Barbara Ehrenreich rips toxic positivity a well-deserved new one in this much-needed but unfortunately poorly organized book surveying the origins, bizarre applications, and downside of the American obsession with positive thinking.

The first chapter is about how her diagnosis with breast cancer lands her in a strange new world of enforced positivity and a weird, mutant, and extremely pink version of feminist femininity.

She clearly traces the journey from breast cancer being an unspeakable and hidden doom to how genuinely needed efforts to get it more funding and make it seem less of a shameful death sentence went off-kilter in some very strange ways. For instance, support groups (needed; very helpful to many women) get so obsessed with the idea that positivity is essential to survival that they refuse to allow women to express any negative emotions, especially anger, for fear that they will literally kill them; one of Ehrenreich's ends up ostracizing a dying woman for being angry and depressed.

As Ehrenreich points out, actual research on the effect of positive thinking on illness outcomes is complicated at best. Just to start with, many studies don't actually say what people think they say, and "positive thinking" is extremely hard to measure. And then there's the whole issue of correlation vs. causation: the patients who were more positive might have felt more positive because their illness was less severe, they had better medical support, etc, while the more negative patients might have had worse symptoms, couldn't tolerate the treatment, etc. So it might not be that positive thinking causes better outcomes, but rather that people who were going to have better outcomes anyway are more likely to be positive. And so forth.

And even if positive thinking really does make it that fraction more likely that you'll live longer (even the best-crafted studies don't show large differences), can positivity be forced? If it works at all (it may not) does it work if it's forced, or does it have to be sincere? Does telling people they need to smile or they'll die produce the sincere happiness that's supposedly needed. Or is it more healthy to feel and express the emotions you sincerely feel, even if they're not positive?

And how come, out of all the illness-based positivity hammering, it comes down hardest on a disease primarily affecting women? Could it be that "smile, smile, smile, look on the bright side, use the opportunity to bond with your loved ones, and whatever you do, don't be angry" is a message that American women get anyway?

Ehrenreich's righteous fury burns through this chapter, fueling a killer takedown of bad science, not-actually-feminism, and cruelty disguised as kindness. It was brilliant and if she'd written the whole book on that, it would have been stunning. Also, there is definitely enough material for a book's worth.

The rest of the book unfortunately leaves the subject of breast cancer and, in most cases, illness behind to first explore a possible root cause of the whole positivity movement in the US, then devote a chapter each to various idiotic and rage-making applications. It was interesting but didn't live up to the beginning. Unless I missed it, the US is really overdue for a current version of something like Susan Sontag's Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors

Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America
mildred_of_midgard: (Default)

From: [personal profile] mildred_of_midgard

This reminded me of a blog post Sara Douglass wrote before she died of ovarian cancer, and sure enough, she was reacting to a review of this very book.
lilacsigil: Jeune fille de Megare statue, B&W (Default)

From: [personal profile] lilacsigil

I remember being praised for being upbeat and cheerful while receiving cancer treatment! The actual reason I was cheerful was that (after 18 months of suffering) I finally had a diagnosis and a treatment and the hope of getting better. But no, I was healing myself with my attitude!
rmc28: Rachel smiling against background of trees, with newly-cut short hair (Default)

From: [personal profile] rmc28

I've been praised for my positive approach to having cancer. I also kept getting told I was "strong". Laurie Penny wrote about being called strong recently (in the context of receiving online abuse) and I couldn't help notice the parallels:

When the abuse leaves me broken and wondering how to go on, I am told how strong I am, usually by people who care and want to reassure themselves that there’s sense and meaning to what’s happening to me.

Having to manage the feelings of "people who care" about my having cancer was one of the more frustrating parts of the whole thing, and it usually came along with praise for being "so strong" and "so positive".

(I must pass the link to the Sara Douglass post to a fellow cancer survivor who has been very snappish on Facebook about "think positive" exhortations. As I told her, I thought the chemo had a lot more to do with my survival than my attitude.)

From: [identity profile]

Fun fact, I burned all my bridges with positive thinking culture the day someone told me if only I'd read The Secret in time (it came out 6 months after my mom died), maybe I wouldn't have let my mother die with all my negative thinking.

Shame the rest of the book is a mess, because I feel like I would have a very cathartic connection with the overall message.

From: [identity profile]

I read that book a few years ago. I remember thinking that first chapter was freaking amazing and it would have made a terrific essay in the New York Times Magazine or Harper's or something, but instead she decided to try to turn it into a book when she really didn't have a book's worth of material.

I'm curious how the "think positive" messages go with non-female cancers. Like, do people with colon cancer get this message? Prostate cancer?

In the years since it's been published I feel like the critique has been absorbed a bit into popular culture even as the "put a happy face on it!" messages haven't gone away. There were some bits in Breaking Bad where Walt went to a support group with his family, and it was clear in the context of the show that the real purpose here was to make things easier on the family, not Walt (although Walt is a narcissistic asshole and ultimately a murderer and vengeful psychopath and the show's from his POV, so.... yeah.)

From: [identity profile]

Oh man, now I really want to read the book she didn't write, because it sounds fascinating.

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