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Barbara Ehrenreich: Rethinking American Optimism

From our archives (2010 edition): How has positive thinking affected U.S. society — for better and for worse?

April 12, 2020

Editor’s note: This article was first published on April 12, 2010.

1. Are Americans happy?

“No, even in economically prosperous times and despite our well-known penchant for positive thinking, Americans aren't very happy at all.”

2. What's the evidence?

“Just consider this number: Americans account for two-thirds of the global market for anti-depressants.”

3. So what explains that focus on positive thinking?

“Our inclination to favor positive thinking is really driven by a high level of personal insecurity.”

4. How is that related to the economy?

“While positive thinking has reinforced American national pride, it also has a symbiotic relationship with American capitalism.”

5. How so?

“Emphasizing positive thinking is useful as an apology for the crueler aspects of the market economy.”

6. In which way does that manifest itself?

“Via the dogma that there is no excuse for failure. The flip side of stressing positive thinking is a harsh insistence on personal responsibility.”

7. And in the bigger scheme of things?

“It harkens back to capitalism's roots in the grim and punitive outlook of Calvinist Protestantism. Calvinism, with its demand for perpetual effort and self-examination to the point of self-loathing, can quickly become unbearable.”

8. How does that show up in daily life?

“Just think of the word ‘multitasking’ entering our vocabulary, following on the tails of a life marked by ‘workaholism.'”

9. What's the real-life consequence?

“I see a massive empathy deficit, to which people respond by withdrawing into themselves. No one has the time or patience for anyone else's problems.”

10. And finally, what’s the net result?

“There is an entire industry out there called ‘motivation.’ Millions of people buy its products. Sadly, people facing major illnesses are particularly susceptible — as are the unemployed and people in risky lines of work.”

Editor’s Note: The quotes in this Read My Lips are drawn from “Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America,” by Barbara Ehrenreich. Metropolitan Books 2009. Quotes reprinted with the permission of the publisher.

Each edition of “Read My Lips” presents quotes made by the featured individual at the time specified in the answers. However, it is a “virtual” interview only — insofar as we have added questions in order to provide a better context to the thoughts expressed.