Anna Nussbaum Keating

When I asked the clerk at my local bookstore where I could find Barbara Ehrenreich’s new book, he smiled. “I didn’t know there was a downside to positive thinking,” he said.

As Ehrenreich points out, her new book is not about promoting pessimism. It takes aim less at our supposedly sunny national outlook (even though the most commonly prescribed drugs in the United States are antidepressants) and more at the various industries that have sprung up around the idea of positive thinking and are selling it back to us writ large.

Ehrenreich sees the stamp of positive thinking on the mortgage meltdown, the war in Iraq, even Hurricane Katrina. Maybe we were so busy looking at the bright side of things that preventable dark realities caught us off guard.

In its 21st-century incarnation, positive thinking is more than counting your blessings. It is a program for self-improvement that requires one to monitor one’s thoughts constantly and root out all negativity. We are not just told we should be positive; we are told we must be positive, that our physical, spiritual and emotional health depends on it, even when that means ignoring the facts, hiding our feelings and cutting “negative people” and depressing information from our lives. So much for that pesky two-year-old having a tantrum.

In a positive-thinking world, you do not go to funerals, you avoid suffering people and leave newspapers unread on the bedside table, because if you don’t think about it, it doesn’t exist.

The author, whose previous best-sellers include Nickel and Dimed, begins her journey through the mysticism and pop psychology of positive thinking by describing her experience with breast cancer culture, in which chronically ill people are never allowed to be sad or angry; they are told that “staying positive” will help them get better, even though the science behind this claim is inconclusive at best. Still, the popular idea that negative thoughts manifest themselves as illness, endorsed by Oprah Winfrey herself, often means that the friends and family of cancer patients do not allow their loved ones to express any sadness, anger or fear. In the face of death they are told to “keep fighting.” If you cannot be introspective when you’re sick or dying, when can you be? And what happens to all those forbidden thoughts?

“Positive thinking” began as a healing technique, which tried to correct the hard work and worry endemic to 19th-century American Calvinism with the pursuit of happiness. And yet, Ehrenreich argues, the positive-thinking gospel seems to have replaced constant worry over the state of one’s soul with a new kind of obsession, the monitoring of one’s thoughts in order to eliminate all negativity and achieve a capitalist’s version of personal success.

Bright-Sided is at its best when mocking the ascendancy of the coaching industry in American business culture. Ehrenreich describes how the idea of the chief executive officer changed in the 1990s from a person who knew the most about the company and had worked his or her way up through its ranks to a charismatic celebrity motivator, who often knew little about the company and was simply called upon to be a “leader.” In the 90s, corporations moved away from the “science of management” and began hiring consultants to lead exotic sounding positive-thinking workshops, vision quests, fire walking and tribal storytelling. Consultants repackaged Native American, Hindu and Buddhist mysticism in order to help motivate their employees to visualize greater productivity and sales. It is interesting that Catholic devotions were spared the positive-thinking treatment. Perhaps meditating on the sufferings of Christ would be too much of a downer.

Bright-Sided also lambastes prosperity gospel churches, where there are no crosses in the sanctuary and, as the Christian author and speaker Joyce Meyer says, “God is positive.” The smiling preacher Joel Osteen instructs his church members from the pulpit to use positive thinking to procure everything from a better table at a restaurant to a closer parking space. He suggests visualizing one’s ideal table in a crowded restaurant and saying, “Father, I thank you that I have favor with the hostess, and she is going to seat me soon.” In this theology, there is no distinction between God’s will and our will, and religious practice becomes all about us, or rather, all about me and not at all about God—or at least, not about the God of the New Testament, who exhorts us to “be satisfied with [our] wages.”

Positive thinking assumes each person to be the center and creator of his or her own universe. It is not interested in the common good. Ehrenreich writes, “It is not clear that there are other people in the universe as imagined by the positive thinkers or, if there are, that they matter.” In The Secret, Rhonda Byrne tells the story of a 10-year-old boy who was frustrated by long waits for rides at Disney World. This little boy had seen the movie “The Secret” and visualized being able to go in front of everyone else in line. The next day he was chosen to be part of Disney’s First Family and got moved to the front of every line. He’s a Secret success story, but does it matter that he had a better day at the expense of the other children? Maybe not, but what if owning a bigger house means paying one’s employees a non-living wage? Where do other people figure in, positively speaking?

The only weakness of Bright-Sided might be that Ehrenreich offers a pretty thin account of an alternative. She suggests her readers embrace reality, rather than delusion or sympathetic magic. But like the proponents of positive thinking, in the end she does not offer much of a reason for hope in anything substantial outside ourselves. She wants people to work together to solve social problems and promote justice, but what of real abiding joy?

Anna Nussbaum Keating writes and teaches in South Bend, Ind.