Whenever I think of the smiley face icon, I think of Wal-Mart and its onetime ubiquitous ad campaign. And when I think of Wal-Mart, I think of low wages and insecure employees who probably live paycheck to paycheck. That metaphor — the happy face fronting a world of worry — is the subject of a new book, Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America by social commentator Barbara Ehrenreich.
Ehrenreich's bout with breast cancer and the cloying "pink ribbon culture" that surrounds this dreaded disease (she is urged to see her cancer as a "gift") made her explore our cultural obsession with being happy. The book's point is that realism is being elbowed out of the way by all the life coaches, self-help books and prosperity gospel preachers like Joel Osteen who tell us that a positive outlook will lead to success, riches and the fulfillment of all of life's desires. These heaping helpings of sunny optimism are subtly diverting us from grappling with serious social and economic issues in ways that can truly bring about change.
The Secret became a runaway bestseller by telling readers that they could have anything they want just by imagining it. The book was obviously unadulterated bunk, but it sold madly as people grasped at any chance to better their lives. One has to wonder if such magical thinking would have been so popular if people felt they had temporal power to change the conditions of their work and prospects.
The reason that so many Americans work at jobs that don't pay enough is not that they don't channel enough positive energy into getting a better salary, but that wages have been stagnant for 30 years. And the reason that wages have barely budged is that America's wealthiest households have kept slicing themselves a larger piece of the income pie.
Between 1979 and 2007, the top 1 percent of American households saw their share of all pretax income nearly double while the bottom 80 percent had their share fall by 7 percent. Ehrenreich quotes the New York Times saying, "It's as if every household in the bottom 80 percent is writing a check for $7,000 every year and sending it to the top 1 percent."
Every working stiff in the bottom 80 percent should be outraged and politically motivated to force change. But if everyone is convinced of the convenient nostrum that our own attitude controls how much we are paid, then workers won't band together to demand a larger share of our national prosperity.
This positive thinking message is a kind of opiate that has been particularly effective on the white-collar corporate work force. Ehrenreich documents how corporations hire motivational speakers to convince laid-off workers that their job loss is "an opportunity for self-transformation." Somehow, she says, white-collar workers have accepted positive thinking as a "belief system" that says a person can be "infinitely powerful, if only they could master their own minds."
On the surface, prosperity gospels and positive thinking companies appear harmless with their treacly "Successories products" of posters and coffee mugs, but they have subversively helped make each of us an island. They have convinced Americans that each individual has control and power over the conditions of his or her life, when that is largely not the case. Access to decent health care at a reasonable price is not a matter of individual effort. Neither are securing decent wages, pensions, safe working conditions or job security. Workers demanded those rights through collective action in the 20th century and we are losing them now by taking an "every man for himself" approach to work.
The ultimate irony is even with the booming positive thinking industry, Americans are not among the happiest people. International surveys put us behind places like Denmark and Switzerland where the social safety net is stronger. It seems that happy thoughts don't alter the reality of American life with all its attendant risks to middle class living standards. Behind the smiley face facade, we are privately worried, and we have reason to be.