In my last post, I noted that Barbara Ehrenreich’s recent book, Bright-Sided, argues the “costs” of America’s “ideology” of positive thinking.  I believe her case on the cost side is unproven, but more importantly, she downplays other important aspects of the overall ledger.

The Costs of Negative Thinking. Whatever the “costs” of positive thinking, Americans are not especially happy.  Ms. Ehrenreich spends little time on the costs of negativism and depression, but she concedes that Americans are “not very happy at all” (Bright-Sided at 3), and she notes that one form of persistent negativism – depression – is “a known risk factor for many physical illnesses” (id. at 2). This is a rather stunning understatement:  although Ms. Ehrenreich fails to mention it, depression costs the US an estimated $80 billion each year in treatment and other expenses.

Dismissing Positive Psychology. In light of such costs, I expected Ms. Ehrenreich to spend much of her book investigating positive psychology.  She spends a chapter, but most of that focuses on her dislike of Dr. Martin Seligman, whom she paints by turns as shifty, abrupt, dismissive, reactionary, and at least flirting with charlatanry himself.  Clearly Dr. Seligman rubbed Ms. Ehrenreich the wrong way, and I believe she does a disservice to his reputation. I have a different assessment.  But Ms. Ehrenreich’s personal feelings do not excuse her failure to address Dr. Seligman’s most popular work, Learned Optimism.  She mentions it but once (id. at 156), and discusses it not at all.  That book explains in practical terms that people with negative explanatory styles can materially change their outlooks to be more optimistic, and that these changes can materially benefit peoples’ lives.  Learned Optimism is based on well-tested cognitive therapy.  It works, and there is a lot of research out there showing that its benefits are substantial.

Moreover, Ms. Ehrenreich implies that the choice we face is between loopy, delusional positive thinking and hard-nosed, negative empiricism.  She’s right that most researchers in positive psychology, including Dr. Seligman, concede that a pessimistic world-view is often more accurate than an optimistic world-view.  But that does not mean that positive psychology advocates delusional thinking.  To the contrary, Dr. Seligman makes clear that the thrust of cognitive therapy for depression is not to foster unrealistic optimism, but to challenge the delusions that lead to, and perpetuate, depression.  As Ms. Ehrenreich may have learned by a short perusal of Learned Optimism, “Learned optimism works not through an unjustifiable positivity about the world but through the power of ‘non-negative’ thinking.”  Learned Optimism, p. 221.  As Dr. Seligman explains, almost apparently at pains with those like Ms. Ehrenreich who confound the two,

“It is important to see the difference between this approach and the so-called ‘power of positive thinking.’ . . . If you can actually believe such [affirmational] statements, more power to you.  Many educated people, trained in skeptical thinking, cannot manage this kind of boosterism.  Learned optimism, in contrast, is about accuracy.”


Optimistic Thinking Takes Risks – And That’s Good. Ms. Ehrenreich suggests that “realistic,” negative thinking is critical to “our survival as individuals and as a species. All the basic technologies ever invented by humans to feed and protect themselves depend on a relentless commitment to hard-nosed empiricism: you cannot assume that your arrowheads will pierce the hide of a bison or that your raft will float just because the omens are propitious and you have been given supernatural reassurance that they will.”  Bright-Sided at 197. She continues, “Human intellectual progress, such as it has been, results from our long struggle to see things ‘as they are,’ or in the most universally comprehensible way, and not as projections of our own emotions.”  Id.

These points are valid to the extent that empiricism is necessary for testing ideas.  But they miss an equally valid point.  Some caveman had to be optimistic enough to try to shape a stone into an arrowhead, instead of trying to simply outlast the bison in an exhausting race to the death.  Some early traveler had to have the sunny-sided thought of floating like a log down a river, instead of slogging along next to it for miles on foot.  These Paleolithic optimists had to have the optimism and determination to try lots of different arrow shapes to get one that pierced the bison skin, and no doubt some of our ancestors experienced plenty of dunkings before creating a raft that worked.

Pessimism sacrificed virgins to appease the gods and prevent a flood.  Optimism decided to build dams, levies, and irrigation systems to control floods.  Pessimism sat for long periods in the near-dark beside the roaring fire, seeking protection.  Optimism harnessed that fire in the first place, then experimented to make torches, candles, and eventually the light bulb.

Yes, optimism can lead to stupid mistakes.  But without mistakes, there is no learning.

In sum, Ms. Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided is an at-times entertaining work.  She provides plenty of examples of “inescapable pseudoscientific flapdoodle” (id. at 70) that floats around promoting itself as powerful tools for personal development.  My complaints are few, but important:  she overstates the problem, and she confounds the charlatans and those, focused on positive-psychology research, who are providing practical tools that may better the human condition.

Let me know what you think.