Barbara Ehrenreich's intelligence and journalism awards did not spare her a harrowing encounter with breast cancer, now successfully treated.
Terrified, bewildered, even more acerbic than usual, she entered a world of teddy bears, pink ribbons and sugary poems taped to examining room walls. When she expressed confusion and anger on patients' discussion boards, she was scolded for her "negativity" and advised to "work on your attitude"."Cheerfulness is required, dissent is a form of treason", she noted of these web groups.
Wrong move with Barbara. She decided to take on "the scientific argument for cheer". "Smile or Die: The Bright Side of Cancer" is the first chapter of her recent book, "Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America".
Her world view could be summed up as "In God we trust, all others, bring data". She holds (in her words) a "rusty PhD." in cellular biology but has never lost her scientist's eye for rigor. Combine this with a near-perfect BS detector, and you have a woman not susceptible to hype or snake oil.
If someone believes that
- Positive attitude cures serious disease
- "The Secret" by Rhonda Byrne, with its promise of manifesting what one believes, describes an immutable law
- God wants you to be rich (and will do so after you make donations to an organization), or
- If you work harder and display an upbeat attitude, career success is a sure thing, then
Ehrenriech wants her to reconsider.
And if you don't believe it, she has written cogent rebuttals that provide support for your skepticism.
She acknowledges that there is a valid, important place for positivity: likable people get further in the workplace than sourpusses, all of us need support during illness and losses, hope and faith are essential to getting through life. Happy people make more enjoyable colleagues, neighbours, spouses.
But she thinks the promises and patter of unceasing optimism is a shuck, and even more significantly, that adopting a passively positive attitude makes us dumb. We lose our ability to think critically, to ask "Why?", to dig deeper for root cause, to examine claims for evidence.
"Bright-Sided" is unsettling and rabid in some sections. Ehrenreich's conclusions do not always square with mine, but I'm grateful she raises her clarion, contrarian voice.
Here's a six-minute clip in which she comments on her cancer experience and on the "look on the bright side" message often dispensed during job loss: