Edward's Reviews > Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America

Bright-Sided by Barbara Ehrenreich
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Apr 09, 11

Read from November 01, 2004 to April 11, 2011

So what's wrong with positive thinking and looking on the bright side of things? Isn't that the purpose of life, to improve our lives and feel good in the process of accomplishing that? Especially in America, that shining city on the hill which shines as a beacon of hope to the rest of the world?
Ehrenreich, author of NICKEL AND DIMED, condemns this attitude which she considers to have done much damage to our society - in all kinds of ways found in medicine, education, religion, and especially in business and politics. "Positive thinking" too often is delusional, the belief that you can alter the circumstances of your life by altering the reality of your mind. You do this through improving your attitude, by revising your emotional responses, by greater focus. Have cancer? View it as an opportunity to conquer all your fears and negative thoughts through positive thinking, as well as actually making the cancer cells disappear. Go to church and always feel good, no more preaching about sin and suffering, only the good stuff is mentioned, the joys of permanent resurrection which can bring you whatever you want. Lose your job? View it not as a door closing, but as an opportunity to open new and better portals. The list goes on . Global warming? Just refuse to believe it - hard scientific evidence can now either be accepted or rejected, purely on the basis of personal taste. There's no room for facts if they don’t make you feel good.
This even extends to advice to simply avoid paying attention to the news of the world – it may depress you and interfere with the good vibes of your mind. In fact, there are several websites that present only “good new”, uplifting and cheerful
Ehrenreich is not opposed to the virtue of hope, but she emphasizes that what counts far more than "positive thinking" is CRITICAL thinking about personal and societal problems. To try to solve them, you need hard-earned skills, and a lot of practical work. There are no guarantees of success, unlike the promoters of positive thinking who DO guarantee results. For example, take the recent best-selling book, THE SECRET, which stresses you can achieve your goals by "visualizing" them. Keep up the visualizations and whatever you want will come to you. Guaranteed! What if it doesn't? Well, you haven't visualized enough, it's your fault, so intensify your efforts.
I think the best part of the book the exploration of the historical background of this new thinking. It's a modern secular manifestation of the ancient Manichean heresy of seeing the universe in terms of black and white, of darkness and light. Positive thinking has no room for complexities - it focuses exclusively on the light and banishes the darkness.
It's an inverted form of Calvinism which dwelt on the darkness, made up of innate weakness and evil of humans. Positive thinking goes to the other extreme and dwells on the absolute power and goodness of the human mind. What they have in common, though, is a strong work ethic, of practicing the system without end. Mary Baker Eddy formulated many of its doctrines with her 19th century Christian Science teachings. The universe is made up of abundance, and all we have to do is enjoy the fruits of this bounty. In the twentieth century, Norman Vincent Peale essentially repeated her ideas in his best-selling book (still in print), THE POWER OF POSITIVE THINKING. Hundreds, if not thousands, of self-help books, tapes, and videos have followed his basic advice.
She is particularly critical of the first decade of the 21st century: "What was market fundamentalism other than runaway positive thinking? In the ideology that prevailed in the Bush administration, and to a lesser extent, the Clinton administration before it, there wa no need for vigilance or anxiety about America's financial institutions, because 'the market' would take care of everything. It achieved the status of a deity, this market, closely related to Mary BAker Eddy's benevolent ever-nurturing, and all-supplying universe. Why worry, when Adam Smith 'invisible hand' would straighten everything out?"
I'd like to believe that the book has had some beneficial influence on our society, and maybe it has. Anyone concerned about the national debt can hardly be accused of positive thinking, even though some of the solutions may veer into simplistic positive thinking byways. For those of us who have heard and even succumbed to the siren song of the positive thinking gurus (and who hasn't?), I think Ehrenreich has done all of us a huge favor by refastening us to the mast of reality.
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