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Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion…

Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has… (2009)

by Barbara Ehrenreich

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I sought this out after reading Ehrenreich's L.A. Times essay on her experience with breast cancer. The first chapter of this book is indeed called "Smile or Die: The Bright Side of Cancer." Because I'm shallow, I didn't find the transition from the personal to the political a smooth one. It works thematically; it didn't work for me emotionally.

However, once I got over wanting to hear more about her own life, I understood how valuable this book is. It exposes the cruelty inherent in the positive-thinking movements. "The Secret" is the big one these days; when I was a kid, it was Silva Mind Control (now called The Silva Method).

Allow me to wax bitter for a moment. My parents could never afford to give their children visits to Disneyland, Magic Mountain, Knotts Berry Farm, or summer camp (yes, we lived in Southern California); but all four of us were sent to a three-day, eight-hours-a-day Silva workshop. I was so excited, because we'd been told this class would teach us how to develop mental powers that would allow us to break the laws of physics. By the end of the three days, we would be able to *bend metal with our minds*. Why? Because there was *literally nothing* we couldn't do if we set our minds to it.

So I spent a month anticipating the day I'd be able to fly.

Hey: They said we could do *anything*. They said the laws of physics were for *losers.* Maybe they didn't use that last phrase verbatim, but they sure as hell implied it with their stories of healing total strangers from a distance and bending spoons just by touching them.

So what did we really learn?

A relaxation technique called "going to level," which is a fancy phrase for closing your eyes and timing your breathing to coincide with counting backwards from three. (Whee.) How to never need an alarm clock again. (I'm the type who always wakes up 8 or 9 times a night and check to make sure I haven't overslept.) How to visualize stuff you want and thus take all the credit when your parents give you that trampoline you've been begging for. (Yes, one kid answered "A trampoline" when asked what she wanted more than anything in the world. Apparently, I was setting the bar far too low when I merely wanted to *acquire an actual superpower.* Yes, I'm still bitter.)

I don't remember who I asked about the flying. One of the teachers, I think. I do remember a grownup looking incredibly sheepish when he said that, well, no, actually, that wasn't really something I could do. Nobody could.


Okay, I wasn't old enough to be thinking in that kind of language yet. But the sentiment was there.

It turns out that the difference between flying (which humans have been longing to do for as long as we've had imaginative powers) and warping innocent cutlery (which NOBODY wants to do, because it's stupid, plus if you wanted a spoon in a different shape than usual, you could just special-order one) is that a child flying is measurable and filmable and duh-obvious. Whereas in order to achieve the magic of spoon-bending, all you have to do is tell a room full of kids that they can really do this, and then go take an extended coffee break while they use their magic powers. Then come back, admire all the bent cutlery, and compliment the kids on their powers of concentration.

The sad part is no matter how many kids I caught cheating, I never caught on that I was the one being cheated. (Oh, and it's not "cheating" if the kids are hiding their spoons under the table with both hands as they try to bend them. If that helps them "focus," go for it!) I really believed those teachers when they said that bending spoons using the power of your mind was doable. Which meant that if *I* wasn't doing it...well, um, guess who was kind of a loser?

"If you set your mind to it, you can do *anything*" means "If your life isn't perfect in every way, it's not our philosophy that's at fault -- it's you."

So, yeah, I have a bone to pick with "the power of positive thinking." So does Barbara Ehrenreich. And she backs it up with facts and research, not just kvetching. So read this book. ( )
1 vote Deborah_Markus | Aug 8, 2015 |
Ehrenreich provides an antidote to everyone who believes that success is solely a result of attitude. From reading about people whose livelihoods were discarded during the Great Recession, it seems that many were demoralized by the popular perception that if only they had believed in themselves and worked harder, they could have avoided unemployment and financial ruin. The idea that individuals are solely responsible for the outcome of their lives atomizes us; it discourages us from working together to make broader social changes. I'm grateful that Ehrenreich can see these connections, from the obvious example of Oprah Winfrey espousing "The Secret" to Ehrenreich's own treatment for breast cancer, when she is shouted down by an online chorus after posting her honest feelings of anger and fear about her diagnosis.

The one element that I felt the book was lacking was more interviews with people who promote positive thinking -- or those who once believed it and have become disenchanted. Ehrenreich attends a speaker's conference and a megachurch, and has insightful observations, but I would have loved to hear from more of the attendees. ( )
  amymerrick | Jun 3, 2015 |
American culture is saturated in a surreal dedication to being upbeat. Nearly every adviser from your mother to boss will tell you to "think positive". But is this really good advice? Ehrenreich examines the consequences of blind positivity in a number of situations. Her conclusion? Well, it's not exactly positive.

It's a very interesting book, and a good dose of realism. My only detraction is the author seems a little embittered, but that might just have been the delivery from the audio book narrator. ( )
  Juva | Mar 26, 2015 |
Another brave undertaking by an insightful sociologist who somehow never lost her ability to write convincingly and engagingly in grad school. Don’t bother trying to persuade others to read this book, though—they’ll ask you to repeat the title and assume you are trying to make them unhappy. In fact, Ehrenrich is arguing for empiricism, a dose of reality in a world in which many believe that wealth can be got by simply thinking about how you deserve it. News flash to the idiot mob: the world is a mix of good and bad news and you aren’t going to be very effective at your job or in your life if you ignore contrary evidence and ostracize individual thought. If you manage to magically manifest some dollars for yourself, buy this book. ( )
  sixslug | Jan 18, 2015 |
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Vindicated at last! All of us misanthropic misery guts, whingers and whiners, Seroxat-refuseniks, "walking nimbus clouds"; we grouches, saddos, naysayers, demoralisers and party-poopers – our day has dawned. Time to gather and strike for the right to snigger, sulk and be sceptical, for the whole purpose of the cult of positive thinking is the beatification of bullshit.
added by fannyprice | editThe Guardian, Lucy Ellman (Jan 9, 2010)
I must confess, I have waited my whole life for someone to write a book like “Bright-Sided”... Now, in Barbara Ehrenreich’s deeply satisfying book, I finally have a moral defense for my apparent scowl.
The myth-busting Barbara Ehrenreich takes on the ``cult of cheerfulness'' in her latest book and shortly after diving into the icy plunge pool of Chapter One readers will find themselves asking: Can I really make it all the way through a screed that starts off with a roundhouse punch at the positive thinking of cancer patients?

You can. And you should.
[Ehrenreich's] argument has the makings of a tight, incisive essay. And each chapter eventually delivers a succinct reiteration of the central point. But this short book is also padded with cheap shots, easy examples, research recycled from her earlier books and caustic reportorial stalking. Ms. Ehrenreich starts out with her ideas firmly in place, then goes out hunting for crass, benighted individuals whose perniciousness helps her accentuate the negative.
While Ehrenreich is entertaining and instructive as she has been in the past, "Bright-Sided" is probably her least persuasive book.
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To complainers everywhere:

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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0805087494, Hardcover)

A sharp-witted knockdown of America’s love affair with positive thinking and an urgent call for a new commitment to realism

Americans are a “positive” people—cheerful, optimistic, and upbeat: this is our reputation as well as our self-image. But more than a temperament, being positive, we are told, is the key to success and prosperity.

In this utterly original take on the American frame of mind, Barbara Ehrenreich traces the strange career of our sunny outlook from its origins as a marginal nineteenth-century healing technique to its enshrinement as a dominant, almost mandatory, cultural attitude. Evangelical mega-churches preach the good news that you only have to want something to get it, because God wants to “prosper” you. The medical profession prescribes positive thinking for its presumed health benefits. Academia has made room for new departments of “positive psychology” and the “science of happiness.” Nowhere, though, has bright-siding taken firmer root than within the business community, where, as Ehrenreich shows, the refusal even to consider negative outcomes—like mortgage defaults—contributed directly to the current economic crisis. 

With the mythbusting powers for which she is acclaimed, Ehrenreich exposes the downside of America’s penchant for positive thinking: On a personal level, it leads to self-blame and a morbid preoccupation with stamping out “negative” thoughts. On a national level, it’s brought us an era of irrational optimism resulting in disaster. This is Ehrenreich at her provocative best—poking holes in conventional wisdom and faux science, and ending with a call for existential clarity and courage.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:25:19 -0400)

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A sharp-witted knockdown of America's love affair with positive thinking and an urgent call for a new commitment to realism, existential clarity and courage.

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