MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. When Hollywood remakes foreign movies, it's not unusual for the American version to have a different final scene. It seems we don't like unhappy endings. The fact that life serves up lots of unhappy endings, along with problems that don't go away and illnesses that don't get cured, is apparently not something our culture is comfortable dealing with. We like to stay positive and maintain a ‘can do’ attitude. But a new book by author Barbara Ehrenreich suggests there may be a downside to the bright side. When positive thinking gets in the way of making good decisions about real issues, it can leave us stagnated, working hard to fix our attitudes rather than fix our world. Barbara Ehrenreich is a popular columnist and social critic, the author of several best-selling books. Her newest book is called “Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion Of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America." And, Barbara, welcome to These Days.
BARBARA EHRENREICH (Author): Oh, glad to be with you.
CAVANAUGH: Now, we’d like to invite our audience to join the conversation. Do you get tired out by the emphasis on staying positive? Do you think our thoughts can make you better or get you a job? Give us a call with your questions and your comments. Our number is 1-888-895-5727, that’s 1-888-895-KPBS. Well, Barbara, as I said, Americans think of themselves as a happy, very positive people. But studies apparently show something else entirely; it doesn’t say that we’re entirely happy, does it?
EHRENREICH: Well, you would expect us to maybe be the happiest nation on earth considering that we are also the sort of birthplace of positive thinking and we sport around the world notions of how you can achieve it through visualizations and affirmations and so on. So it’s surprising that we’re, you know, way down there, about 40th, I think or – now I can’t remember the number, is it 30th or 40th in terms of…
CAVANAUGH: Yes, 40th.
EHRENREICH: Yeah, in terms of self-reported happiness. Now I’m very dubious about self-reported happiness surveys. But anyway, I think it was kind of strange though that if we’re so positive, we’re less, quote, happy than even the Finnish people who I always thought of as, you know, stereotypically very dour.
CAVANAUGH: Indeed. Tell us, if you could, what you describe as the first attempt to recruit you to positive thinking. It occurred in the changing room for a mammogram. What did you find there?
EHRENREICH: Well, it was, you know, a tense moment and I was astounded to see tacked up all over the wall these cutesy little messages, heartwarming messages, all featuring a lot of things with paint, little jokey things, and with all – to make you feel that breast cancer is just pretty normal and very feminine thing to have happen to you. What was even scarier was when I was sitting in the waiting room after that, I found in the local newspaper, a classified section, an ad for a pink breast cancer teddy bear.
EHRENREICH: And that’s where I kind of freaked out because I realize I am not afraid of dying but I am terrified of dying with a pink teddy bear tucked under my arm. And so that began – you know, as it turned out that I did indeed have cancer and I went through the prescribed treatments and everything, I just became fascinated by this culture of pink ribbons and positive thinking that surrounds this terrible disease, breast cancer.
CAVANAUGH: Right, exactly, and I read that you searched the web for information on chemotherapy, other treatments, but what you came up against over and over again instead of real substantive advice was sort of this constant positive thinking, optimism. Can you give us some examples of the kinds of things you found on the web?
EHRENREICH: Well, what I found most offensive was the idea that you were supposed to embrace the cancer itself as a wonderful thing that’s happening to you. That sounds really ridiculous when you say it but you are supposed to, if you’re a good patient and you’re down with the dogma here, you’re supposed to think, oh, this is really a great thing for me. I’m going to come out of this being such a better person than I am now, more spiritual, more evolved. I did – What I was feeling was not gratitude at all. In fact, I felt enraged, you know, that, number one, here is an epidemic and we don’t even know the cause of it. And, number two, the so-called treatments are often very debilitating and toxic in themselves.
CAVANAUGH: Right. Did you feel as if you were kind of alone with that anger and outrage? Did you get any…
EHRENREICH: Oh, yeah. I mean, I went to the Komen Foundation website which, you know, that’s the largest of America’s breast cancer foundations and went onto the message board, posted a message with the subject line ‘angry,’ just saying the things I’ve just said to you…
EHRENREICH: …about the mystery of the epidemic, what cause – it’s obviously something environmental, we don’t know what it is. And I don’t think I went on to great length, and I don’t think it sounded insane, but I got e-mails back saying, Barb, you’ve got run, not walk, to the nearest counselor.
EHRENREICH: And, you see, why it was so forbidden to express anger is apparently that if you don’t think positively about your cancer, you won’t recover from it.
CAVANAUGH: I see. Indeed.
EHRENREICH: And we hear that all the time.
CAVANAUGH: Right. I’m speaking with Barbara Ehrenreich and I’m speaking about her new book. It’s called, “Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion Of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America,” and we’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. A lot people want to join our conversation but before we go to the phones, I just want to get a little bit more into how it is that this experience you had got you thinking about why it is that Americans have embraced positive thinking with such ferocity and what did you find out in your research?
EHRENREICH: Well, I sort of put this out of my mind for awhile and was back to my normal beef, you know, of mostly economic issues.
EHRENREICH: And then I began to notice that people laid off from white collar jobs especially are likely to be treated with some of the same kind of philosophy as a breast cancer patient is. Don’t think of this as a bad thing that’s happening to you. Think of it as a good thing, an opportunity that you should be thankful for. No complaining, no whining. And besides only positive people will get hired again anyway. And this has been kind of a philosophy that’s delivered to them by life coaches or career coaches or motivational speakers, often paid for by the company that’s doing the firing, that’s doing the layoffs. And I saw a pretty grim parallel then emerging except in the corporate world, it’s really often not optional at all. Gee, as a breast cancer patient, I could be as surly as I wanted to at home, right?
EHRENREICH: But if you’re – In the modern – In the American workplace, by and large, you’re going to be required to, quote, be positive, which means, to define it sort of negatively, don’t ask too many questions, don’t raise any doubts you may have about the plans here and what we’re doing, just, you know, zip your lips, put on a smiley face, and go along with the program.
CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Barbara Ehrenreich about her new book “Bright-Sided.” The number is 1-888-895-5727. Let’s take a couple of phone calls. Cheri is calling from San Diego. Good morning, Cheri, and welcome to These Days. Good morning, Cheri? Well, let’s – We’re having a little problem. Let’s wait on the phone calls for a minute. I’m wondering, isn’t it a natural outgrowth of the leap of faith that it took Americans, or potential Americans, to get on the boat and come to America in the first place, this idea that, you know, we’re, despite all the odds, we’re going to go over to this new continent and our lives are going to be different. Isn’t that why America has – embraces this way of thinking?
EHRENREICH: Well, my research tells a slightly different story, that positive thinking really arose in America with the force that it did as a reaction to the dominant Calvinism of the, say, early 19th century. You know, the Calvinist religion, the puritanical religion, said that you are likely doomed to eternal torment because very few people will go to heaven. The rest of you miserable sinners will burn forever. And this was depressing. You know, this made people actually physically sick, thinking, contemplating this. There was an epidemic of invalidism among middle class people in the 19th century because of this terrible ideology that weighed on them, this religious ideology. And the founders of what I would – we would now call positive thinking were very independent minded, interesting folks who said, no, it’s not like that. You know, God doesn’t hate you. There’s, you know, there’s a lot of opportunity in the world. But it wasn’t that Americans just came with this automatic sense of everything’s going to be wonderful because we have this great big new land. That great big new land was terrifying to the original white settlers. You know, it really – It was, as they put it, full of wild beasts and wild men.
EHRENREICH: And that’s a quote from one of the New England settlers. So it took awhile to shake that sense of dread. By the 20th century, though, positive thinking had gone from being sort of a religious or a healing method into being just an overall kind of key to the world. Want to get rich? What to be successful? Do you want to, you know, be prosperous? You just have to think that will happen. Concentrate on it and it will happen.
CAVANAUGH: I think we have our phones sorted out. Let’s take a call now from Amy in San Diego. Good morning, Amy. Welcome to These Days.
AMY (Caller, San Diego): Good morning. I just wanted to comment briefly that recently in San Diego we just had a breast cancer walk and I had the same exact feelings as, I’m sorry, what is her name again?
CAVANAUGH: Barbara. Barbara Ehrenreich.
AMY: As Barbara. I woke up in the morning to see, you know, thousands of people across Ocean Beach in, you know, pink and balloons and men dressed as women and it was all a very silly thing and very – you know, lots of loud music and kind of vulgar comments, and my thoughts immediately were if I were a person that had breast cancer, I would be very offended by the silliness instead of the seriousness that should be taken for these things. So I just heard her talking about that and wanted to share that.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you, Amy. Thank you for that comment. I’m wondering, Barbara, does this kind of thinking do any harm?
EHRENREICH: I think so. And I just was, before you called, reading an e-mail from an oncology nurse who has read my book, “Bright-Sided,” and she was saying thank God you said this because, you know, this is something that we oncology nurses really are horrified by, the expectation that often relatives will put on a patient who is dying that they be cheerful and positive up to the last minute and never acknowledge how serious their problem is. And she said, it’s just a painful thing to watch. And other oncology nurses have told me that it’s like adding an extra burden. Not only do you have the disease but you have this attitude, this bad attitude, which is like a second disease that you’ve got to deal with.
CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another call. Lynn is calling in La Mesa. Good morning, Lynn, and welcome to These Days.
LYNN (Caller, La Mesa): Hi. Thank you for taking my call. What a very complicated subject you all bring up. I’m a clinical psychologist. I work with older adults and the message that I use to help people with things like depression and anxiety mostly involve helping people take a look at the way they think about situations. And very often I hear my patients saying that they want to learn how to think positively. And what I say to them is that positive is not the goal; accurate is the goal. It doesn’t make sense to think entirely positively about a horrible situation like breast cancer or loss of your ability to drive or something like that but there are ways that you can think negatively about a situation that are, in fact, inaccurate that will cause you to feel more depressed, more angry, more sad, whatever than is necessary given the situation.
CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you for that, Lynn…
CAVANAUGH: …and I’d like your response, Barbara.
EHRENREICH: Yeah, I really am pleased with that comment. I was afraid for a moment what you were going to say as a clinical psychologist. But, no, I mean, I’m not talking about the alternative being to be depressed. I mean, you can be – you can delude yourself by saying that nothing is going to work out, everything is going to turn out terribly. That is delusionary just as it would be to say, oh, everything is wonderful because I’m – that’s what I’m concentrating on, that’s what I’m thinking. The goal is realism. Try to see what is really going on and then figure out how do we deal with it?
CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another call. Chad is calling from Carlsbad. Good morning, Chad. Welcome to These Days.
CHAD (Caller, Carlsbad): Thanks, Maureen. You know, Barbara, I just had to say it is so refreshing to finally see someone approach this topic. It is amazing to me, especially with the current economic crisis, that you just spoke about white collar workers are being made to feel, oh, no, you have to retain that positive attitude or you will never again be employed, and I think swallowing the pill, you know, basically the spin that’s put on everything that’s going on is detrimental to fixing the problem.
EHRENREICH: Absolutely, Chad. I really agree. And I think we saw – we paid the price for it, or are still paying the price for it with the economic meltdown of 2008. Because, you know, as I write in the book, that, you know, was preceded by this real takeover of the corporate culture by positive thinking and motivational speakers and motivational posters and everything. And negative people could mean simply the kind of person who might say, excuse me, I’m a little worried about our subprime mortgage exposure at this bank.
EHRENREICH: They were eliminated. They were shut up. They were eliminated.
CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another call. Hannah is calling in La Costa. Good morning, Hannah. Welcome to These Days.
HANNAH (Caller, La Costa): Hi. Thank you so much for having me. Barbara, I was so excited to hear you talking about this subject because it really hits near and dear to me in terms of I’m sick of having people telling me to look positive. My husband lost three jobs in two years and we’ve been working really hard. I’m a stay at home mom who went back to work and saw it as my opportunity to get back in the work force but the truth of the matter is, is that we get all these reports over the radio and the news saying that, you know, the real estate is on the up and the economics are turning around but if you read the news and you do your research, banks are holding onto properties, people are still in the foreclosure crisis, people are losing their homes, people are still losing their jobs. And I have to say, I’m much more comfortable being a realist. I’ll be positive about my outcome but the truth of the matter is, is if you’re going to survive this situation and if you have kids and if you have to go back to work, you have to be a realist and say to yourself what do I have to do now? I’ll stay positive but, please, don’t tell me that the situation is that much better. In fact, we’re probably looking at some worse times to come.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you, Hannah, for that. And your reaction, Barbara?
EHRENREICH: Absolutely, a kindred spirit, I must say. But, you know, I just wanted to add here is that when you are suffering economically and you are being told to just be positive about it and put on a smile and go on, that is a way of quelling dissent. And I think it’s remarkable how little dissent we have had in this country, not just during this recession where I guess all we had was the tea-baggers’ sort of dissent, but throughout the decades of downsizing that preceded this recession. Because if we’re all just told that it’s kind of neurotic to be negative and you don’t want to be a complainer or whiner, well, we tend to shut up.
CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Barbara Ehrenreich. She is the author of “Bright-Sided.” We have to take a short break. When we return, we’ll continue our conversation and continue taking your calls here on KPBS-FM.
CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. My guest is Barbara Ehrenreich. We’re talking about her newest book called, “Bright-Sided.” That is, “Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion Of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America." And we’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Barbara, are – don’t we hear about studies, though, that tell us that staying positive and cheerful does actually have an influence on, you know, whether we recover from an illness or whether we have a positive outcome in whatever our desires are? Is that not true?
EHRENREICH: In many areas. I mean, I would not make a blunted statement but certainly in the case of cancer. In a number of cancers now, studies have been done showing it doesn’t seem to make any difference what your attitude is, which, I think, some people will find disheartening because you’d like to think we have an extra kind of control over our disease. But other people will find as a relief, this is a process, it’s not your fault.
EHRENREICH: So, it’s a very muddy area, the effects of mood on health. I would say there – I would be ready to give a little more credence to the idea that there’s some cardiovascular protective aspects of at least not being stressed out and angry all the time.
EHRENREICH: But it’s not – it’s so – it’s a mess. I say that as a person who’s not only a journalist but a scientist by background.
CAVANAUGH: And you say this – you call this a very American phenomenon. How are Europeans different? I mean, how do they look at the world? In a more depressed way or just in a more realistic way?
EHRENREICH: I would say more realistic. I mean, one thing that – a comment I’ve gotten from people who are living in this country but who are from somewhere else, not necessarily Europe, is, yeah, it’s really strange here, the pressure to be positive all the time. And one person said a very interesting thing to me, that she couldn’t make the kind of informal, spontaneous connections with people like she would have in wherever it was she was from, Ireland or something, because you can’t be so easily sarcastic here. You know, you can’t cackle with another person so easily. You got to just keep up that same monotonic mood.
CAVANAUGH: I think probably New York is excluded from that.
EHRENREICH: Yeah, I’m not in New York but New York is a little bit of an exception, yes.
CAVANAUGH: Yes. Let’s take another phone call. We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. And our caller’s name is Susenio, I hope I have that right, is calling from San Diego. Good morning and welcome to These Days.
SUSENIO (Caller, San Diego): Hi, thanks for having me. It was a pleasure. I saw you on The Daily Show and it sparked a lot of conversation here at home. And my comment is I think – Let me start off by saying I believe that going on the other end by playing the victim role, doesn’t do you any service either. But I think there’s kind of a narcissistic thing that happens in conversations where people actually don’t care all that much to engage in the problems of others and I think that, you know, when you see someone and you say, hey, how’s it going? And, you know, instantly in my mind is, well, do you actually want the truth?
EHRENREICH: Uh-huh. Exactly.
SUSENIO: Do you actually want to hear what I have to say? Because most of the times if you actually broach on an issue, they’ll quickly try to dismiss it by saying, oh, but that’s going to resolve itself, right?
SUSENIO: And you’re kind of left with this dissatisfied, well, yeah, I guess it will, where you don’t really get to engage in the problem and kind of come to a consensus or actually get feedback. Because I think a lot of times is when we’re talking with people, we don’t want them to cry for us but, you know, we want to hear their feedback and maybe that – going through that process helps us.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you, Susenio. Sound familiar, Barbara?
EHRENREICH: Oh, yeah. I’m so glad you called and said that because, you know, this is what it feels like, I think, to a lot of us when we think about it, that it – there’s a kind of compassion or empathy deficit in this culture and nobody wants to hear. I mean, if you’re the cancer patient, they don’t – your caretakers and family members don’t want to hear that you’re in pain. If you’re going through economic hard times, you know, it’s like keep it to yourself, I’ve got enough problems of my own. And how do we get out of things, though? How do we face them? Well, I think when we realize that these bad things are happening to a lot of us and we have to get together to make change.
CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another call. Holly is calling from Oceanside. Good morning, Holly. Welcome to These Days.
HOLLY (Caller, Oceanside): Oh, good morning. Thank you for taking my call. I just wanted to make a brief comment, that I appreciate the topic that you’re bringing up because I recently just had a conversation with my uncle and he was debating whether to push my cousin into joining the navy and he said, basically, well, do you have anything positive to say about it? I said, well, actually I don’t. So I just wanted to say thank you for bringing up this topic and that it’s really close to home for me because I didn’t have anything positive to say for my cousin who’s back in, you know, a small town and really nothing to do up there except for work and maybe go to a community college. So thank you for the topic and I’m sorry that I’m crying.
CAVANAUGH: No, that’s okay, Holly. Thank you so much for the phone call. The idea of not being able to be positive about somebody going into the army and Holly’s in tears over that. Barbara, what do you make of that?
EHRENREICH: Well, I think that, yeah, Holly, was put in a tough spot but there are times when maybe the – you know, we feel that we have to give some positive response and it’s just not in us, it’s not there. And then I think the only thing to do is, you know, to be honest and say I am very worried about his going into the military. And, you know, I’m sure hoping this turns out all right but, I mean, this insane pressure to say, oh, great, you know, we can’t deal with that.
CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another call. Iliana is calling from Chula Vista. Good morning, and welcome to These Days.
ILIANA (Caller, Chula Vista): Good morning, and thank you for taking my call. Let me preface this by first telling you that I grew up in Mexico with a mother who was completely crazy about positive thinking, mind control, all these things. We did and practiced mind control and meditation and all this positive thinking for 20 years, twice a day. It was crazy. And I can tell you by personal experience it doesn’t get you anywhere. What’s going to get you well, what’s going to get you a job, is not only trying to be positive about what your goal is but action. You need to move. You need to do your resume. You need to talk to people. You need to do your research about what treatments are out there for your cancer, what medications, what – Positive thinking, it just plays a small role in what happens to all of us. And I’m so thankful for Barbara’s comments. This is ridiculous. I mean, and just by personal experience, I could write a book about all the craziness in my house because of positive thinking without action. And…
CAVANAUGH: Well, Iliana, thank you for that. We really do have your comment. Thank you for that. And, Barbara, one of the – Your book goes into the idea of the whole – how churches, not mainstream churches, perhaps, but close to mainstream churches have turned a lot of their efforts into the idea of positive thinking and prosperity, how God wants you to be rich and how you have to think about that and visualize what you want.
EHRENREICH: Oh, yeah. I mean, the – If you go to a mega-church in America today, you will likely not find any crosses on the wall or any symbols of Christianity like that because the entire message is that God wants to, quote, prosper you. And you’ve got to think positively to get all the good things God has in store for you. And it would be sort of a bummer to have to think of that sad story of Jesus being tortured for our sakes. So that gets taken out. And it’s – that’s what they’ve become. I mean, I’m hardly the first to say it but people like Joe Osteen, said to be America’s most popular Christian preacher and is the head of the largest mega-church in the country, he’s indistinguishable from a motivational speaker. There’ll be occasional references to God but it’s a God that is not something to greatly admire, it’s a God who’ll run around and do errands for you.
CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another call. Alexis is calling from San Diego. Good morning, Alexis. Welcome to These Days.
ALEXIS (Caller, San Diego): Hi. Good morning. I’m listening to the conversation and really enjoying it. It seems like to me I don’t know a world class athlete that has not envisioned or looked to the possibility of winning in spite of his assessment of the talents that surround him. So positive thinking to me is really looking and assessing the possibilities of what is and putting out the best effort to realize what it is I’d like to realize. So I make the distinction between delusional thinking and positive thinking and so I’d like to hear what the author has to say about that.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you for that.
EHRENREICH: Hmm. Well, I think that bringing athletic experiences is interesting and sports are interesting because for one thing, and most of these are competitive and some individual or team loses and they were probably thinking just as positively about it as the team that won. So far, you know, no data that there’s an effect there. But I think, you know, pumping yourself up for a muscular activity is kind of different than imagining that something is going to happen just because you’re thinking it. I mean, we do have some, you know, mental control over our muscles and I know, you know, I can achieve more in a muscular sense if I am, you know, really kind of pushing that. But I know I cannot change the world or bring a million dollars into my bank account by thinking about it.
CAVANAUGH: Another phone call now. Probha is calling from San Diego. Probha, welcome to These Days.
PROBHA (Caller, San Diego): Thank you. I just have a comment on the previous discussion. I am an example of a person who grew up outside the United States. I grew up in India. And touching on the topic of athletic competition, when you see young kids who play their soccer or any other sport, we – it is a good way to inculcate the fact that positive thinking is good but realistic thinking is bad. I mean, it is okay to lose. We encourage our kids in America and say that everybody needs to be a winner but sports is a great way to encourage okay, we lose, we have another chance and so on, and that applies to life as well.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you for that.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you for that. Seeing that there is, indeed, a difference in the way that we kind of, here in America, look at even sports and the idea of winning all the time.
CAVANAUGH: I wonder, Barbara, how would you like to see people spend their time and mental energy instead of this relentless positive thinking?
EHRENREICH: Well, as a start, it’s like putting a burden down when you tell yourself I don’t have to keep working on my own attitude. You know, there’s so many self-help books, programs, DVDs that will have you working on yourself all the time to snip out any negative thoughts before they emerge and so on. And you can – To just say forget about that. I’m going to try to understand the world around me rather than try to monitor my own feelings at all times. But I do want some ‘can do’ spirit here and some feeling that we can change things if we got together to change some things. I think the fact that there’s such a poor safety net for people who are laid off is one of those things that needs to be changed and will – can only be changed by large numbers of people acting together, not by anybody just wishing it in their own heads.
CAVANAUGH: And you make a very clear case in your book “Bright-Sided” that you’re not necessarily talking up the idea of being cranky or downhearted, you actually want to see the world actually become a better place, not just simply in our own heads.
EHRENREICH: Right. Well, you know, a lot of my concern in my life and writing has been about poverty, which I think is a major source of human misery in the world. And the way out of it is not to say, oh, there’s something wrong with those people, they just have a wrong attitude, they’re not trying hard enough or something, but to look for – look at all the things that are holding people back and holding them down, like extremely low wages, like lack of jobs, like lack of health insurance, and then say what do we do about that?
CAVANAUGH: Indeed, collectively instead of in our own minds. You know, in the minute that we have left, Barbara, one of the spookiest things in your book was the idea that former President Bush never wanted to hear any bad news, and perhaps that influenced the way we conducted the war in Iraq.
EHRENREICH: Oh, yeah, and I think that’s not atypical for a lot of America’s corporate leaders: Don’t be the bearer of bad news. Bush, according to Condoleezza Rice, did not want to be around pessimists and that simply meant anybody who was going to say, uh, you know, what if this isn’t a cakewalk in Iraq? Or what if the levees break in New Orleans? Something like that, you know, that was not to be. He didn’t want to be bothered with that, and that’s dangerous.
CAVANAUGH: It – It can be, apparently. Barbara Ehrenreich, thank you so much for speaking with us today.
EHRENREICH: Oh, my pleasure.
CAVANAUGH: Barbara Ehrenreich’s newest book is called “Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion Of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America." There were so many people who wanted to comment and we couldn’t take them all on the air. We encourage you to go online, post your comments at KPBS.org/TheseDays. You’re listening to These Days. Stay with us for hour two right here on KPBS.