Jenny Devildoll's Reviews > Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America

Bright-Sided by Barbara Ehrenreich
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May 04, 11

bookshelves: social-commentary, mental-health
Read from March 17 to May 04, 2011

For a long time something about the whole idea of "thinking positive" didn't sit well with me. I didn't understand how I could instantly be positive without first at least acknowledging and trying to address the things I felt negatively about. I didn't understand why the "friends" I had who were the biggest advocates of positivity were also some of the most gloating, insensitive or underhandedly mean-spirited. I named my comic series "Too Negative" in defiance of these superficial attitudes, but I did not articulate the problem a fraction as clearly as Barbara Ehrenreich does in this book! She makes a strong distinction between the positive thinking movement and authentic happiness. She traces it from it's origins in what was called New Thought (a semi-mystic school of philosophy that would eventually evolve into what we recognize as the New Age movement) through pop psychology, corporate culture, and eventually to being championed by some of the same people (Seligman is called out) endorsing right-wing causes to the point that they were involved with developing torture techniques for use at Guantanamo. (Though it is also pointed out that some of the more public faces of positive thinking, such as Oprah, are liberal in their leanings as well.)
Most succinctly, Ehrenreich throws a light on the fact that in all it's forms, the emphasis on "thinking positive" is also accompanied by a marked lack of empathy and tendency to dismiss those who are not relentlessly cheerful in all circumstances as "whiners" and "failures". This ranges from countless books and seminars urging people to shun "negative people" at all costs, often in the most demonizing language possible, to Rhonda Byrne (author of "The Secret") blaming victims of natural disasters, the Holocaust, 9/11, etc. for "attracting" these things to themselves, presumably through their negative thoughts. Positive thinking encourages complacency, urging people not to change bad circumstances (unless it involves the casting out of negative people) or fight social injustice, simply to change how we feel about such situations until we're okay with them as they are. There are countless anecdotes about how people in the workplace have been made to endure inappropriate actions in the name of positivity and motivational training. In one extreme instance a number of under-performing salespeople are publicly spanked in a boardroom meeting, supposedly to improve their motivation. In an even more extreme instance an employee with a poor attitude is literally waterboarded at the workplace. The final chapter of the book includes accounts of how in the recent past totalitarian regimes have used optimism propaganda as a means of control, to the point of jailing dissenters. Author Milan Kundera is discussed as one who was sentenced to prison for writing a story in which a character states "Optimism is an opium for the people". After a book full of stories of social ostracism for the depressed and water torture for the unmotivated, I see no reason why I should look at the positivity movement in the United States as anything different. I wish everybody would read this book!
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