Thursday, February 4, 2010

Bright-Sided: Ehrenreich vs. the happy face

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.

Wron
g 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:

22 comments:

Someone said...

Interesting subject to see here!

The attack on critical thinking in this country is an absolute travesty - I have never seen anti-intellectualism on a greater scale here. It is a disastrous trend showing up in many forms, and I applaud Ms. Ehrenreich for taking it on! It must be made clear that this dangerous direction needs to be reversed.

Thank you for bringing our attention to this!

(Does Ms. E say that faith is essential/"God" gets a pass on providing data? If so...then the critical thinking hasn't gone as far as it should. I don't see a reason for any exceptions.)

Deja Pseu said...

One of the darker sides of the "positive thinking" mindset is that those who hold it tend to blame people who get sick or fall on hard times. It's the (erroneous) belief that we are ultimately in control of every aspect of our lives that leads to a lack of compassion for those who aren't doing as well as we perceive ourselves to be. It's sort of the old American "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" mentality run amok. Yes, having a positive attitude will help in many ways, but it's not a cure-all.

And I second what Someone said about the rabit anti-intellectualism in this country. It's downright Orwellian!

Duchesse said...

Someone: I intend Pdesp to address culture as well as style.

Ehrenreich explores the rise of "positive theology", not whether theism itself is valid. The focus of the book is the relentless, deliberate promotion of positive thinking, and who benefits from selling it.

Pseu: Susan Sontag's "Illness as Metaphor" was important to my thinking about this.

LPC said...

Optimism doesn't have to be ineluctably linked with stupidity. One can feel optimistic, all the while understanding the information that might lead one to calculate that outcomes are unlikely to be happy.

I hate happy talk. I love happiness. They are not the same thing. One might even argue that the first stifles the latter.

Belle de Ville said...

A healthy dose of skepticism is good for our culture. Ehrenreich's moto, bring data...my motto, trust but verify.
On the other hand Norman Vincent Peale's "The Power of Positive Thinking", certainly the first book with a positive theology message published maybe 45 years ago, helped people to envision creating a better life for themselves.

spacegeek said...

I'm a scientist, and my husband is an MD/scientist also. We are proponents of logic, reason and the scientific method.

My daughter (3 years old) was diagnosed with Leukemia 6 months ago, and we are just now getting out of the darkest part of the 2.5 year treatment program. We have been angry, sad, terrified and very very careful about her treatment. I have been in despair and my only goal for the last 6 months was to avoid another hospitalization.

All that being said, I've discovered that we have *so* much to be grateful for. There has been an amazing amount of positive stuff that has gone on in the last 6 months--our religious community has rallied around us. Our friends have been fabulous with meals, forgiveness when I lose my mind and temper, My daughter has learned to swallow pills and has shown tremendous "grown up" behavior in enduring the weekly chemo treatments. My workplace has been fantastic and forgiving in allowing me to work remotely and take vacation and sick leave extremely liberally without cutting my pay. And finally and most importantly, my daughter has responded in textbook fashion to the treatment, which will result in a "cure" (not just remission) 2 years from now.

So, while I am clinical, critical and vigilant about the details of my daughter's disease, I also choose to see that there are some positive sides to this tragedy and travesty that has befallen us. I don't see that there is anything wrong about trying to find some good in all of the bad.

Duchesse said...

LPC: She's not against optimism; the subtitle of the book is "how the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America."

Belle: In the chapter "The Dark Roots of American Optimism", she takes on Peale, and the lineage he initiated.

spacegeek: An ordeal for you and your family, and I am relieved and grateful your daughter has responded so wonderfully to the treatment. There are certainly gifts, grace and learning within times of great difficulty.

LPC said...

Right, I didn't mean to say she was. I was just pontificating:). Making up aphorisms. My apologies for an incorrect tone.

Imogen Lamport, AICI CIP said...

Interesting discussion Duchesse!

It's really all about balance isn't it. When one side, either positive or negative takes over, then the whole becomes unbalaced with a warped view.

Yes we need dreamers, and we also need those who will bring us back to earth.

Spacegeek - it's lovely how much you have been able to appreciate the good in such a terrible situation. Wishing you and your family much love and speedy recovery for your daughter, what an amazing girl you have.

Frugal Scholar said...

I had not heard about this book. Thanks for posting this.

Duchesse said...

LPC: No problem from me re the the tone... was just making a point of clarity. And I agree; I know some stupid-acting people (including me at times) who haven't been optimistic.

Imogen: Yes, that's one of her central points, that the imbalance has become so pronounced. I don't agree with all of her conclusions- and it stimulated my thinking.

Anonymous said...

About a month ago listened to a podcast in which Ehrenreich was interviewed. I "got" what she was saying about cancer treatment; when my late mother was dying, I can't tell you how many people suggested it was in large part because she wasn't curing herself with a sufficiently positive outlook. I found that insulting and downright stupid.
On the other hand, I disagreed with a point that Ehrenreich made about the latest financial crisis being born of relentless, forced optimism. I don't believe this was even one of the top 10 factors in the crisis!
Then, she moved on to politics and she lost me completely. I did not read the book but from the podcast my impression was that Ehrenreich begins with a great premise (too many in our society believe in crap like The Secret) but then tries to force too many examples that don't really fit.

metscan said...

I do feel embarrased, not even have heard about the two books mentioned, so I´m totally out. Sorry.

Duchesse said...

Anonymous @2:24: I thought the same thing about blaming optimism for the financial crisis. Hubris was one of the causes, and hubris is not the same as optimism. Still it amazes me that so many intelligent people I know expected the stock market to only continue to rise, house values only to appreciate, etc. Totally blind to history- and they wanted to believe it could never happen.

metscan: It takes awhile for these books to reach a broader market (if ever). Ehrenreich's books are also American-centric.

materfamilias said...

late to the table again. But I wanted to chime in because my neighbour (and good friend) and I talked about this while she went through breast cancer treatment -- the emphasis on positive thinking goes along with an industry of pink ribbons that got her feeling very impatient, very frustrated. In her mind, this put the responsibility (and the blame) on the cancer patient, and on the healthy industry (and I'm using that term advisedly) and on fundraising, rather than some bigger "root causes" -- chemicals we ingest, wear, breathe, etc., every day, being perhaps her biggest concern. She got very tired of pink toasters -- a retail and fundraising combo that could scarcely be questioned without seeming to signal a lack of optimism, a lack of the right spirit to get herself better.

That said, I doubt that Ms. E. would question the positive energy that does end up being part of the cancer process, if not, sadly, for the patients, more often than not, in some way, for their friends and family. My father lived with prostate cancer for over 20 years -- a good chunk of that in remission, but eight final years of steady deterioration, his last year hovering around one hundred pounds. And it brought an already close family even closer together, and it left us with memories of his strength that will never be diminished. None of that positive spirit, though, stopped the cancer from chewing him up.

Duchesse said...

materfamilias: There is a risk, as Ehrenreich acknowledges, of her being perceived as inadequately crediting positive focus. She has taken a stance that will be unpopular in many circles- but is in fact )as Imogen commented) trying to correct an imbalance. The current post on her blog addresses mammograms- worth a read. Link is on my right sidebar.

My Dad died of a blood cancer. He hoped for the best outcome given the type: to live as long as possible, as wholly as possible. He said to me once, "I'm glad I'm a doctor, they can't snow me. You play the hand you're dealt." He was able to sleep away in the hospital he co-founded over 60 years earlier.

s. said...

It seems that in places like Paris, relentless optimism is seen as sure proof of idiocy. However, when I lived there, they showed me the flip-side. The worship of intellectualism and the insistence on pessimism appears to me to be just another form of idiocy. I agree that it is best to strive for balance; being human, however, we will each err on one side or another.

Duchesse said...

s.: Your comment reminds me of one Parisienne friend, who, when I meet her and ask how she is, says, unfailingly, "Well.. you know" in the most mournful tone. On closer inspection things are going very well for her but she would never admit it!

The Gold Digger said...

Barbara Ehrenreich and I do not agree on most things, but based on what you have written here, I can say that this is an issue where I can say AMEN, Barbie!

1. My dad died of cancer. It makes me furious every time I hear someone say so and so beat cancer because of her great attitude. My dad did not die because he had a bad attitude. He did not die because he did not fight hard enough. He died because CANCER KILLS PEOPLE! People who survive cancer are LUCKY. They survive because they have a treatable cancer and medical science has advanced to the point where we have the knowledge and the tools to keep them alive.

2. As far as Catholics, Lutherans, Baptists, and other mainstream Christian denominations are concerned, God does not want you to be rich. God wants you to follow him. Period. Most legitimate Christian churches do not think much of prosperity theology. Prosperity theology churches seem to conveniently ignore the parts of the Bible that tell people to get rid of their money and their stuff and follow Jesus. Actually, they seem to ignore the Bible altogether.

Duchesse said...

Gold Digger:
My take is that positive attitude and hope help people weather the enormous challenges, and can certainly support them (and the family) to but attitude does not cause cure.

As I recall, BE notes this in the book and says that some of the Christian megachurch pastors (Rick Warren is named) do not support 'prosperity religion'.

lagatta à montréal said...

Overall, I love Barbara Ehrenreich. Indeed, she is very (US) American-centric but only in the sense that the b.s. she is denouncing has reached its highest point in American culture, though it is making inroads elsewhere (see Sarkozy or Berlusconi, with an outlook far more "American" than is typical for centre-right political leaders in Europe).

I can't bear that uncritical positive thinking but as s. says, its world-weary European counterpart can be just as tiresome, simply because both are uncritical. I'd get the same response Duchesse got from her Parisienne friend from just about everyone in Italy.

We'll all die of something, and most of us won't get rich. I guess there is a difference in being positive as in putting a brave face on things and soldiering on - as they are managing to do in Haiti - and magical thinking.

hollarback said...

Really surprised that she got a whole book out of this. She is just presenting the other side of the coin, but it's the same coin. Frankly I think the over-examination of minutia is more harmful to progress.

People stay true to their nature, esp in crisis.