Positively outrageous

Peter
Peter Jackson
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Last week, I was surfing through audiobooks at the online iTunes store and came across a new book by American author and straight-shooter Barbara Ehrenreich. It's called "Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America." I decided to buy it on the spot.

I told my wife about the purchase, and she rolled her eyes and said something like "Love of God" - by which she was implying, "You're already a crank who likes to pour cold water on everything, and now you want to bone up on how to be negative, just in time for Christmas, which you always complain about anyway."

Last week, I was surfing through audiobooks at the online iTunes store and came across a new book by American author and straight-shooter Barbara Ehrenreich. It's called "Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America." I decided to buy it on the spot.

I told my wife about the purchase, and she rolled her eyes and said something like "Love of God" - by which she was implying, "You're already a crank who likes to pour cold water on everything, and now you want to bone up on how to be negative, just in time for Christmas, which you always complain about anyway."

She didn't actually say that, but I knew that's what she meant.

She's right, of course. I have always been a bit of a wet blanket when it comes to the trends of positive thinking and self-help.

In my defence, however, it's not positive thinking itself that bothers me; it is, as Ehrenreich states in her title, the relentless promotion of it. Because positive thinking, as a personal obsession or goal in itself, truly does undermine the honest, compassionate interrelationships that underpin a healthy society.

In recent years, Ehrenreich is perhaps best known for her criticism of the pink ribbon campaign, which she describes as an infantilizing cult that has supplanted what used to be independent, feminist ideology. She found herself immersed in the phenomenon when she was diagnosed with breast cancer almost a decade ago.

In "Bright-sided," Ehrenreich touches on the pinkification issue again. More specifically, she recalls the pressure she felt to keep smiling through her whole ordeal, as if she'd be a party pooper not to embrace the pink-ribboned teddy bears, makeup, clothing and other "bits of cuteness and sentimentality," including the daily bombardment of inspirational poems and messages of hope.

As well as breast cancer, Ehrenreich expands on other facets of the positive-thinking industry. She discusses how self-help gurus advise clients to avoid negative people, to squeeze cranky or poisonous acquaintances out of their lives. This is nothing less than an endorsement of self-centredness. To ignore or avoid family and friends - let alone co-workers - who happen to bring you down is a facile strategy for achieving personal happiness. It's not positive thinking. It is a selfish and uncharitable rejection of the real world around you, more akin to the passive, drug-soaked escapism of "Brave New World" than to any recipe for a strong, close-knit society.

Ehrenreich also deals with some of the wackier manifestations of the positivity cult, specifically, the suggestion that energy from one's thoughts can literally make things happen. If you wish it hard enough, that necklace in the store window will end up around your neck. That business deal will come through. You will always end up at the front of the line, or you'll snag the perfect mate.

If this were all meant metaphorically, the message would be acceptable, or at least tolerable. But in best-selling books like "The Secret," Rhonda Byrnes' compendium of supposedly life-changing insights, it's taken quite literally. Positive "vibrations" (ignoring that, in physics, all vibrations have both positive and negative dimensions) will magically cause people or objects to come into or go out of your life. It's like Harry Potter without the wand.

Apart from its scientific impossibility, Ehrenreich says the idea presents a major contradiction: what does it imply for those around you? If you're always first in line, what about those that are always last? If you will the perfect spouse into your life, what does it say about that person's own free will and personal desires?

Now, I'm not against positive thinking. I'm not anti-positive - which would, I suppose, make me neutral.

But when someone goes to extreme lengths to promote positive thinking - essentially insisting that people lighten up no matter what - I get a bit annoyed. Because the real world plays a huge part in our moods and attitudes. You can't think away poverty or war. You can't think away depression or disease. You can be brave and stoical in the face of troubles. You can even try to do something about it. But simply to "think positive" is nothing but a cop out.

Christmas is coming. Let the happiness of it wash over you. Enjoy the warmth of family and friends. Be kind and charitable to those less fortunate.

But please don't try to force positivity on yourself or anyone else. They tried that with Scrooge, and it didn't work. Turns out he had some real demons to deal with.

Peter Jackson is The Telegram's always cheerful commentary editor. He can be contacted by e-mail at pjackson@thetelegram.com.

Geographic location: America

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  • Bonnidette
    July 02, 2010 - 13:33

    I am so tired of reading about Bright Sided and how positive thinking underminded America. Really if I see it one more time I think I'm gonna puke. Correct me if I'm wrong, but didn't we build this great country on hopes and dreams and the pursute of happiness. Positive thinking didn't undermined America It built America.

    People from all around the world risk life and limb so that they may have the oppurtunities they don't have anywhere else in the world. Here in America you can do the impossible and acheive your biggest dreams. You are not only allowed to pursue your dreams, but you are encouraged to do so.

    Negativity is what holds people back not positivity. What got people into trouble was laziness and greed not positive thinking.

  • Bonnidette
    July 01, 2010 - 20:22

    I am so tired of reading about Bright Sided and how positive thinking underminded America. Really if I see it one more time I think I'm gonna puke. Correct me if I'm wrong, but didn't we build this great country on hopes and dreams and the pursute of happiness. Positive thinking didn't undermined America It built America.

    People from all around the world risk life and limb so that they may have the oppurtunities they don't have anywhere else in the world. Here in America you can do the impossible and acheive your biggest dreams. You are not only allowed to pursue your dreams, but you are encouraged to do so.

    Negativity is what holds people back not positivity. What got people into trouble was laziness and greed not positive thinking.