From the earliest settlers of the American frontier to the Authentic Happiness movement in modern psychology, from Norman Vincent Peale to Joel Osteen, the power of positive thinking has exerted an irresistable pull across the American cultural landscape. Its pop-culture expressions (“Don’t Worry, Be Happy”) and psuedo-scientific pronouncements (“Thinking Positively Increases Odds of Beating Cancer”) are more than sunny slogans or clever marketing jingles; for many they are creedal codes to live by.

Despite bitter — and bitterly funny — satires (like Monty Python’s “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” ), the gospel of positive thinking continues to make converts. Only a sour, dour Scrooge, after all, would begrudge Americans (toothy evangelists, perky politicians) their smiley-face optimism.

(And speaking of smiley-faces, Walmart’s use of the 1970s iconic image for corporate branding (copyright infringement; lots of litigation) has forever linked personal happiness with the purchase of cheap consumer goods. In ways that boggle the mind, we live in a culture in which shopping is considered both an addiction and a therapy).

One recent response to “the relentless promotion of positive thinking” is Barbara Ehrenreich’s new book, Bright Sided. An investigative journalist perhaps best known for 2001’s Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, Ehrenreich argues that the current “positive-thinking culture” has affected everything and everyone from Ivy League psychology departments to cancer patients expected to happily proclaim their illness “a gift.”

Ehrenreich, a survivor of breast cancer, does not fancy herself a killjoy, but she is critical (and weary) of the “smiling insistence” that the solution to a range of personal and social problems is a positive outlook. Ehrenreich also reminds us that for all our cheery optimism, Americans are, on the whole, an unhappy lot. 

So how does the power of positive thinking square with the good news of the Gospel? Certainly Osteen and others, drawing selectively on scripture, have fashioned a Christianity with enormous popular appeal. But the affable buddy-Jesus who wants you to have your “best life now,” seems a long way from the first-century Jewish peasant revolutionary who, as Bonhoeffer put it, bids his followers “come and die.” (Not the cheeriest of church billboard slogans, that).

Faithful discipleship has always been concerned with practices more than with feelings or pious thoughts, with poverty more than prosperity. Christians really don’t talk (or care) that much about optimism; our word is “hope.” Which is not cross-your-fingers wishful thinking but a confident longing that, over time and in community with others, we are learning to live fully the life made known in Jesus of Nazareth.

What we hope for, Rowan Williams suggests, is “a humanity in which human gifts flow together, in which the strength of each is resourced from the strength of others, and the strength of each is offered for the strength of others.” Positive thinking is a decidedly private act, an attribute of the individual; Christian hope is social, sacramental, robustly communal.

Nor do Christians worry too much about happiness. Our calling, rather, is joy. Happiness is fleeting, elusive, tied to circumstances we can and cannot control. Joy, on the other hand, is a kind of deep-seated contentment that doesn’t deny sorrow, disappointment, and loss; rather, it encompasses them, acknowledging their presence and power, but refusing to give them the last word.

“Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.” This line from Wendell Berry’s poem “Manifesto: Mad Farmer Liberation Front” may sound like yet another positive-thinking proverb. It is, instead, a summons to live wisely, deeply, in full awareness of (and with righteous anger at) all that would rob us of our full humanity, that would diminish beauty and goodness in the world.

This kind of joy, this kind of living, will include smiles. Positive thinking is optional.