Women, Happiness, and the Marketing of Positive Thinking

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Barbara Ehrenreich has a great debunking of a study that purports to show that women have become unhappier since 1972 – – – as a result, most likely, of feminism.     Ehrenreich writes that the statistical variable (one percent) is not significant, especially when the measurement is of something as   “slippery” as happiness.     Moreover, the “objective” measurement of suicide rates does not support the conclusion of declining women’s happiness.

Barbara Ehrenreich

Barbara Ehrenreich

The fuss, according to Ehrenreich is well-timed.   The two-year old study has become

a launching pad for a new book by the prolific management consultant Marcus Buckingham, best known for First, Break All the Rules and Now, Find Your Strengths. His new book, Find Your Strongest Life: What the Happiest and Most Successful Women Do Differently, is a cookie-cutter classic of the positive-thinking self-help genre: First, the heart-wrenching quotes from unhappy women identified only by their email names (Countess1, Luveyduvy, etc.), then the stories of “successful” women, followed by the obligatory self-administered test to discover “the role you were bound to play” (Creator, Caretaker, Influencer, etc.), all bookended with an ad for the many related products you can buy, including a “video introduction” from Buckingham, a “participant’s guide” containing “exercises” to get you to happiness, and a handsome set of “Eight Strong Life Plans” to pick from. The Huffington Post has given Buckingham a column in which to continue his marketing campaign.

Ehrenreich’s new book, Bright Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America, takes up these themes.   Although not always as explicitly feminist as I would have liked, Ehrenreich mounts a popular and devasting critique of the ubiquitous emphasis on “being positive.”   Being positive has come to mean not only eschewing the negative, but the rejection of   critiques of the status quo.   If you are unhappy with the situation, change your attitude!

She traces the “positive thinking” idea to the 1860s rejection of Calvinism and discusses some of its current manifestations including psychological studies of happiness,   medical care, corporate “motivation,” the current economic turmoil, and mega-churches (“God wants you to be rich!”).

It’s a relatively short and important book, worth reading.   I discuss it further, including some of the   academic and legal ramifications, on ConLawProf blog here.

– Ruthann Robson

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