An acquaintance told me about a friend of hers experiencing a breast cancer recurrence. That’s harrowing anytime, but was coupled with shock since the friend was quite young. My acquaintance told me that her friend was in a relationship with a man she’d been “obsessed” with until they got together, and their relationship wasn’t smooth: he’d been with someone else when they met, so she was insecure about his fidelity, didn’t get along with his kids, etc.
It became clear that she was indicating that this woman, now afflicted with cancer, had been negatively fixated on her relationship and the result of that negative thinking was that her cancer returned. She circled this connection and finally stated it outright, I guess because I wasn’t encouraging her.
I was internally screaming. Can stress harm your health? Absolutely. Can negative thinking give you breast cancer? GET OUT.
This is an extreme example but not an uncommon one, and it’s why I was so excited to learn this book existed.
A far less rational theory also runs rampant in American ideology—the idea that our thoughts can, in some mysterious way, directly affect the physical world. Negative thoughts somehow produce negative outcomes, while positive thoughts realize themselves in the form of health, prosperity, and success.
When sociologist/biologist/journalist/woman of many trades Barbara Ehrenreich was diagnosed with breast cancer, she became familiar with the world of pink, ultra-feminine positive thinking targeted at breast cancer. It’s when she realized what a disturbing market exists around positive thinking, and how its message can be unhelpful at best and detrimental at worst.
To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with showing support or solidarity or encouraging awareness and donations using pink ribbons. There IS something wrong with criticizing people and blaming them for feeling pain, frustration, or experiencing setbacks, or a refusal to act blissed-out and upbeat when health isn’t recovering as desperately hoped for. Initiated into breast cancer support groups, Ehrenreich says that “some women have reported being expelled by their groups when their cancers metastasized and it became clear they would never graduate to the rank of “survivor.”
Breast cancer, I can now report, did not make me prettier or stronger, more feminine or spiritual. What it gave me, if you want to call this a “gift,” was a very personal, agonizing encounter with an ideological force in American culture that I had not been aware of before—one that encourages us to deny reality, submit cheerfully to misfortune, and blame only ourselves for our fate.
Ehrenreich began a thorough exploration into the marketing and big business behind positive thinking concepts, which is much more intense, and insidious, than merely looking on the bright side. The message of thinking positively to achieve your desired outcome has become ingrained in messaging, branding, workplace philosophies, religious movements, and the national psyche, in addition to its health care applications.
She traces the evolution of the mindset that essentially, “You’re God,”… promoted by every positive thinker from Mary Baker Eddy to Joel Osteen, from Norman Vincent Peale to Rhonda Byrne.” It’s a truly fascinating if often enraging look at the variants in the concept, how they’ve been monetized, and what harm this is causing in various sectors.
Although the connection to health care was initially what interested me, a big part of her research is focused on positive thinking in business. (To be fair, the health care aspect is also a business.) All of this is about making money, ultimately, and there’s a long trail of precedent leading to our current state: “America has historically offered space for all sorts of sects, cults, faith healers, and purveyors of snake oil, and those that are profitable, like positive thinking, tend to flourish.” It’s as simple as that, really.
By the late first decade of the twenty-first century… positive thinking had become ubiquitous and virtually unchallenged in American culture… it had been adopted as the theology of America’s most successful evangelical preachers; it found a place in medicine as a potential adjuvant to the treatment of almost any disease.
The most alarming issue in health care is the victim blaming that can occur when you’re apparently not being positive enough. She quotes a psychiatrist concerned about this additional burden placed on patients, observing that “the failure to think positively can weigh on a cancer patient like a second disease.” I would add that it’s not only cancer patients, although that’s the most dire demographic affected by this.
If you have a chronic condition, or one not responding to treatment, there will be someone who lets you know that you’re not positive-thinking yourself better the right way. I can’t even express how frustrating this is when all anyone sick thinks about is being healthy again, only to have someone lay more of the responsibility for an already frustrating illness directly on you. I can’t wrap my head around why we do this or how we can believe it, although of course it makes sense that there’s money and marketing involved.
Ehrenreich expertly debunks the bad science used to support these ideas (she identifies as “a myth buster by trade”, which I love). Some of it is plain ridiculous, like the quantum physics of Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret, a concept I can’t believe exists / is taken seriously. Ehrenreich is similarly flabbergasted. She’s kindly told that the fake quantum physics – “inescapable pseudoscientific flapdoodle” – invoked at a conference she attends, and espoused in The Secret, just “doesn’t work for [her],” as if science is something you can choose whether you accept or not.
I know an argument sure to arise is that types like Ehrenreich (and me) draw badness to us like magnets because of our negativity, like Eeyores that just want everything bad to rain down on us. But why would anyone want that, especially when it’s your physical health? As Ehrenreich explains:
I do not write this in a spirit of sourness or personal disappointment of any kind, nor do I have any romantic attachment to suffering as a source of insight or virtue. On the contrary, I would like to see more smiles, more laughter, more hugs, more happiness and, better yet, joy… But we cannot levitate ourselves into that blessed condition by wishing it. We need to brace ourselves for a struggle against terrifying obstacles, both of our own making and imposed by the natural world. And the first step is to recover from the mass delusion that is positive thinking.
Another highlight from her Secret mythbusting is how your secreting brain powers affect others who probably don’t want to be involved in your positive thinking journey.
Cue Larry King’s hilarious but reasonable reaction while hosting “a panel of The Secret’s “teachers.” One of them said, “I’ve been master planning my life and one of the things that I actually dreamed of doing is sitting here facing you, saying what I’m about to say. So I know that it [the law of attraction] works.” That was too much for King, who was suddenly offended by the idea of being an object of “attraction” in someone else’s life. “If one of you have a vision board with my picture on it,” he snapped, “I’ll go to break.” This was an odd situation for a famous talk show host—having to insist that he, Larry King, was not just an image on someone else’s vision board but an independent being with a will of his own.” I really did laugh out loud.
Additionally, on the “law of attraction,” Byrne cited it when alleging “that disasters like tsunamis can happen only to people who are “on the same frequency as the event.”” Where did I just read the exact same thing…
Speaking of which, religion is another area that’s found the business of positive thinking quite lucrative, with Ehrenreich identifying that “megachurches and those aspiring to that status needed a substitute for the more demanding core of Christian teachings, and that has been, for the most part, positive thinking…because it produces satisfied “customers”—as some megachurch pastors refer to them.”
I’m excerpting a lot here, but Ehrenreich makes her arguments so well, with so much insightful data and background, that it’s hard to talk about this topic without including the incredible points she raises. The business behind positive thinking is bigger and nastier than I realized, but this is such a valuable study for understanding it. Marketing is so pervasive, and so many of these messages enjoy near-unquestioned status, making it even more important for us to be informed about where it’s coming from and why. Incredibly incisive and illuminating. 4.25/5
Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America
by Barbara Ehrenreich
published August 2010 by Picador