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BOOK REVIEW

The perils of positive thinking

By Elizabeth Cooney
Globe Staff / December 4, 2009

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At a low point of her life, Barbara Ehrenreich came face to face with positive thinking and did not like what she saw. The author of “Nickel and Dimed’’ and “Bait and Switch’’ discovered that at least as far as her health was concerned she was an optimist, almost delusional in her disbelief that she could not have breast cancer. But in the changing room after a repeat mammogram brought her closer to that diagnosis, she recoiled from the pink culture of ribbons and sugarcoated optimism. Not only did she object to the infantilizing teddy bear imagery in the brochure rack, she also resented the more insidious message that a positive attitude could save your life, and by implication a negative view would doom you to a death that was your own fault.

Her new book, “Bright-Sided,’’ traces the history of positive thinking and its reach into health, religion, psychology, education, and business. She debunks claims linking upbeat attitudes to improved health outcomes, but her personal story (in a chapter called “Smile or Die’’) is only a point of departure for a diatribe against the dangers of “the mass delusion that is positive thinking.’’ Ultimately she blames the current economic crisis in part on unrealistic lending practices that obscured reality in a haze of wishful thinking.

To pick apart the smiley-face image, Ehrenreich travels back to Colonial America. It’s hard to call optimism a uniquely American trait when Calvinism was its founders’ worldview, Ehrenreich argues, but without its “system of socially imposed depression,’’ there would not have been such reactions as Mary Baker Eddy’s Christian Science or Ralph Waldo Emerson’s transcendentalism. Both are rooted in the belief that individual thought can connect with - or control - the physical world, from the human body to the cosmos.

It’s not too many steps from healing with the mind to making more money by eliminating negative thoughts, a message of Norman Vincent Peale’s perennial bestseller “The Power of Positive Thinking.’’ Ehrenreich found the same relentless cheer espoused on breast cancer websites at a conference where motivational speakers whipped up crowds of unemployed white-collar workers. Their lessons echoed in-house corporate messages crafted to brighten the outlooks of employees chastened by endless downsizing.

This is the dark side of drinking the positive-thinking Kool-Aid, Ehrenreich contends. So deeply do businesses buy its spin that they brook no dissent from employees, making negative thoughts the new sin. Its religious counterpart exists in curiously bland megachurches where stern Puritans find their equals in evangelists wearing suits and ties. There the Protestant ethic gets a consumer-friendly makeover as New Age visualization meets striving for material success.

God wants you to prosper and get rich, their sermons say. Just ask Him.

Academia abets this culture with courses nicknamed “Happiness 101’’ at Puritan-founded Harvard, no less. But the book bogs down when Ehrenreich details the pains she took to pin down Martin Seligman, a psychologist credited with bringing happiness studies into college curricula. She paints him as evasive and difficult, but the chapter isn’t as satisfying a putdown as two words physicist Murray Gell-Mann famously used to dismantle New Age beliefs: “quantum flapdoodle.’’

Delusion on this scale, from motivational seminars to corporate doublespeak to cancer forums to prosperity preachers, fueled the financial meltdown now miring the nation, Ehrenreich says. To climb out of this hole, we need a dose of realism that positive thinking can’t deliver.

Her book may end up preaching to the choir, but readers sympathetic to its thesis will come away better versed in the dark side of bright ideas.

Elizabeth Cooney can be reached at lizcooney@gmail.com.

BRIGHT-SIDED:

How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America By Barbara Ehrenreich

Metropolitan, 256 pp., $23

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