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Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is…

Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America (original 2009; edition 2010)

by Barbara Ehrenreich

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Title:Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America
Authors:Barbara Ehrenreich
Info:Picador (2010), Edition: 1, Paperback, 256 pages
Collections:Your library

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Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America by Barbara Ehrenreich (2009)


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So I come from a home that mildly bought into the 'positive thinking' movement. My dad would have dismissed many of the banal 'believe it, become it' approaches of the self-help movement, but he did have Robert Schuller on his shelf and listened to business motivational tapes in the car. I remember one such tape talking about successful sales where a salesman said that before he went to make a sale he would repeat to himself, "I'm the best salesman in the world" and low and behold he would make the sale. I tried this myself and found by boosting my confidence about, for instance, playing piano, I could fool my piano teacher into thinking I practiced that week. But I never learned to play piano well.

Therein lies the rub. Ehrenreich contends that the fruits of positive thinking are vastly overstated. She begins the book talking about her breast cancer diagnosis and how much imperatives to 'be positive' were thrust on her, and how often they encouraged her to ignore the reality which is cancer. She then surveys the history of Positive Thinking (beginning in the New-Thought movement of the 19th Century) and its impact on the world of business, motivational speakers, theology, positive psychology and pretty much everything. In fact, Ehrenreich blames this positive thinking for the economic collapse in America in 2008 where businesses and investment firms had 'unwarranted optimism.'

There is much to commend this book and I am in essential agreement with many of her arguments. I do think sometimes the broadness of her attack on positive thinking means she lumps together strange bed-fellows in her critique. For example, her chapter 'God Wants you to Be Rich provides a stinging critique on Joyce Meyers and Joel Olsteen. Then it lumps in Bill Hybels and Rick Warren as softer proponents of positive theology. Perhaps, but there is a world of difference between the Purpose Driven-Life and Your Best Life Now (i'm not much of a fan of either by the way).

In a couple of places, I found myself wishing that Ehrenreich was more nuanced in her critique of positive thinking. Perhaps as someone trained as a scientist and a journalist, her bias is towards healthy skepticism. But does this mean Positive Thinking is always bad? When I was 12, Positive thinking helped me fool my piano teacher. Clearly there is some impact on performance, just not a substitute for hard work. ( )
  Jamichuk | May 22, 2017 |
A magnificent study of the culture of mindless, ruthless false optimism in the United States...a culture whose influence, in a supremely bitter irony, extends even to the title of the book. (In the UK, Bright-Sided was published as Smile or Die: a much more effective title, but too stark and, yes, too negative-sounding for the American market.) Barbara Ehrenreich examines the Calvinist origins of the positive-thinking ideology and traces its extremely robust survival into the present day, from the megachurches of pastors like Joel Osteen to "self-help" bestsellers like Rhonda Byrne's The Secret. In conclusion, Ehrenreich offers the following observation: "(A)s the cover story of the January 2009 issue of Psychology Today acknowledges, the American infatuation with positive thinking has not made us happier. (...) It requires, as historian Donald Meyer puts it, 'constant repetition of its spirit lifters, constant alertness against impossibility perspectives, constant monitoring of rebellions of body and mind against control.' This is a burden that we can finally, in good conscience, put down. The effort of positive 'thought control', which is always presented as such a life preserver, has become a potentially deadly weight--obscuring judgment and shielding us from vital information. Sometimes we need to heed our fears and negative thoughts, and at all times we need to be alert to the world outside ourselves, even when that includes absorbing bad news and entertaining the views of 'negative' people."

An absolute must. I would happily have read another hundred pages. ( )
1 vote Jonathan_M | Feb 13, 2017 |
Although I was already familiar with some of the ideas presented in [b:Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America|6452749|Bright-Sided How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America|Barbara Ehrenreich|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1437252706s/6452749.jpg|6642954], [a:Barbara Ehrenreich|1257|Barbara Ehrenreich|https://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1395953641p2/1257.jpg] thoroughly covers the historical aspects of the proliferation of the Positive Thinking and Psychology movement in the US. Beginning with the Calvinist theology roots that abhorred idleness and pleasure seeking, Ehrenreich then moves onto the New Thought Movement that held the beginning philosophical beliefs of our current era of promoting positive thinking in all areas of our lives whether it concern big business, career, or our personal lives and health.

The first chapter of the book discusses the author's personal experience with breast cancer, including how positive thinking has entered into the realm of health care. According to this philosophy, breast cancer should be viewed as a gift, and if survivors want to stay cancer-free they need only don those cute pink ribbons, deny any feelings of anger or fear and think happy thoughts. Why would anything such as access to good medical care, genetics, initial diagnosis, staging, type(s) of treatment used or long-term prognosis even enter into the picture?

One of the saddest aspects of this whole culture of positivity, is all the money that has been made from it by certain individuals such as the author of [b:The Secret|52529|The Secret (The Secret, #1)|Rhonda Byrne|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1391995828s/52529.jpg|2001660], influential religious leaders, business executives, and PhDs expounding the benefits of positive psychology on the lecture circuit. Ehrenreich also makes a compelling argument for the culture of positive thinking helping to create the hedge fund and sub-prime morgage crisis in the US. According to the statistics presented in the book, those who usually rank among the happiest in the US have above average incomes and live in affluent neighborhoods. Meanwhile, "welfare recipients were pushed out into low-wage jobs, supposedly, in part, to boost their self-esteem; laid-off and soon-to-be-laid-off workers were subjected to motivational speakers and exercises."

An example that was included in the book, really exemplified the whole idea behind the concept of positive thinking. I think it especially struck a chord with me because I personally know people who follow this line of thinking, whether they realize it or not:
"A Los Angeles Times reporter wrote of the effect of [b:The Secret|52529|The Secret (The Secret, #1)|Rhonda Byrne|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1391995828s/52529.jpg|2001660] on her sister: “When my sister arrived from New York over the holidays, she plopped a hand-tooled leather satchel on my piano bench and said, ‘See the beautiful bag I manifested for myself?’ ” The DVD of [b:The Secret|52529|The Secret (The Secret, #1)|Rhonda Byrne|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1391995828s/52529.jpg|2001660] had encouraged her to believe that she deserved this object, that it was hers for the taking, so she had charged it on her Amex card." Chapter Seven: How Positive Thinking Destroyed the Economy

As much as I agreed with many of the arguments presented in this book, it still was a four star read for myself. In the final chapter of the book, Ehrenreich does acknowledge that "negative thinking can be just as delusional as the positive kind" and "Realism—to the point of defensive pessimism—is a prerequisite not only for human survival but for all animal species." However, given the amount of time spent discussing the downfalls of eternal optimism, the author could have spent more time describing the philosophical aspects and potential benefits of realism.

As with most things, I personally feel there is always a delicate balance or middle ground. As (hopefully) rational considerate human beings and informed consumers, we should strive to weigh the pros and cons of a situation or consider both sides of an argument. Having a positive attitude can be a good thing sometimes, although it should never be forced upon anyone, nor should any philosophical theory maintain that there is only one "correct way" to think about things. ( )
  Lisa805 | Jul 23, 2016 |
I was a little concerned when starting this that it would be an attack on "positivity" per se, or of positive people in general, and even with my being a cynical and moody misanthrope I wasn't ready for happy people to be canned. I should have known better.

The targets of Ehrenreich's withering and eloquent narrative were instead those that fully deserved the spotlight - all the way from the ludicrous banality of 'The Secret' through the saddening world of arch-snake oil salesmen and theological ATM merchants like Osteen and Meyer and on to the fascistic rentier capitalists who came so close to destroying modern society as we know it in 2008. Ehrenreich even found time along the way to analyse the trends in the pseudo science of the psychology of positive thinking that is taught in Ivy League universities and its darker side, leaning as it does toward funding from fundamentalist christian-led right wing republicanism.

This is a fascinating read and generally provides a vindication to those of us who prefer to be sceptical and tend toward a more reasoned and analytical approach to news and politics, not to mention cultural norms, but it did get bogged down in places by statistics and scientific paper listing. Even so she is a very good writer and raises important issues. She is also clearly the mental master of the murky subjects that she exposes and this also lends comforting weight to her findings. ( )
  MartynChuzz | Feb 22, 2016 |
The first time I encountered a vision board was in the late 1990's when some friends of ours were trying to convince my spouse and me to sell Amway. We'd visit their apartment and see the magazine clippings of Mercedes sedans and diamond rings covering their refrigerator. This was shortly after one of them had quit grad school because he knew the only way he was going to reach his financial goals was to devote himself whole-heartedly to his business. That MD-PhD he'd almost completed was a dead end anyway.

The first friend who used the term "manifest" to describe what our Amway friends were doing with the fridge photos tried to convince me that I just had to buy a house in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2007. It was a no-brainer: every rich person she knew owned a house, and it was ridiculous not to get into the market. She had just done it, and in a few years, it would be totally worth the financial pinch. Then I told her my family's monthly household income, and she didn't mention home buying again.

The day I started reading this book, another friend told me about the positive thinking certification class she was taking. "You'd really like it, Charity," she insisted, and I considered recommending this book to her along with Julie Norem's [book:The Positive Power Of Negative Thinking|206028], but instead I just kept quiet.

I am in the choir to whom Ehrenreich is preaching with this book. That's not to say I haven't taken a sip of the positive thinking Kool-Aid myself at times. From the draw of a friend's megachurch when I was eighteen to starting my very own Happiness Project a la Gretchen Rubin when I was thirty-three, I do sometimes buy into the idea that my cautious optimism/defensive pessimism is a character flaw. But mostly I'm happy to live outside of the positive thinking bubble.

Most of what Ehrenreich says was no surprise to me, but one idea that really got my attention was that positive thinking discourages empathy. Ehrenreich writes:

"The challenge of family life, or group life of any kind, is to keep gauging the moods of others, accommodating to their insights, and offering comfort when needed. But in the world of positive thinking other people are not there to be nurtured or to provide unwelcome reality checks. They are there only to nourish, praise, and affirm...There seems to be a massive empathy deficit, which people respond to by withdrawing their own. No one has the time or patience for anyone else's problems."(56)

If our primary goal is our own personal momentary happiness, what incentive is there to empathize and build relationships?

I admit, though, that even as I strongly endorse the idea of empathy and do my best to practice it myself every day, I continue to have a sense of scarcity around empathy. What if I put in the effort to empathize with others and then no one empathizes back?

I've sworn off self-help books, but if I found one that focused on addressing the empathy deficit, I would read it.

I do wonder: Is it better in other countries? Are there places I could live where positive thinking isn't so ubiquitous? ( )
1 vote ImperfectCJ | Feb 2, 2016 |
Showing 1-5 of 103 (next | show all)
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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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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