Sunday, September 18, 2011

Barbara Ehrenreich: Bright-Sided

I was discussing my issues with Pink with a friend and she recommend I read Barbara Ehrenreich's 2009 book, "Bright Sided." I was reading "Reality is Broken" at the time, and struggling with the concept of positive psychology, so I was stoked to see that the library actually had this book. Not only did they have the book, they had more copies than I think anyone will ever read. Some day I will understand which books libraries buy and which ones they don't. I wish libraries still stamped due dates on the backs of books: then I could make my own informal, anecdotal study, about who reads what books. Or at least who reads the books that I read.

Barbara Ehrenreich thinks positive psychology and positive thinking is a whole lot of crap, and dangerous crap to boot. Although the first section about breast cancer, and the menace of the Pink movement, is the best section, Ehrenreich argues that societies' emphasis on positivity is even more dangerous than cancer: it caused the foreclosure crisis and the current economic tailspin. If McGonical's description on using positive thinking to make life what you wanted it to be was a hard happy pill to swallow, Ehrenreich turned it into a bitter pill that made me choke. I've been left thinking that McGonigal may have bought too much into the "studies" of popular psychologists (Ehrenreich shows that even the psychologists aren't so sure about their studies) and bought into them with such gusto that I'm now not even sure how much of her arguments about the importance and potential of gaming to believe. I was trying to convince myself that my time spent gaming is productive, "good" work, but after reading "Bright-Sided," I have a feeling that McGonical is acting out positive thinking: "if you expect things to get better, they will." If people in 2011 spend way too much time in front of their TVs or computers playing games and nothing good is coming from it, if we think that it will start to be something good, it will. What a relief for everyone using up their spare hours gaming! This is a perfect example of what Eherenreich writes about so perfectly in "Bright-Sided." And I feel like a fool for falling for it.

Growing up, one of my favorite stories was "The Little Engine That Could." The book is a variation on a story that originated in 1906 and was published in the above form in 1920. If you didn't grow up on tales of positive thinking, a small train carrying toys for children stalls before the peak of a hill and is shunned by tougher trains. Another small train who has never chugged over the hill decides that she can make it over the hill, and tells herself "I think I can- I think I can" and lo and behold, makes it over the hill and saves the day for all the small children waiting for the toys. The book makes sense in its context, and in its longevity. In the mid- and late- 19th century, "New Thought" developed as a response to or backlash against the depressing, self-loathing ways of Calvinism. "In New Thought," Ehrenreich explains, illness was a disturbance in an an otherwise perfect Mind and could be cured through Mind alone." Maybe the Mind couldn't cure contagious things like the scary infectious diseases that were all over at the time, but like the Little Engine in the story, the Mind was the key to fixing the general malaise that afflicted the middle class in the form of "invalidism." Medicine wasn't doing anything about the epidemic, so a man named Phineas Parkhurst Quimby stepped in, convincing his "patients that the universe was fundamentally benevolent, that they were one with the 'Mind' out of which it was constituted and that they could leverage their own powers of mind to cure or 'correct' their ills." And with that, positive thinking as a mindset/religion/American way of being was off. Mary Baker Eddy was an influential believer- she founded Christian Science, as was William James, who Ehrenreich calls "the first American psychologist." As this new happy methodology gained in popularity, it also came full-circle back to Calvinism: both the Calvinist and the positive thinker must constantly be on the lookout for mistakes made by the self. "The self becomes an antagonist with which one wrestles endlessly, the Calvinist attacking it for sinful inclinations, the positive thinker for 'negativity.'" Basically, even positive thinking is an anxiety-producing endeavor stemming from the depressing Calvinist doctrine of eternal damnation.

And here we are back at Pink and breast cancer, where the positive thinking brand has taken over so fully that women are told that they must think positively in order for their cancer to be cured. The alternative? Damnation in the form of the return of the cancer. Although there is no scientific evidence for this (nor was there any in the instance of New Thought and invalidism), optimism was recently cited as a "Breast Cancer Prevention Tip." As Ehrenreich writes, this is particularly alarming since "since there is no known means of prevention." Women (and men, who are also at risk of breast cancer) are not only being sold that thinking good thoughts will help them get through cancer, but help them avoid cancer. (In other chapters, positive thinking helps people lose weight, get rich, and find husbands.) Again, this is a dangerous subtext of something that, at face value seems innocuous: how could thinking good thoughts be bad? First, hearing things like "thinking positively makes you healthier" so often that they become "general knowledge" means that we are accepting incorrect information about our health: "it glides by without a moment's thought about what the immune system is, how it might be affected by emotions, and what, if anything, it could do to fight cancer." As in the example I cited in McGonigal's book, SuperBetter, it's hard to argue that if you do something that might make you feel better, and it makes you feel better, that it doesn't work. But Ehrenreich eloquently (and using many many backup studies) convinces the reader that it's bad science. Further, "rather than providing emotional sustenance, the sugarcoating of cancer can extract a dreadful emotional cost." Women are supposed to think positively, because it will help. But if it doesn't help, or more likely, it can't help, and they get sicker, the women then feel doubly bad: physically and emotionally, because they have failed to do the work on their selves, just as the Calvinist who feels he is destined for damnation for a petty sin. What if McGonigal's game had not worked? What if she had continued to suffer symptoms of her concussion, or if her family had not played along, and told her to buck up and think positively, as the fans of Pink are essentially telling women with breast cancer? How would she feel in this case? More depressed, likely.

Ehrenreich has a distinctive style that alternately engages me and bores me. "Bright-Sided" has some extremely powerful sections, especially the chapters on breast cancer and the historical trajectory of Positive Thinking. She lingers on financial issues too long before bringing her story back around to the main point, but finishes strongly- fortunately the book is only 200 pages, so the lingering is short-lived. Her take-home point, that skepticism, realism, and questioning everything, is valuable, but not expanded fully. Finally, I do think there's a place for optimism, and crucially, the benefit of the doubt. While the Positive Thinking that Ehrenreich writes about disallows all agency- if you think it will be so, it will be so- I believe there is room for a middle ground out there. There is room for visualizing this positive scenario, and working to make it happen. Rather than working on the self to visualize the positive scenario, working externally, cooperatively, to make it happen. This doesn't involve merely the skepticism and realism that Ehrenreich advocates, but also positivity and optimism. Throwing out positivity with the Christian Scientists or the Pink people seems excessive.


lisa g. said...

hey lady, would you email me when you get a chance. a friend of mine is working on a play, and your expertise would be mighty helpful in developing her characters. you can reach me at hope you well. talk soon, lisa