“I believe, in some ways, agitating for social change is the most positive form of thinking there is. In order to do so, we must believe that one person can make a difference, that our opinion is worth voicing, and that the world can become better — if we are willing to make an effort to shape it that way.” -Barbara Ehrenriech

Every now and again I get suggestions about topics for the Positivity Quest. I have been pondering Barbara Ehrenreich’s latest release Bright-Sided and how her important criticisms and well-pointed shortcomings to the practice of positivity impact my own goals to change my mind.

Ms. Ehrenreich is trained in biological research and her previous works put her at the forefront of the pack in underlining the realities of social inequity. It was during her own recent battle with cancer that the prevailing therapeutic model of positive thinking came to enrage her. She was indignant about the idea that her cancer and the “barbaric” chemo treatments that she endured were in her mind, sugarcoated to be a wise teacher. 

Bright Sided starts with her questioning the scientific method and findings of studies, which support the correlation between positive mind training and health crisis outcomes. The book also enlarges the critique of positivity to include the many ways that in her view, the current cultural mechanism of expecting positive mindsets is equal to silencing the opposition and demanding complacence.

In her worldview, positive thinking places the blame for any life situation on bad thinking practices. She links positive thinking to the 70’s New Age thought and the more recent magical “secret” thinking that sells big in waves. All of these positive thinking movements “blame the victim;” whether the illness is physical disease, mental instability or socio-economic poverty and despair. She traces the roots of positive psychology to many right wing, conservative organizations like the Templeton Foundation, whose primary aim has been in maintaining the status quo.

In reflecting on her position, it occurs to me that the question she is asking about positivity is not properly framed. Her version of realism places negativity and positivity juxtaposed. Re-framing the issue by reflecting on the relationship that the individual has to their life situation is a more helpful view of what positive thinking can bring to life. From a Buddhist perspective, the situation is always neutral. These situations come in all shapes and sizes and realistically provoke an equally wide range of emotions, including painful and difficult challenges of grief, loss, sadness, disappointment, anxiety and fear.

True positivity would never look to dismiss or diminish the honest experience of these emotions. Applying positive thinking to these emotions gives them an opportunity to move through you and transform your relationship to yourself and the world. Negative thoughts can often leave you stuck with the feelings and unable to see the range of choices available to you.

Human brain development is unique in all mammals because of our ability to think about how we think. Choosing a positive relationship to your personal situation in life gives you the advantage of looking for the love, peace and joy that we all hope for in our time on the planet. Illness can be a profound wake up call and the process of healing can present life transforming evolution which is true whether you live or die.

Even considering the vast extremes of socio-economic realities that much of humanity lives in, studies have shown that this is not the final determinant in happiness or life satisfaction. Poverty of stuff is not always equal to poverty of spirit. Extreme wealth does not ensure happiness, wisdom or peace. The capacity for positive thinking is not magical thinking or wishing- it is about choosing how to relate to what is happening to you. Human empathy and the capacity towards altruistic action are not determined by a person’s net worth. Mother Teresa was a channel of life energy and resources that she did not own.

She is a good example of where positivity is grounded in truth and action in the world. After her death, records of her own pain and doubt were uncovered. She did not live a “Pollyanna” positivity while facing the illness, poverty and death around her. She rather chose to see the light in people that were lucky enough to meet her. How people deal with life situations has everything to do with whether they approach them with an opening to learn something.

Choosing to find moments of joy, meeting people who are awe inspiring and being graced by experiences of gratitude are ways of seeing that give you the potential to make both your immediate world, and the larger community, better. They are defined as positive because they retain a reverence for life and hope for the highest part of who we can be.