Why So Happy?

Barbara Ehrenreich, renowned for her exposés of America’s grueling blue- and white-collar job markets (i.e., Nickel and Dimed, Bait and Switch), is out to cement her role as our nation’s reality checker. Her new book, Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, was initially inspired by her resistance to the cancer-gives-my-life-meaning trope, which was inflicted on her when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2000. She found that insistent, blind optimism is deeply ingrained in our nation’s psyche, especially in the realms of finance and national security. Ehrenreich talked with Kera Bolonik.

You describe positive thinking as a kind of delusion that infects nearly every realm of American culture. Was it always so insidious?
I think it was very noble in its origins. I have a kind of respect and amazement for these early-nineteenth-century people who challenged the prevailing Calvinism of their time, still a strong influence in our culture, which says that everybody is probably doomed to eternal damnation. It was a big thing to stand up against, as Phineas Quimby did, in the name of things like happiness.

And yet we’ve gone from Quimby to Oprah …
Oprah has consistently promoted the worst of self-help through positive thinking. I think Oprah believes it herself. I called her on it on her show, and I never got invited back [laughs].

At what point did positive thinking become detrimental?
In the eighties. It began to be an industry in itself, with books, office accessories, posters. Within the business world, it became mandatory.

Can a recession serve as an antidote?
During the Great Depression, a mind-over-matter book called Think and Grow Rich, by Napoleon Hill, was a best seller, which was odd since it seemed obvious that there were other factors than one’s own desires at work in shaping the world. Today, prosperity preachers like Joel Osteen are just going on as always. These guys preach that God wants you to have everything, and if you don’t, it’s because you are thinking small—it’s not even that you’re not praying hard enough. A few weeks ago, I Googled “Osteen” and “foreclosure”; it didn’t yield anything.

By Barbara Ehrenreich
Metropolitan Books Oct. 13

Why So Happy?