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THE POSITIVE AND ITS NEGATIVES
January 7th, 2010 by Clark Humphrey

Finished Barbara Ehrenreich’s latest sociocultural rant book, Bright Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America.
From the title alone, it’s obvious Ehrenreich can’t stand the positivity movement/industry, a very American institution that’s boomed and blossomed of late.
She blames positive thinking (and its assorted tendrils in religion, business, and pop psychology) for infantilizing its followers, for leading a passive-aggressive nation into all those now-popped economic bubbles, and even for the Bush gang’s gung-ho drives into war and ultra-graft.
The book is a minor work of hers, which is odd considering it starts out with a very personal crisis in her own life. (She got breast cancer. She wound up hating the teddy bears and boxes of crayons foisted upon her more than she hated the disease itself.)
And like so many left-wing essay books, it comprises a long sequence of complaints, with only the briefest hint of possible solutions stuck in at the very end. She loathes uncritical, unquestioning “positivity,” but she doesn’t want people to be hooked on depression or stress either.
So what’s left in between? Social and political activism, she suggests.
But I’ve seen plenty of “activists” who get stuck in their own emotional trips (self-aggrandizing protests, feel-good “lifestyle choices,” et al.). They get to feel righteous, or smug, or genetically superior to the sap masses. And nothing changes.
World-changing and personal therapy, I believe, are two different thangs.
Still, there is a psychological benefit to working with other people, helping other people, becoming an involved part of our interdependent existence.
That was one of the messages in This Emotional Life, the recent Paul Allen-produced PBS miniseries. Another message was when an interviewee said, “The opposite of depression isn’t happiness. The opposite of depression is vitality.”
That meets obliquely with something I wrote around the time of the Obama inauguration. The “hope” Obama talked about wasn’t pie-in-the-sky positive thinking. It was acknowledging that work needed to be done, and then doing it, doing it with a clear and open mind and with full confidence in one’s abilities.
This has everything to do with Ehrenreich’s usual main topics, progressive politics and the plight of working families.

You don’t have to open Barbara Ehrenreich’s latest sociocultural rant book, Bright Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America to know what it’ll say.

From the title alone, it’s obvious Ehrenreich can’t stand the positivity movement/industry, a very American institution that’s boomed and blossomed of late.

She blames positive thinking (and its assorted tendrils in religion, business, and pop psychology) for infantilizing its followers, for leading a passive-aggressive nation into all those now-popped economic bubbles, and even for the Bush gang’s gung-ho drives into war and ultra-graft.

The book is a minor work of hers, which is odd considering it starts out with a very personal crisis in her own life. (She got breast cancer. She wound up hating the teddy bears and boxes of crayons foisted upon her more than she hated the disease itself.)

And like so many left-wing essay books, it comprises a long sequence of complaints, with only the briefest hint of possible solutions stuck in at the very end. She loathes uncritical, unquestioning “positivity,” but she doesn’t want people to be hooked on depression or stress either.

So what’s left in between? Social and political activism, she suggests.

But I’ve seen plenty of “activists” who get stuck in their own emotional trips (self-aggrandizing protests, feel-good “lifestyle choices,” sneering against the “sheeple,” et al.). They get to feel powerful, or righteous, or smug, or genetically superior to the sap masses. And nothing changes.

World-changing and personal therapy, I believe, are two different thangs.

Still, there is a psychological benefit to working with other people, helping other people, becoming an involved part of our interdependent existence.

That was one of the messages in This Emotional Life, the recent Paul Allen-produced PBS miniseries. Another message was when an interviewee said, “The opposite of depression isn’t happiness. The opposite of depression is vitality.”

That meets obliquely with something I wrote around the time of the Obama inauguration. The “hope” Obama talked about wasn’t pie-in-the-sky positive thinking. It was acknowledging that work needed to be done, and then doing it, doing it with a clear and open mind and with full confidence in one’s abilities.

This has everything to do with Ehrenreich’s usual main topics, progressive politics and the plight of working families.


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