Interaction with Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America by Barbara Ehrenreich

I was in a local coffee shop the other day, working quietly in a back booth, as the tables in the center of the room rotated from the local cycling group, to a couple of noisy groups of “mature” women who had just finished an aqua-fit class at the local pool, to, just before lunch, a group of church members and their pastor. They may have just finished a meeting at the church and had come to the coffee shop for a little social time. I recognized some of them. The group represented folks from both churches in the two point charge led by the pastor who was at least twenty years younger than any of the others at the table. He’s not all that young.

At one point in their conversation, which was taking place well within my hearing, the pastor got everyone’s attention and wondered if any of them had ever heard of the Natural Church Development (NCD) survey. None had, so he explained that this survey, when completed by thirty representative members of a congregation, had an excellent track record of pinpointing the essential strengths and weaknesses of a church. He went on to share that many congregations in their denomination had done the survey and almost all were essentially weak in the same area: inspiring worship. At this point, rather than take this group of church leaders down a positive road that would discuss ways in which they could buck this trend and maybe pick up some of the church growth that is promised by the NCD program which provides some positive direction for change in congregations, he threw up his hands and claimed that the bishops would not allow for change in the liturgy. Their fate was sealed. There was nothing they could do. The bishops were, in effect, ensuring the failure of these struggling congregations.

Image   Barbara Ehrenreich rails against the passion for positivity that she sees gripping, at least, the American culture. In her book, Bright-Sided, she uncovers the false claims of the positive thinking movement in many areas of life, from cancer and health care, to religion and the economy. Placing science against the pundits, she shows that there is little or no benefit to thinking positively and in fact, there could be deep negatives if the warning signals, available around many decisions in life, are ignored in favour of the their positive cousins. And yet, I wonder if our churches couldn’t benefit from just a little more of a positive outlook. I’m not thinking about positive thinking as a religion in itself in terms of Joel Osteen’s constant theme: “Believe that God wants to reward you. You won’t be able to outrun the good things He has for you” (Today’s Thought of Victory: Joel Osteen), but more in terms of positivity around the place of the church in society, and its function as a place where people can find meaning.

When one approaches their job, their role in life, from a negative perspective, it rubs off. For many years, as a sales manager, if one of my staff lost an account, they would invariably call me for counsel and solace, after doing my best to rebuild their broken self esteem, I would often suggest they go home, not as punishment, but in recognition that they were likely not in the right head space to effectively do their job. They needed time to move from holding a cup that certainly felt like it was more than half empty to one that was feeling more like it was half full. Their attitude about life, and ability to instill confidence in their customers, was much enhanced by having a positive attitude. They did indeed need to visualize themselves as winners, as effective professionals, as valuable contributors, to be able to confidently turn their steering wheels down the next unknown driveway.

Churches are not any different. Enrenreich peppers her book with images of religion and devotes an entire chapter to uncovering the “God wants you to be rich” fallacy. She spreads her net wide, lumping most of the mega churches into the same group, accusing them of growth through the use of a positive thinking, prosperity gospel. While she may be very correct in her assessment of some of these churches, others, including Saddleback and Willow Creek have extended their ministry outside of their own walls in a way that is meant to give life and energy to churches all over the continent. Rick Warren, of Saddleback, is best known for his book the Purpose Driven Life which could be pushed into the positive thinking category since it guides the individual toward an understanding that they are not on this earth by accident, that they do have purpose, a positive reason for existence. This book was however, preceded by, and modeled on, The Purpose Driven Church, aimed at helping churches to focus themselves on a task, providing positive energy and direction to congregations. Willow Creek has done some of the same work through its books and literature as well as its annual leadership summit. Many churches have benefited from the insights that these mega churches have been able to share, reorganizing themselves, re-orienting themselves toward a mission, learning to recognize and celebrate even small successes.

Enrenreich, in her quest to overturn the western idea that poverty is a voluntary condition, to counter the Calvinist understanding that it was a result of sloth and other bad habits, to destroy the positive thinker’s thesis that it is a willfull failure to embrace abundance, (pg 206) has swung her pendulum into an entirely different quandrant where there seems to be no room to think positively, even a little bit, a place where one should maybe just play the cards that have been dealt, a place where we should accept our lot in life and not visualize, dream about, something different, better.

I don’t believe that Enrenreich’s thesis that positive thinking is undermining America is totally wrong. She has clearly and eloquently described a system of thought that has damaged many psychologically, may have led to damage in the economy, and has left many deluded, disappointed and guilt ridden along the way. She sees positive thinking as a religion that has blinded us to the realities of the world, She has however overstated the case to the point where dreaming of a better time, looking to the future with anticipation, envisioning something new, becomes an offense.

That little group of elderly church members with their disillusioned pastor drinking coffee together, need to be able to grab on to some hope, some positive thinking, if their congregations are to survive into the future. They need to be able to imagine a positive vision they can hold on to, and move toward. If they can’t visualize what might be, they will never arrive. Their journey will just continue along the same road, with bishops apparently herding them along toward what they are convinced is at the end of that road: a very bleak future.


3 thoughts on “Interaction with Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America by Barbara Ehrenreich

    • You’re right! Ehrenriech is railing against the far end of the spectrum. We need a few negative (practical) thinkers to add realism to a lot of our discussions. If we were all in the negative side nothing would ever happen.

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