« The Destruction of the Black Middle Class | Main | The Swine Flu Vaccine Screw-up »

October 13, 2009



Women today may feel less social pressure to report being happy compared to women in the early 1970s.


Barbara: Just downloaded your new book on Kindle and am looking forward to reading it.


Barbara - I cannot tell you how delighted I am to know you exist and are doing what you do! I believe I wrote you once earlier (a year?)- and may well do so again. Caught your interview re your new book on Democracy Now website. It's past time to feel positive about righteous indignation! I have a strong social critic bent, and manage to land myself in social communities much of the time (family included) comprised of people determined to deny that interplay of individual psychology and group dynamics, if unexamined, supports status quo, a perspective which leads to "suffering is not suffering, injustice not injustice and neither can be changed by social policy". "It's probably the sufferer's fault (by attitude or choice), it's not my concern, not my job." Universal Health Care is my present focus; locally I stand alone! (Putting a "positive" spin on it, :) I sometimes think it is "my job" to be among these people and keep harping!) But I sometimes weary of such a role - knowing you are doing what you do is a terrific boost! THANK YOU SO VERY MUCH!


Yes, thank you (again).
for a nail hit on its head.

I do believe the "motherroot" (or it might be a "fatherroot"?) of all terrible afflictions is the very definition of woman. being a woman - under virtually all known definitions of the term -
justplain seems to afflict -and not just a littlebit, but terribly.

Zach Wheat

I really enjoyed this and have now spent an evening reading your old posts.



Barbara: Having had prostate cancer and gone through a similar experience as you — I can't totally agree with you. I haven't read your book (and I will) but I did see your Daily Show interview and I have to say that the truth is somewhere between what you say and "The Secret." If you haven't read Winifred Gallagher's tome: "Rapt" — then you will get EXACTLY what I mean. Peace.


Hi Dr. Ehrenreich,

Thanks for a great "caveat emptor" for readers of popular literature (blogs count too, sometimes!) which references scientific studies.

The core problems, I think, are: (1) individual claims in popular literature are often not properly referenced (even at the ends of articles), (2) readers have no effective way of "calling bull" on unreferenced yet clearly stated claims (like they can on Wikipedia, for example), other than throwing a bottle into vast oceans of article comments, and (3) readers often don't use Google Scholar (or otherwise dig deep) enough to justify "knowing" some of the truths they find in reality :)

My dendrites to yours,

Tyler H Brown

I am sorry that positive thinking isn't working for you, but I just watched you on the Daly Show and I was really disturbed by what I saw. Yes, modern medicine can correct many ailments, and yeah, it seems unfair to think "I brought this upon myself", but I really think you are missing the bigger picture. If people are helped by positive thinking, then that is great. If people are helped by chemo, that is also great. Why would you try to discredit something that helps people, even if it is "only in their mind." How many women die from breast cancer after intensive chemo every year? Why not discredit chemo too? Cancer sucks, and I am so sorry that you or anyone else has to go through that ordeal, but if positive thinking, coupled with modern medicine helps someone, why would you so adamantly oppose it? The law of attraction describes something that I have experienced my whole life, as have many people I am close to. Its not a dead on description of reality, but neither are the laws of physics. Life is a work in progress, and in the absolute worst case scenario, if some one dies feeling positive about what ever is there lot in life, how is that bad?



You had me in your court until you seriously stacked the law of attraction up against the current laws of physics.

That said, if you were to post again with rationally thought out and research-backed reasons, I will recant this post, share your post with others, and chalk your last one up to a knee-jerk emotional response.

There's no excuse to defend the positive psychology position with (anything even close to) ad-hominem attacks or what-ifs or personal example-based arguments--you have at your fingertips research you can use to back up your claims.

There is a growing body of studies performed between 2005 and 2009 that show (1) correlations between positive affect and oh-so-nice things, (2) twin studies showing a decent chunk (40%) of positive affect as dependent on daily activity and malleable thought patterns and (3) simple activities that have been shown to boost long-term positive affect (would be highly correlated with what we subjectively call happiness). None of these studies suggest you need to suspend disbelief or discount physics. They only presuppose you have a scientific/epistemological regard for psychological and social psychological tools and methods.

And I'm almost late for the most interesting class I've ever taken but afterwards I may pull up some papers to get you started, if you're interested, Tyler! :)

Don't stop disbelievin',


Tyler, she isn't attacking "positive thinking," she's attacking the unrelenting pressure to be upbeat or else, and the self-blame (and victim-blaming) that goes hand-in-hand with this.

If someone dies feeling positive about their life, that's great. If they die faking being positive and feeling guilty and flawed because they just weren't as positive as they "should" have been, it's a tragedy and a shame.

Silencing people's fears, concerns and anger is quite destructive, and most of this positive thinking self-help stuff does just that--whether the proponents intend it or not.

LeeAnne Setterington

Thank you for your latest book, Bright-Sided. I stayed up through the night to finish it. You are a life raft in the sea of hope and denial. Hate to say it but the book had a very positive effect. I have been spending most my energy trying to find the "positive" instead of simply getting out of a bad situation. Thank you once again.

Mike Ashby

Barbara: I listened to your interview on the CBC this morning.."The Current" about the fallacy of the "positive thinking" wave that hit some decades ago. It was a kind of epiphany for me. I have for years, as far as I can remember and I'm 55, wondered if I was the only one thinking along the exact same lines you do. You bring to life the reality of all that...BULL! I could go on and on about my personal experiences but can't. You made me very happy today ! Thanks!


Dear Barbara,

I am in the process of writing my thesis birthed from, you guessed it, the impact "positive thinking" had on my experience with Breast Cancer. Your book and today's interview on CBC are timely. Thank you!

Now, how does one go about purchasing an autographed copy of your book?


Mike, Bonnie, (maybe Dr. Ehrenreich as well):

I hear and echo your frustrations with those who are preaching irrational positive thinking to the point of annoyance. I humbly ask that you also consider that (1) happiness is a real phenomenon with a physical basis in the brain, (2) it positively affects many peoples' lives and [for me, personally] motivation to do any non-depressive rational thinking, and that (3) some of those happy people are rational and are *really* trying to be careful not to offend anyone with their happiness or semi-selfish attempts to facilitate others to become happy and stave off depression, too.

That said, and related, I'd love to have a simple boiled-down list of five things that we can use to encourage positive-psychology-enthusiasts not to make the mistakes as those pseudoscientific practitioners profiled (I think, though still waiting on my copies) in Bright-Sided.

This list would go a long way in uniting the new science-backed positive affect enthusiasts and those who I suspect will be Dr. Ehrenreich's most enthusiastic audience -- those who have been disenfranchised by the happiness hijackers (self-help book authors that make up claims and don't use references, religion, cults).

Happy in reality,

Mike Ashby

The biggest fraud of 'em all has to be Tony Robbins.


The first time I saw that clown on TV in the '80's and what he was doing just made me sick. He was elevated to "rock star" status of all things with the extravagant stage shows etc. I realized it was probably mostly companies paying him the big bucks and making employees attend those things. Barbara speaks of that and how companies enslave employees to get brainwashed by that whole mantra. It all really got going with that horse-tooth charlatan in the '80's. And I believe he still operates in a lesser way at present.

Then there is the subtle but effective ones such as Dr. Wayne Dyer and all of his philosphical ways to attain "happiness". I don't want to knock the guy because he often times is compelling due to his ingenius way of not getting in your face and actually appealing to your reason. BUT, he don't fool me either. LOL.


Great interview on CBC the Current today.


What is difficult about the cult of positive thinking is the dissociation from reality that goes along with it. Specifically, you are supposed to exist in a world where nothing exerts power over you, but where you can create anything you imagine just by wanting it enough. To say that being treated badly by an employer, or having a life threatening disease, or drowning in credit card debt would none of it have any effect on you is asking a bit too much. Positive thinking, however, asks just that of you.

Being cheerful because you find that this is the best way of facing your reality is one thing. Insisting that you can invent and create whatever reality you want is another insane thing.



your misrepresentations have been answered by the authors of the study, citing real data. Are you game enough to answer?



Nayagan -- I would like to respond to Wolfers' response -- but where should I post it? Would rather not be buried in the comments on their Freakonomics piece.




Dear Barbara- that coenzyme q caller from NPR is a crazy person. This link is about the patent...PATENT....not a study. It is disgusting that people peddle this stuff. It is also only a rodent study, not a people study.



The current protocol is to write a post on your own blog, leave a comment on their post to notify them (if they do not track track-backs) and drop them an email/call.

They seem genuinely hurt by your column and, like any quants, would probably need a stats-filled response in order to continue the conversation.

These are not Austrians, mind you, so they do use numbers extensively to support their argumentation and would be offended if even a logician of Coase's stature were not to respond in kind.

It may sound presumptuous but I am willing to host your reply on my own blog and attempt to solicit their attention.

Terri Waterman

Hi Barbara, I just saw you on Jon Stewart and my mouth was hanging open listening to you. Thank you for the realism punch, I find myself tortured by constantly thinking I have to be positive - now it's my husband that's saying "I told you so!" LOL - looking forward to reading your new book. - Terri


The best take on the positive thinking movement is a poster titled "Zombie" and pictures what used to be a nicely dressed man, now with blood and gore running from his mouth. The caption beneath reads "Don't worry. Only people with brains will die. You are okay."




You are one of the very few people writing about women's issues who does not rely on trite, essentialist, mainstream drivel. Thank you for having something fresh and interesting to say about why feminism is not to blame for the fact that women do not always demand equality in their relationships.


Seems to me women attempt suicide far more often than men, but men succeed far more often - Sometimes suicide is just a coldly rational calculation (Hunter S Thompson) so I doubt the gold standard measure of depression. If women are really more depressed since feminism, I would suggest it's because they discovered an unpleasant fact about the work-a-day world that men knew all along: Work sucks!
I hated every job I ever had in my whole life, and resented the fact that I was expected to waste my life working away at some tedious bore of a job to put a roof over my head - what a gigantic waste of human potential is the 'work ethic'?
I never heard of you Barbara, but LOVED your appearance on the Daily Show! Of course, I tend to identify with negative, cynical people - we are merely mischaracterized realists.


About the time feminists demand that women be subject to Selective Service Registration, provide a rational explanation for near universal opposition to shared parenting after divorce, demand that false accusers in rape cases be tried for perjury, quit excusing child rapists who pose as teachers and denounce Andrea Dworkin is about the time that Second Wave Feminism will be taked seriously as a movement.


For readers from overseas, Harlequin is more than a publisher of romance novels: it's an ice cream that includes at least three layers, each a different flavor. My favorite's chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry.

another Laura

Leaving aside the question of whether this study proves anything, I think many of the women I know struggle with self-definition because we feel we're now being judged (and judging ourselves) by two strong yet frequently opposed sets of standards: (1) how good are we at motherhood/wifedom? (2) how good are we at our career? A pox on those who suggest that this is feminism's "fault." The last thing any woman would want is fewer choices. But how about cutting ourselves a little slack as we try to reconcile these choices? And how about society supporting all of us, men and women, with better daycare options, better family leave, and more humane work weeks? Curiously, most men don't seem to judge themselves by how involved they are in raising their kids, so they only have one set of standards to meet. But maybe one day men will find themselves in the same psychological double bind we do.

PS - Dr. Ehrenreich, your work never fails to inspire me.

Chantal Hachem

Hi Barbara;
Feel like I know you, you are so down to earth and a great dose of common sense
That is how I see the world and when I see people doing that "The Secret" stuff all I could think is "unbelievable - are people really falling for this garbage" and they were!!! And Oprah was promoting them and I'm thinking has the woman lost her mind!!! What is she doing? These people make tons of money off that drivel - I was watching it while I sat in a waiting room full of medicaid patients waiting to have their teeth worked on by dental school students because we/they couldn't afford to go somewhere else. Yes, maybe if I just attract or detract the tooth decay from myself I won't need this root canal!!! Honestly!!! It made me sick!!! I worked in the bankruptcy field for years and wondered to myself how the banks could stay afloat admist what I saw everyday as people completely broke and unable to pay their bills and getting into credit card debt just to make ends meet, etc. No positive thinking is going to negate the fact that "greedy people" exist and that we are failible, human... I am so glad you wrote this book, I hope some people will wake up from their delusions!!! I recall when I was a young girl I suffered from horrible depression. My father (an eternal optimist so to speak) when I confided in him how sad I was didn't get concerned, didn't take me to a doctor. He told me to "cheer up" and to "be grateful" for all I had and that I "had no reason to be sad" - It's a long story but point is - what he said made me feel worse. Invalidated... We need to stop kicking people when they're down after we've put them on the ground and then ask them..."Hey, why don't you just get up?"


I think women are living in a culture which objectifies them more and more... but they are expected to internalise and take on this objectification. Maybe this objectification is a back-lash against feminism. At the same time that feminism is supposed to have achieved all this stuff, women are supposed to "be" their looks more and more.

Male power and sexism are still very real, too, in many areas of life.


It's still a pretty crap world for girls and women -- and that is not feminism's fault. It's the old patriarchal, capitalist, racist world really; there's just a fog over it as some women do find "success." Blaming "feminism" for women's unhappiness is kind of a red-herring or smokescreen. For a lot of women, this world ain't so great.


I think blaming feminism for women becoming sadder is a red herring. Maybe living in what is still a patriarchal culture, despite some gains, makes women depressed. It seems that women are objectified more than ever and expected to internalize that objectification. There's still a lot of crap that happens to women -- blaming feminism is a smokescreen for all the abuse and harrassment that still occurs.


oh, sorry, didn't realize that my previous posts had gone thru successfully. oops.


Finished the book and am now re-reading it. It makes me feel good. Is that bad?

Nastaran Moossavi

Dear Barbara, I am writing to you from Iran. I got to know when I subscribed to the NATION a decade ago. It is unfortunate that none of your books or articles have been translated to Persian. As I regulary contribute to a newly launched internet magazine (in Persian)by introducing (and some times interviewing) prominent radical women activists and writers, I would like to take this opportunity to request you for a written interview. I am aware that this is not an appropriate space to ask for such a favor, but I had no other choice. My search for your email address ended up just to this link. I will be very grateful if you write to me, in case you agree with the idea.

Jason S.

As I man I find that many men don't demand equality in their relationships. I know I haven't at times and got used. Boo-hoo. People should blame themselves for somethings....just a simple point. Enough whining and enough positive thinking. Get real with yourself.


Gender is a socially inflicted bipolar disorder. Once anyone wakes up to that fact and how it limits their potential for no good reason, sadness is a rational response.

Having said that, I see everywhere this backlash against how many of us are actually happier today than our mothers were. They don't want the secret to come out that living outside the Breeding Farm has been glorious for many of us. And at the basic human levels, like that when I'm sad, I get to say it. My mother didn't. She swallowed her misery with her Valiums just as my father swallowed his with beer. Wasn't everything so hunky dory then!

My mother's, sisters', aunts' and cousins' misery over breeding was exactly why I decided not to. They resented me bitterly but all had the honesty to admit they wish they'd stopped either after one kid...or before. So they did what was expected, generated a whole lot of felons and misery...but I'm the one who is the deviant destroyer of civilization, me, productive, content, law abiding.

It is a kind of soul sabotage, to name and interpret others' emotional states as a way of inflicting a social or economic agendy. It's similar to how "depression" is a too often a diagnostic category inflicted to keep people from directly perceiving and acknowledging the actual hopelessness or despair of their situation. It sabotages not only the person who fully feels her life experience, but the aspirations of others who want out of the old prisons. Freedom has some costs, which include experiencing the whole range of feelings, not just the cuddly ones. But even on my worst days of feeling blue or low or hopeless, I never feel as bad as I did back in the family prison of breeding, poverty, and cluelessness.

There is something in socially inflicted bipolar gender that expects women to be miserable, or expects women to suffer (Eve's Curse), or whatever. The ideal of womanhood in my mother's lifetime was that Mary Tyler Moore advertising character, Happy Hotpoint. Thin, dim, perky, and never happier than when getting household bling from a corporation, using her man as the drop.

Women who are happy not needing a man, not needing things, capable of self sufficiency, etc., are a terrible threat to that model, and more people are yoked to that model than we think.

As for suicide, it has always amazed me that there is just one interpretation of it, and it's negative. The choice to end one's own incarnation can be an elemental empowerment. I think of the terminally ill people I've known whose path was eased by knowing they had at least one power over their diseases: the power to deprive the disease process of a place to live.

About half those friends chose to end their lives early and in complete peace, about half found that empowerment gave them the strength to soldier on. Some of those friends who chose their end were battered by friends and family who assured them that they'd go to hell. Another bipolar disorder (heaven/hell) with no purpose but messing with honest people on their genuine life paths.


You´ve hit the nail on the head.
First time I´ve heard someone articulate this stuff. My experience to the T.

You are one of my heroes Ms Ehrenreich.

Thank you for your work.



It doesn't seem to me that a lot of the followers of positive thinking are all that successful either. Except for the millionaires selling the snake oil.

I'm getting so fed up with women my age exhorting me to watch the secret, sending me links to all manner of BS spirituality, wishes, manifesting, healing prayers, etc. I'm too busy working!

jp Merzetti

the curse of the happy face.
Pre-empted and privatized - one more commodified trinket in the collection.
A scowl might very well be the product of a deep-thinking mind, capable of scrutinizing the tricks, and even naming them for what they are.
(or, on the other hand, overwhelmed by the enormity of the sick joke that is modernity, in all its insanity.)

There was a time, when the world I knew understood this - and went forth unafraid to reserve something as personal as a smile for moments of genuine rapture, or at least upon reflection, something as basic as honest response.

If powerful persuaders can order us to perform God knows what unholy functions in the name of conformity and productive job function, they can bloody well order up a plastic smile and all the delusionary denial that goes along with it.

Smiles...are "safe."
And we wouldn't want the iddle widdle babyboos to become fearful and tearful now, would we?


su deposu

Barbara - I cannot tell you how delighted I am to know you exist and are doing what you do! I believe I wrote you once earlier (a year?)- and may well do so again. Caught your interview re your new book on Democracy Now website. It's past time to feel positive about righteous indignation! I have a strong social critic bent, and manage to land myself in social communities much of the time (family included) comprised of people determined to deny that interplay of individual psychology and group dynamics, if unexamined, supports status quo, a perspective which leads to "suffering is not suffering, injustice not injustice and neither can be changed by social policy". "It's probably the sufferer's fault (by attitude or choice), it's not my concern, not my job." Universal Health Care is my present focus; locally I stand alone! (Putting a "positive" spin on it, :) I sometimes think it is "my job" to be among these people and keep harping!) But I sometimes weary of such a role - knowing you are doing what you do is a terrific boost! THANK YOU SO VERY MUCH!

Dentist Hayward

Why is it the women today be sadder than the women of old times? Maybe because of the advance things today.

Kimberly Davison-Fujioka

Barbara: Your insights are so "right on" as always. I'm a fan of yours.
Do you remember "The Mill Hunk Herald", a labor union magazine in Pittsburgh ? I was one of the editors. Studs Terkel reviewed our anthology of best writing in 1989.


I just finished reading your book critiqing the positive psychology movement and positive thinking. I was shocked to learn that positive thinking has been used in Communist and Totalitarian countries. If only most Americans knew. I certainly will never think of self-help books the same again; or a seminar for that matter. My friend dragged me to one of those free introductory seminars where they lure you into buying their books and retreats. I thought to myself, 'well I'm sure I'd be rich too if I charged $900 to 2000 people to attend a workshop".

Schall Adams

Thank you for your insight. When I first saw the study my reaction was, "that ain't so!" I believe we women are capable of every happiness and success. In my circle of influence we are all creating the lives we choose, and we are happy indeed!


I hear that Orphans that have been adopted from India's Calcutta Train station and brought to America became "more clinically depressed",then they had been as beggars in the train station. Maybe because now they have a perspective of how awful their lives had been.
Maybe we should keep them begging and illiterate in the train station and then they won't be depressed.
Similarly we could argue that women were "less depressed", when they had adapted to life with few options and came to accept their fate.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment