Don’t go looking to Barbara Ehrenreich’s recent book, Bright-Sided, to make a compelling case about “how the relentless promotion of positive thinking has undermined America.” The book is an entertaining read, but it does not make that case.

A friend advised me to read Ms. Ehrenreich’s book in a comment to an earlier post about positive psychology.  I’m glad I did, since Ms. Ehrenreich’s writing is always rhetorically clever, but the book did not change my assessment of the positive psychology movement.

No doubt, excesses abound in the literature of “positive thinking.”  For example, The Secret notwithstanding, nobody has proven that positive thoughts naturally increases wealth or magically attracts positive experiences.  One of the principle reasons I am writing this blog, as I have explained elsewhere, is that I’m in the early stages of developing a class that would focus on practical skills associated with “achievement” and “success” that are often neglected in our colleges and professional schools.  If I’m going to teach a class like that to budding lawyers, the class must be based on research findings, not wishful thinking.

Optimism, however, has benefits, as even Ms. Ehrenreich grudgingly concedes. People prefer to be around those who are optimistic. Ehrenreich, Bright-Sided at 53-54.  And no doubt relatedly, positive people are more successful at work than those who are pessimistic.  Id. at 159.   Thus, whether or not optimism leads to greater overall health (a point Ms. Ehrenreich disputes), it does lead to greater material benefits in life.

The Costs of Positive Thinking? Ms. Ehrenreich focuses much of her book on the costs of the self-help industry.  It sounds like a lot of money:  Americans reportedly spent $9.6 billion on self-help, broadly defined, in 2005.  Ms. Ehrenreich dutifully reports this fact.  Id. at 99 n.*.  Of course, that number includes not only spending on “power-of-positive-thinking” materials, but also diet and weight-loss, get-rich-quick schemes, informercials of all sorts and flavors, relationship advice, and so forth.  Ms. Ehrenreich does not attempt to sort through what proportion of the total goes for those materials about which she complains.

But more importantly, how would this spending stack up against others?  It’s relatively puny: US GDP was about $12.3 trillion in 2005.  Thus, the entire self-help industry (including diet, weight loss, “positive thinking” and all the rest) amounted to .078 percent of the total market value of goods and services produced in the United States.

Furthermore, although a brief jaunt around the web won’t provide apples-to-apples (circa 2005) comparisons, other matters of scale are instructive.  Americans spent $9.6 billion in 2007 on women’s “intimate apparel.”  Americans spent $11.9 billion on anti-depressants in 2007.  And perhaps relatedly, we bought $37.3 billion worth of beer, wine, and liquor in 2009.

Perhaps $9.6 billion for all self-help, some portion of which sought positive attitude adjustment, is not such a grand total after all?

Ms. Ehrenreich, of course, would not stop the tally of costs with the mere outlays for self-help materials.  She believes, for example, that loopy optimism may have led us to war in Iraq.  Id. at 11. One could make an equally compelling case that crazy and misguided pessimism was to blame (WMD, anyone?).  She believes that our recent financial crisis may be blamed on unrealistically positive expectations and beliefs.  Id. at 177.  Again, I could make a strong case that Americans spend so much on things, including things they cannot afford, because they are trying to buy happiness, and that there was little optimism in the greed on Wall Street.

Ms. Ehrenreich contends that we are distracted as a culture by ubiquitous messages of “positive thinking.”  A Google search for the phrase, she writes “turns up 1.92 million entries.”  Id. at 47.  I’m not sure how often Ms. Ehrenreich uses Google, but a search for “bras” turns up 43.9 million entries, “diapers” produces 10.4 million, and “paperclips” generates more than 1 million entries.  If positive thinking is as much an obsession as paperclips, we are indeed in trouble.

In short, I’m not sure the “costs” of America’s “obsession” with positive thinking have been proved.  At least not by Ms. Ehrenreich.  In my next post, I will look at a few other questionable parts of Ms. Ehrenreich’s book.  Stick with me, because those points are even more important. (Update – here’s the next post.)