Barbara Ehrenreich, self-proclaimed feminist and proponent of women’s health, just released a surprising new book, Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. I caught her interview on TV and was taken aback by the negativity of her comments . . . which I guess is the point.
When Ehrenreich had breast cancer a few years ago, it seemed to her that everyone expected her to smile through her pain, to “look on the bright side” of things, virtually pushing the happy pill down her throat in spite of her anguish. The book, she said, came out of her reaction to the unrealistic expectation that she positive-think herself out of the horror of her situation. Having cancer was horrible, she argues, and she refuses to be guilted into feeling that she was letting everyone else down in the process.
Certainly, anyone with cancer has the right to feel any way she chooses to about her situation. It is, after all, her personal experience. Without question, everyone who gets cancer wishes they didn’t have it - the treatments are hard, the disease is frightening, and half a million Americans die every year from it. So, why put on a happy face?
Quite frankly, it comes down to how you WANT to feel. Personally, I’ve found that being angry achieves nothing. Although I agree with Ms. Ehrenreich’s criticism of the idealistic fad to visualize great fortune, visualization is a very effective tool for patients in medical crisis. And, while she argues that there is no evidence that happiness increases the immune system, it has been proved again and again that one’s attitude makes a difference in the outcome of cancer patients. (Ref: The Anatomy of Hope by Jerome Groopman, M.D.)
My favorite mantra is “You may not be able to choose the circumstances but you can choose how to have the experience.” Every day, I choose to embrace the life I have been given and try to live it as best I can. I refuse to let cancer become the lens through which I experience the world around me. I choose to be happy in spite of my physical issues, not because of them.
I’ve met many cancer survivors like Ms Ehrenreich and respect their right to feel as they do. However, I encourage other survivors to look for joy in their life regardless of how difficult the situation is.
Is happiness oversold? I don’t think so.