Review

Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America

by Barbara Ehrenreich

Barbara Ehrenreich, our country’s literary
pop-sociologist-in-residence, has come up with another provocative
and brightly written survey of what’s wrong with our
social/cultural scene. Clear a space for it on the shelf beside her
earlier efforts in the same genre, NICKEL AND DIMED and BAIT AND
SWITCH.

Those books dealt in their different ways with the phenomenon of
underemployment --- people stuck in jobs that condemn them to
failed efforts at making ends meet. BRIGHT-SIDED takes on an easier
target, although one that is much more difficult to reduce to
statistics --- the whole many-sided idea of “positive
thinking” as it has affected politics, religion, medicine,
business and numerous other facets of American life. Ehrenreich
finds the concept almost entirely vacuous, largely ineffective,
illogical, even harmful and positively dangerous in the long run.
She explores its origins as a reaction to Puritan Calvinism and
parades before us a melancholy procession of its chief advocates,
from Mary Baker Eddy to Norman Vincent Peale and beyond. None of
them escape unscathed from her sharp-pointed pen.

The chief sin of positive thinking, in Ehrenreich’s
gospel, is its irrational and pervasive optimism, amounting to a
stubborn refusal to confront the world as it really is. Herself a
survivor of breast cancer, she is outraged by the commonly promoted
idea that cancer is a “gift” or
an “opportunity” to redirect one’s life. In
like fashion, she goes after the notion that suddenly finding
yourself downsized at work can somehow be camouflaged as a chance
to make your life better or more meaningful. She attends windy
conferences of “life coaches” and “spiritual
advisers,” mainly for the purpose of recording and scoffing
at their nostrums and, indeed, at their whole reason for being. She
visits megachurch services to preach her own sermon against their
crass materialism and the doctrine that “God wants you to be
rich.” And she ridicules the business world’s adoption
of company-wide cheerleading exercises as a means of boosting
employee morale --- that is, for those employees who are left after
the mass layoffs have been announced. She interviews, at length, a
leading “positive psychologist” and concludes that his
line of treatment is largely nonsense (he didn’t like her
much, either).

Another of her major targets is the “law of
attraction,” which asks us to believe that you can have
whatever you want --- good health, the right spouse, the mansion,
the yacht, the huge bank account, etc. --- simply by wishing for it
ardently enough. If you do not achieve these things, you have only
yourself to blame. You are just “too negative” and will
never make the grade. Stop reading newspapers and watching the news
--- they just make you more negative. This will strike most readers
as knocking down a self-evidently ridiculous idea, but Ehrenreich
finds its ghost lurking behind many of the notions and practices
found today in the business world. Late in the book, she confronts
the current financial meltdown and blames it fully as much on
unscrupulously optimistic promotional tactics by Ponzi disciples in
plush offices as on the gullibility of those who fell for them and
lost everything.

Reading along in this chamber of new-age horrors, one keeps
wondering: What does Ehrenreich propose as remedy? A mass retreat
into gloom and despair perhaps? Her answer is simple: realism ---
the knowledge that the world is indeed a perilous place and that
you cannot wish those perils away. Optimism has a place in her
outlook, but so do common sense, hard work, concern for others, and
the quest for greater knowledge of the world around us. And she
finds all these qualities to be sorely lacking in the Never Never
Land of wishful optimism and life coaches.

Ehrenreich’s writing here is brisk, and her thesis
passionately held and convincingly laid out. If you come
across any readers (or book reviewers) who remain unimpressed,
well, just put them down as those incurably
“negative” sourpusses we need to watch out for and
vanquish.

Reviewed by Robert Finn (Robertfinn@aol.com) on December 23, 2010

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

  • Publication Date: October 13, 2009
  • Genres: Current Affairs, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Metropolitan Books
  • ISBN-10: 0805087494
  • ISBN-13: 9780805087499