed the American way of thinking that we have a moral duty to be happy.

However there appears to be an inverse relationship between being happy and being intelligent and having an accurate view of the world. His point is that we should not be made to feel guilty for being unhappy. Reciting platitudes such as cheer up and look on the bright side can be really unhelpful when people are going through it. It is important to allow them to be upset even if our desire is that they will get over it in the long term.

Lott refers to Barbara Ehrenreich as a counterblast against American positive thinking – the idea that every disaster or set back is an opportunity for moving on.

Undue pressure to think positively is unhelpful

A couple of years ago Ehrenreich’s own story of her experience with breast cancer appeared in the Guardian. There she tells of how she was transformed from an optimistic person to one who was outraged by the positive thinking culture that she met as a result of her illness.

She later found similar advice being given to those who had been made redundant “Exhortations to think positively – to see the glass half full, even when it lies shattered on the floor – are not restricted to the pink ribbon culture.” she wrote.

These ideas are also found in money management, she explains, where exhortations that a positive attitude will attract money appear to encourage you to start spending that money now.

Positivity doesn’t automatically make everything better

Positive attitude is beneficial to a cancer patient but the research shows that it does not always extend patients lives.

Barbara Ehrenreich’s concern is it can lead to the denial of understandably feelings of anger and fear. Also if the positive thinking fails and if the cancer spreads the patient who has been taught that they must be positive may then blame themselves for not being positive enough.

She sees her encounter with breast cancer as an agonising revelation of an aspect of American culture that encourages us to deny reality and ultimately blame ourselves for our fate.

However there is still a place for positivity

Positivity does have a place but it also has dangers as Barbara Ehrenreich outlines. But I don’t think it is fair to dismiss positive psychology because of the dangers of positive thinking.

In fact I would see that positive psychology largely takes these criticism into account. In fact it is because of this overemphasis of the positive at the expense of being honest with ourselves and others that I have called this blog Authentically Positive.

As a cautious optimist, I believe that as well as being generally positive we need to be true to ourselves and to others.


May 16, 2013Permalink 1 Comment

One thought on “Barbara Ehrenreich Exposes the Myth of Positive Thinking

  1. Pingback: 3 Dangers of Positive Thinking

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