Positive thinking negative?

03Jan10

I just read this feature article (actually an extract from a forthcoming book) in the Guardian Weekend magazine. In it, Barbara Ehrenreich hits out against the ‘positive thinking brigade’ that surrounds cancer, and indeed most major illnesses or calamities.

I’m not entirely sure what to make of it, but it’s an interesting piece. The article focuses on cancer, but is actually about the perceived ‘American’ positivity that is being peddled — backed up by bad science — in society. Ehrenreich points out several contradicting studies and features accounts from different people who have had little benefit from positive thinking.

As someone who is naturally pessimistic and cynical about things (but who nevertheless strives for a more positive, optimistic attitude) I feel the pressure to be upbeat about everything — as Ehrenreich suggests, to not do so makes you feel like anything bad that happens is your own fault for ‘expecting the worst’. But I’m not entirely sure that the extract leaves the reader with any idea as to what to do about the situation. Is it actually better to wallow in your anger and sadness?

At first, I wondered what the author hoped to achieve with this. It’s one thing to unmask potentially harmful bad science, but is she actually berating people for not being angry and depressed when bad things happen?

Reading it again, I think I understand what she’s getting at. It’s not about being falsely upbeat and optimistic about life but about making peace with the way things are. At the very least it reminds us of how terrible it is to feel pressured to feel a certain way or to force others to feel a certain way, even if you think you are doing them a favour.

On a side point, I wonder how much work goes into choosing and editing a piece like this. It looks to me like the editor did largely a good job, piecing together many of the separate aspects of a complicated subject, in a still cohesive narrative. As I say, it does suffer from the lack of advice or conclusion — you feel that Ehrenreich must have reached one, even if it is ‘let me wallow for fuck’s sake!’.

Perhaps the book gives more of a definitive answer. It certainly shows how extracts can be used well as advertising, making you want to read more on the subject and providing exactly the kind of article that sparks heated debate.

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