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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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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 |
If you're interested in investigating the shadows on the sunny side of the street...an entertaining look at the history, recent manifestations, and unforeseen ramifications of the "positive thinking" movement in the United States. One of the most interesting insights was the comparison to Calvinism. ( )
1 vote bibleblaster | Jan 23, 2016 |
Was hoping for more. ( )
  Charlie-Ravioli | Jan 18, 2016 |
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. ( )
3 vote Deborah_Markus | Aug 8, 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)

(see all 2 descriptions)

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.

(summary from another edition)

» see all 5 descriptions

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