Whenever I think of the smiley-face icon, I think of Wal-Mart because of its once-ubiquitous ad campaign. And when I think of Wal-Mart, I think of crappy 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 was 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 best-seller by telling readers that they could have anything they wanted 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 have jobs that don’t pay enough is not that they didn’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 just 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.”