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

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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 myth-busting 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.

206 pages, Hardcover

First published October 13, 2009

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About the author

Barbara Ehrenreich

99 books1,854 followers
Barbara Ehrenreich was an American journalist and the bestselling author of sixteen previous books, including the bestsellers Nickel and Dimed and Bait and Switch. A frequent contributor to Harpers and The Nation, she has also been a columnist at The New York Times and Time Magazine.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 1,554 reviews
Profile Image for Katie.
186 reviews49 followers
October 31, 2009
Boy is it nice to see someone exposing Positive fucking Psychology, The Secret, the "prosperity gospel," and all the rest of the American happytalk crap. I get so sick of it. I get so fucking sick of it. God, I got so sick of it at the Health NonProfit Call Center I worked at--all the smileys and balloons and cheery emails with little animated cartoons ("Join me on the coverage train!") and the required-attendance pep rallies and the color-coded performance scales with little medals and the cutesy slogans, and the kindergarten level decorations, and the endless teddygoddamnbears, and the bunting, and the smiles, smiles, smiles. All of it designed to make you work harder and harder and quit bitching about it. One guy I knew got in trouble for telling a caller, someone terminal, that "Cancer sucks." The issue wasn't slang so much as negativity. You can't say cancer sucks? Cancer does suck! Currently, my old department is being eliminated and everyone laid off. They are trying to be positive and they are all going nuts.

Ehrenreich starts out with her experience with breast cancer. Okay, so this is not the best time in my life to read this book, 'cause on Monday I am having a diagnostic mammogram. (Thanks again, Health NonProfit! I'm blaming you for this too.) I agree with Ehrenreich--please let me die any other way than clutching a teddy bear, surrounded by pink femininity. If this innocent little...thingy...turns out to be...I don't want to see any goddamn pink for the rest of my life. But it's worse than pink; she writes about women who are kicked out of breast cancer support groups when their cancer relapses; who are castigated in chatrooms for not being upbeat. About books where cancer is celebrated as life-affirming, life-giving, the best thing that could happen to you. Even those about to die, wasted, bald, in pain, too young, seem to be expected to be happy and grateful. And the worst seems to be that if you do die, it is your own fault. This is the attitude not just of patients but of nurses and doctors too. This is the scariest part of the mammogram Monday. Oh God, please, please, anything but that...Ehrenreich, who has a doctorate in cell biology, points out that even if positive thinking could strengthen the immune system, it would not help defeat most cancers, since most cancers have nothing to do with the immune system.

Actually, that's just the introduction, the teaser, if you will. She gives a history of positive thinking in America, as a reaction to Calvinism--but not the oppostive of it, more an extension of it, one that still requires constant self-examination, discipline, and strictness. She exposes positive thinking as "a godawful lonely" way of living, since it calls for extreme self-involvement and requires the practitioner to cut herself off from "negative" people, even if they are family or friends. She looks at "positive" Christianity, questioning (as I and others do) whether it really has anything to do with authentic Christianity, and at positive psychology--that's where Seligman comes in. Evidently Seligman has lost faith in it a bit himself. She agrees with me about the abuse of positive thinking as a tool for making corporate employees compliant and passive in a time of downsizing; it's easier than using dogs and guns, after all. She also blames positive thinking in part for the economic meltdown. The Fed believed in a permanently healthy market; the market believed in permanently high housing prices; the way to get out of the mess is for everybody to keep buying on credit.

One weekend in college, a bunch of us went on a day hike in the Adirondacks. We missed a turn and came to the end of the trail. Someone said, "Hey, we have a compass and we know the lodge is west of here--right over that ridge. Let's cut across country!" Most of the group said, "Sure, that's a good idea!" A few said, "Well, maybe we should go back and look for the turnoff." We took a vote; it came out 20-0 with one abstention. Twenty intelligent people, all of whom had some orienteering experience, all of whom knew better, voted to leave the path at six o'clock on a September evening because, hey, we got a compass, we'll be fine, heck. And after five hours of wandering in the pitch dark, we did find our way home and we were fine.

I'd give this book 5 stars if Ehrenreich didn't make the people she doesn't like sound ugly or dumb. Does that mean I'm being too nice? Or that I don't like cheap shots? Okay, Joel Osteen's short and wears a mullet and dumb suits. Martin Seligman is rude and controlling. (I've always thought Seligman was a jerk, but do you have to rub my--or his--nose in it?)

I like how two of the Google ads that showed up when I selected this book were for books called "Manifest Anything" and "Attract Abundance." Ehrenreich would probably spit coffee out her nose.
Profile Image for Lena.
Author 1 book348 followers
December 2, 2009
Barbara Ehrenreich was first exposed to the dark side of the positive thinking movement when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Early into her cancer journey, she discovered that normal emotions such as anger and fear were being aggressively denied by those who believed that a positive attitude was crucial to survival. Cultural skeptic that she is, Ehernreich poured through the literature on the subject and found that, not only did science fail to support the hypothesis that a positive attitude contributes to healing cancer, but that those who failed to recover from cancer often experienced an especially cruel form of victim blaming at the hands of those who were convinced that it was their own faulty negative thinking that kept them sick.

This experience led Ehrenreich to explore in more depth the concept of positive thinking and how it is currently experienced in America today. She traces its roots back to the New Thought movement of the 19th century, a spiritualist reaction against Calvanism that gave birth to, among other things, Mary Baker Eddy's Christian Science. Though nowhere near as depressing as Calvanism, these philosophies still heavily emphasized personal effort and striving, teaching that perfection was attainable if one worked hard enough and that problems in the physical body or external world were a reflection of work still needing to be done.

Napoleon Hill (Think and Grow Rich) and Norman Vincent Peale (The Power of Positive Thinking) helped to take these New Thought philosophies more into the mainstream. Though hungry salesman have often sought comfort in the promises of these sorts of speakers, Ehernreich explains how, over the last few decades, these kinds of ideas have deeply penetrated all levels of corporate culture. In a chapter titled "Motivating Business and The Business of Motivation," Ehrenreich details how corporations turned to motivational speakers to pump up workforces demoralized by layoffs and convince both those let go and those remaining that their attitude, and not the relentless pursuit of corporate profit, was responsible for their plight.

Though the recent phenomenon The Secret is a textbook example of how badly the idea of positive thinking can be misused in the service of personal gain, Ehrenreich also explores how certain Christian "prosperity" churches have gotten into the act, convincing their parishioners that God wants them to be rich and will help them get that way if they just show a little faith by giving money to the church. Her comments on how many of the devout poor were convinced the predatory mortgages they were being offered a few years back were a gift from God were particularly poignant.

One might think that psychologists who extol the virtues of positive thinking would be on firmer ground than those who have a more openly exploitative agenda, but in an entertaining chapter in which Ehrenreich describes her futile attempt to pin down positive psych guru Martin Seligman, it becomes clear that the science of happiness is much murkier than it has been presented in the press. While few would argue that being positive can feel good and many of us would prefer to be around "positive" people, how much we are actually able to control our reaction to circumstances and what effect that ultimately has in our lives is still significantly up for debate. Those who would argue that there's no harm in trying to be positive regardless of what the science says, however, would do well to read the chapter "How Positive Thinking Destroyed the Economy." The exhortation to cut out negative people from one's life was applied all too literally by CEOs who fired those who warned that they were taking on excessive amounts of risk.

As someone who was exposed early on to the fantasy that what you think can directly impact external reality, I am no stranger to the massive amount of internal stress caused by trying to control one's thinking to be only positive. I've spent the last few years deprogramming myself from these kinds of ideas and feel much happier now that I am no longer afraid of my own random thoughts and can experience the full range of emotions without the fear that doing so will somehow screw up my life. Despite my own early indoctrination into the cult of positive thinking, however, I was still very surprised to learn that these are not just fringe, New Age/self-help ideas but ones that have deeply permeated all layers of American culture. Americans are a uniquely positive people, more likely to believe they will move up in life than people in other countries do. This optimism is in direct contradiction to the fact that we are actually less likely to improve our station than more socialist-minded Canadians and Europeans. Yet the idea that anyone in America can succeed despite their background and that those who don't have only themselves to blame is regularly used to deny our less fortunate citizens benefits that are already the norm in other Western Democracies. Erenreich's discussion of this phenomenon, as well as how positive thinking is twisted to the service of repression by totalitarian regimes, was one of the most disturbing parts of the book.

Ehrenreich concludes her writing with a discussion of the importance of learning to realistically assess both potential positive and negative outcomes of our choices instead of just focusing solely on what we hope will happen. As she so thoughtfully points out, "We want our airplane pilots to anticipate failed engines as well as happy landings." Developing this kind of healthy realism will go much farther towards bringing us real happiness than carefully controlled positive thinking can ever hope to.
Profile Image for Bill Kerwin.
Author 1 book81.9k followers
May 22, 2019

It was bad enough that Barbara Ehrenreich suffered from breast cancer: what made it even worse was that so many people--medical professionals as well as friends and acquaintances--insisted that she be upbeat and positive about her affliction. Now, in addition to feeling angry and scared, she had to feel guilty about not looking on "the bright side."

This experience led Ms. Ehrenreich to examine the origins of Positive Thinking in America (Dr. Quimby's New Thought, Mary Baker Eddy) as a reaction to Calvinism that substituted a condemnation of negative thinking for a condemnation of sin. She shows how Positive Thinking has infected our Christianity, our business community, and may even be responsible for the financial crisis of 2008.

A short book, sharp, and well-written.
Profile Image for David.
865 reviews1,339 followers
August 24, 2010
I always feel slightly guilty about my reaction to Barbara Ehrenreich's writing. I do admire her - she is ideologically committed, writes with passion, is on what I consider the "correct" side of the various social issues that concern her. And yet ... somehow I always end up with these niggling reservations that prevent me from endorsing her books wholeheartedly.

In the case of "Nickel and Dimed", probably her best-known work, the niggling reservation was the artificiality of the whole endeavor - the knowledge that the whole exercise of adopting the role of one of the "working poor" was undermined by the existing safety net Ehrenreich had available in her actual life. Though it didn't invalidate her message, it seemed (to me) enough of a distraction to weaken the effectiveness of her presentation.

Her recent book, "Bright-sided", has much to recommend it: Ehrenreich's willingness to question received wisdom and dig deeper for answers, her characteristically clear thinking, expressed in clear and forceful prose. Her central target in "Bright-sided" is a U.S. trait that is both a strength and a weakness - the uniquely American faith in the power of positive thinking.

In the opening chapter, which I found the most powerful in the book, Ehrenreich describes her experience as a breast cancer patient. There is an extensive, well-organized network to which someone just diagnosed with (breast) cancer can turn for support. One of the most prevalent messages promulgated within this "support" network is that maintaining a positive attitude towards one's disease is imperative. Ehrenreich argues persuasively that, in many cases, this rigidly enforced dogma of positive thinking (to the extent of asking patients to view their disease as a "gift"), is in no way supportive, and actually ends up making people feel guilty about a bad situation beyond their control. Nonetheless, the belief that maintaining a positive attitude can actually affect the course of one's disease remains prevalent, accepted unquestioningly by the majority of cancer patients, despite an almost complete lack of objective scientific evidence to support it.

In subsequent chapters, Ehrenreich shows how variations of the same belief, which is essentially little more than magical thinking, have taken hold in different aspects of American life, and different sectors of U.S. society. The popularity of books like "The Secret", the practice of advising people who have been laid off to "take control" of their situation through positive visualization, the explosive growth of the "motivational seminar" business, the rise of evangelical churches peddling the message that "God wants you to be rich" -- all are manifestations of the same fundamental belief, not just in the importance of a positive attitude, but in its ability to bring about change.

Ehrenreich believes (and I agree with her) that it's essentially a steaming heap of crap. The prevalent faith in positive thinking not only exaggerates its potential benefits, its effects can be actively detrimental. For instance, the amazing lack of outrage within the lower classes at the obscene excesses of the super-rich is due in no small measure to the belief that, with hard work and luck, anyone can achieve a similar measure of financial success*. This leads to a focus on the individual's own status, but works against genuine social change, of the kind that might make a real difference. And, of course, the recent financial meltdown had its origins in the exaggerated confidence that blinded investors to the (real and substantial) risks of subprime mortgages, or versions thereof, repackaged in the guise of assorted shady financial instruments. Throughout the book, Ehrenreich makes her case articulately and persuasively.

Why only three stars? Because I think the book is about twice as long as it needs to be. The point that Ehrenreich wishes to make is not particularly difficult, nor is it sufficiently important to warrant 225 pages of exposition. Much of the material in the middle chapters feels redundant - crowding in one more anecdote about yet another ridiculous motivational speaker, long after the point has been made. The phrase "methinks the lady doth protest too much" flitted unbidden across my mind, leaving me feeling slightly guilty, as Ehrenreich's books usually seem to do.

Though it's a little bloated, "Bright-sided" is nonetheless well worth your consideration.

* : In the words of a 1996 Brookings Institute study: Strong belief in opportunity and upward mobility is the explanation for Americans' high tolerance for inequality. The majority of Americans surveyed believe they will be above mean income in the future (even though this is mathematically impossible).
Profile Image for Trevor.
1,301 reviews22k followers
June 17, 2010
There is little point writing a review of a book once Lena has written one - http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/... - not, of course, that that will stop me.

This is a wonderful book. The main idea behind it is that we have developed a religious (quite literally) fervour for positive thinking. The best bits of this book are when she talks about the Evangelical Churches in the US and how they have moved away from negative images (like Jesus on the cross) towards Jesus in a three-piece business suit with a smile to let you know just how much he wants you to be rich. I’m not a Christian, but I would have thought that this particular bastardisation of Christianity is so far removed from Christ’s message (sell all you have and give it to the poor rings a bell) that some Christians out there might even object to it. I mean, it would be like saying Lenin just wants you to be rich – but apparently Christians don't mind this new and updated message.

The other bit of this book that is very disturbing is where she continues the theme she started in Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream in talking about just how obscenely wealthy the CEOs have became at the expense of the rest of us. Before I get accused of the ‘politics of envy’ – I really do have to say that I don’t envy CEOs in the least. The people I have met who have been wealthy have also tended to be rather sad, self-satisfied and obsessed with money to the point of fetishism. Their greed and their belief that nothing else matters beyond money is so repulsive that I always smile when I hear conservative politicians and their cheer clubs pull out that line. I try to avoid envying people their sicknesses.

I’ve seen Evangelical ceremonies (of both the religious and the make-me-rich-quick kind) and I feel there is nothing attractive about them. Both seem to appeal to our basest human emotions. But I have never really made quite the connections that are made in this book between the two. The stuff comparing Calvinism and Positive Thinking is really interesting.

The saddest fact in the book is when she points out that the great American myth, the myth that allows the obscenely wealthy to gorge and pillage and to wallow in their wealth with impunity, is somewhat worse then mere exaggeration, it is quite simply a lie. The lie is that the average Joe will one day make it to being a billionaire (as he has been promised as a reward for his hard work). The problem is that this lie is even less true in America than it is in many other first world countries, countries where there is at least some hope of social mobility. Social mobility in the USA is actually virtually impossible. Ironically, the citizens of the USA do not even get upset with the excesses of the wealthy, because they (the poor citizens) are certain one day they too will be rich, and so, in preparation for that day, no limits must ever be placed on the greed of the wealthy. Their greed is our greed in waiting.

I initially thought this book would be limited to the evils of positive thinking in healthcare. The first part of this book looks at how positive thinking has a dark side that gets us to look on people who are dying and accuse them of having contributed to their illness by a kind of negative attraction. It is an idea I find truly repulsive. But this is only one of the kinds of Positive Thinking under attack here.

The book also looks at how we have created a culture where mentioning the train is about to crash, even if we offer the helpful suggestion that we might consider applying the brakes, is seen by many as being far too negative. We live in a world where the people in charge know they are being lied to virtually all of the time by their underlings, even if they can hardly complain because their underlings have been trained to always be positive and to never present senior management with problems, unless those ‘problems’ are referred to as opportunities after having been covered in a mountain of sugar. Not only has religion stopped being about suffering and been turned into a moronic self-help put-your-hand-in-the-hand of your heavenly personal trainer, but companies have become like Churches and so preach the same ‘wealth is wonderful’ message Jesus overturned the tables of the money changers about. The new-time religion is change, downsizing, mega-profits and smiley faces. There are now only two kinds of change – the kind that you affect on yourself, by smiling and saying ‘have a nice day’ until you fnally believe it is true and the kind that happens to you when you go from having a job to having the‘opportunity’ to discover the liberation of life without an income.

Barbara thinks that the financial crisis has done much to overcome this childlike positive mindlessness that has swept over us like mass hysteria. Although I really do wish this was the case, I have to admit to being somewhat less positive than she is. I have already heard in Australia that there actually was no financial crisis. I watch with horror at what is clearly a housing bubble here in Australia while being told that it will never burst by all manner of seemingly sensible people. In fact, here in Australia we are being told precisely what Barbara quotes was being said in the US prior to the little problem they had over there with that sub-prime mortgages thing from a couple of years back - isn't it amazing how quickly that stuff fades into the background. I need to chant that all is well and assure myself that house prices can continue to grow annually in double figures while the rest of the economy is growing at 2 or 3 percent. Why shouldn’t it be able to? Endless exponential growth sounds like just the ticket and can I interest you in a perpetual motion machine?

Obviously, there is something to the idea that Positive Thinking has something going for it. Like anybody else, I also like being around positive people and find negative people a strain. All the same, I would take a realist over someone who reads self-help books any day. There is something vacant in the eyes of those who have become obsessed with ‘positive thinking’. The most depressing fact is that the ‘positive thinking’ lobotomy needs to be self-administered. I’m not saying you should develop the personality of Melvin the Paranoid Android from Hitchhiker’s Guide, but any idea that requires you to smile UNTIL you are happy, rather than BECAUSE you are happy, just can’t be a good.

The book talks extensively about the 'modern science of happiness' and some of what she says contradicts what is said in Stumbling on Happiness - a book I really quite enjoyed and would also recommend. However, I do think she has got a point and if you are interested in 'happiness' as the key to life, perhaps you should read Aristotle's Ethics rather than any of the self-help books she refers to that contain 'you' or 'your' in their title.

Like I said, a book well worth reading.
Profile Image for Jan-Maat.
1,565 reviews1,887 followers
January 4, 2020
I enjoyed this book. It left me feeling angry, which I regard as the highest praise.

Hurrah for realism however bleak and a pox on the blindness of optimism. Or instead as the old joke goes - lets draw the curtains and pretend the train is still moving. Indeed this is a book that reminds me of Douglas Adams' Electric Monk from a Dirk Gently adventure.

The first chapter deals with her experience of breast cancer - did I mention this is cheerful book - her points in passing here the association of femininity and death, infantalisation of sufferers , lack of research into either treatment or causes balanced out by emphasis on sufferers policing themselves to ensure ' positive' attitude. From this personal experience she dances out through aspects of contemporary US culture.

For Ehrenreich Positive thinking is something like the inversion of Calvinism, the reaction as it were to the belief that God has predetermined everything and the only action is to stress and worry about his judgement is to belief to the contrary that nothing is determined and everything is open to the power of one's own mind, ie Milton's Satan taken at face value: The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven. Traditional Calvinism was being flipped already in the mid nineteenth century by Christian Science, and a 'positive' gospel in which God has a plan in which you get to be rich.

At much the same time Ehrenreich points out popular business writers stressed the value of overwhelming positivity in helping to sell coals to Newcastle, sand to the Saudis and so on. It is not so much that a single line can be drawn from positive thinking to public policy disasters , the '08 financial crash with named persons plainly culpable for distinct crises, rather Ehrenreich describes the growth and metastasis through, primarily US culture, of the impact of positive thinking.

Eventually she gets round to the 'science' of this, which turns out to be as flakey as one might expect of an outlook which endorses to 'infinity and beyond' coupled with a refusal to acknowledge criticism - the smell of money attracts more than just flies. But here in considering 'positive psychology' we get back to Calvinism. Happiness cannot be intrinsically good of itself, it has to be good for something and be alleged to cause longer life, greater wealth , a sudden ability to leap buildings in a single bound and so on, all of which it appears rests on extremely sandy foundations when one chases down such evidence as there is. In another bow to the origins of positive thinking in the rejection of Calvinism in attempt to escape the spiritual self-judgement, self-criticism and fear of God's plan, Ehrenreich sees the same mentality in positive thinking - one has to be perpetual on guard to watch against negative or critical thoughts for fear of causing illness, financial disaster, mass murders etc.

Finally we do reach the above mentioned financial crash which she sees as the fruit of the tree of positive thinking with central bankers believing that Adam Smith's invisible hand of the market, and a God that seeks to make everyone at least as wealth as King Solomon come together in a swelling bud of belief in growth perpetual. Positive thinking, Ehrenreich with attention to her American readers is all a bit communist, virtual Stalinist once you get going.

As a book I find it a mixed bag, the first chapter on her breast cancer experience the most impassioned (unsurprisingly), but the sharp taste from the contrast between the pressure to be positive and clad in pink and the lack of change in survival rates over long periods of time and lack of attention to the potential lifestyle and environmental causes (in her case she feels HRT) doesn't provide an electric vigour to the rest of the text - although interesting throughout. I'm fascinated though by her account of the growth of the megachurches - aiming to appeal to a broad US customer base by providing basic social services run by volunteers to attendees and by stripping out any objectionable content from Church like sin and crucifixion in favour of Christian rock music and a gospel of prosperity and the overlap between business and Church cultures. In this I see in her book something of a Portrait of an Age, and I recommend it as such.
Profile Image for Carmen.
2,064 reviews1,907 followers
February 9, 2016
Well, I basically slept my way through this. (That sounded wrong...)

I was surprised and disappointed that I was so bored by this, especially since Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America remains an invigorating favorite of mine. Her brilliance, humor, and biting cynicism is still in effect here - it's not as if her intelligence and wit has gone away - however, I find the material to be sorely lacking.

Ehrenreich starts out on a high note, with one of the strongest chapters in this book: the chapter on breast cancer. After being diagnosed with breast cancer, Ehrenreich finds her smart and cynical personality at odds with the relentless cheerfulness and consumerism promoted by the breast cancer industry. She hates pink and she definitely doesn't want any fucking teddy bears. But when she expresses her doubts, fears, concerns, and anger, she finds herself ostracized from the "breast cancer survivor/warrior" community, scolded for expressing any kind of negativity or despair.

She hears, over and over again:

"Cancer was the best thing that ever happened to me"...In the most extreme characterization, breast cancer is not a problem at all, not even an annoyance - it is a 'gift,' deserving of the most heartfelt gratitude.... "cancer is your ticket to your real life. Cancer is the passport to the life you were truly meant to live."

Fuck that shit! I swear, if anyone ever suggested to me that any kind of cancer is a fucking gift, I would [edited for content]. Not acceptable. Even though sometimes going through horrible stuff can make you a stronger and better person, that doesn't translate to "Yay! I have cancer!"

Ehrenreich is full of rage, but she has no one to turn to. No one will accept her "negative talk" that will "probably make her sicker and end up killing her."

This message is extremely harmful:

...without question there is a problem when positive thinking 'fails' and the cancer spreads or eludes treatment. Then the patient can only blame herself: she is not being positive enough; possibly it was her negative attitude that brought on the disease in the first place.

"The reason she died was that she wasn't positive enough."

She also talks about the horror of breast cancer being normalized in our society.

The effect of all this positive thinking is to transform breast cancer into a rite of passage - not an injustice or a tragedy to rail against but a normal marker in the life cycle, like menopause or grandmotherhood. Everything in mainstream breast cancer culture serves, no doubt inadvertently, to tame and normalize the disease...

Instead of treating cancer like the shitty disease that it is, Ehrenreich was shocked to find it being padded in pink pillows and smiley face journals.

But rather than provided emotional sustenance, the sugarcoating of cancer can exact a dreadful cost. First, it requires the denial of understandable feelings of anger and fear, all of which must be buried under a cosmetic layer of cheer...

She also makes some very interesting mentions of the association of 'beauty' with breast cancer patients, even mentioning predatory plastic surgeons egging women on to get their one natural breast that is left a little "boost" to match their newly reconstructed one.

You van defy the inevitable disfigurements and come out, on the survivor side, actually prettier, sexier, more femme....helps you lose weight... As for that lost breast, why not bring the other one up to speed? Of the more than 50K masectomy patients who opt for reconstruction each year, 17% go on, often at the urging of their plastic surgeons, to get additional surgery so that the remaining breast will 'match,"...

When my dear friend was diagnosed with breast cancer last year, she jokingly said "Well, at least the chemo will help me lose weight!" I quickly tamped down my shock and horror, but I was indeed shocked and horrified. I've seen so many of my friends and family die from various forms of cancer, I can't think of an uglier way to talk about it than taking joy in the weight loss that comes from chemo and radiation treatments. (Of course I didn't say that to my friend. And by the way, she's done with both the chemo and the radiation now, and her hair is finally starting to grow back. We can only hope this is the last we hear of the cancer.)

After this chapter on breast cancer, I feel like Ehrenreich becomes boring. She covers a lot of topics that I already know a lot about. I'm not shocked to hear that The Secret is a bunch of shit or that corporations use positive thinking to brainwash and control their employees and ex-employees. Nor was I particularly interested in the development of positive thinking from Calvinism and it's progression throughout the ages or the holes in psychology's 'examination' of the effects of positive thought.

I perked up again in Chapter Five, which was a skilled and razor-sharp take-down of positive theology. Great chapter.

Instead of harsh judgments and harrowing tales of suffering and redemption, the new positive theology offered at churches offers promises of wealth, success and health in this life now, or at least very soon. You CAN have that new car or house or necklace, because God wants to "prosper you."

Ehrenreich attends Osteen's church and reads his books, leading to a hilarious and masterful takedown of him and his theology.

Osteen's books are easy to read, too easy - like wallowing in marshmallows. There is no argument, no narrative arc, just one anecdote following another, starring Osteen and his family members, various biblical figures, and a host of people identified by first name only.

She points out that Osteen's teachings eliminates God from religion and instead makes it all about human entitlement.

...they, too, will triumph, as Victoria Osteen has, because that is God's promise to them. It just may take a little time, because theirs seems to be a forgetful God, who has to be 'reminded' of his promises, Joel told us. "Remember your promises," one of the songs goes, "remember your people, remember your children," as if addressing a deadbeat dad. Focus on what you want, in other words, and eventually, after many importunings, God will give it to you...

But where is Christianity in all this? Where is the demand for humility and sacrificial love for others? Where in particular is the Jesus who said, "If a man sue you at law and take your coat, let him have your cloak also"?

Even God plays only a supporting role, and by no means an indispensable one, in the Osteens' universe. Gone is the mystery and awe; he has been reduced to a kind of majordomo or personal assistant. He fixeth my speeding tickets, he secureth me a good table in the restaurant, he leadeth me to book contracts. Even in these minor tasks, the invocation of God seems more of a courtesy than a necessity. Once you have accepted the law of attraction - that the mind acts as a magnet attracting whatever it visualizes - you have granted humans omnipotence.

Joel Osteen isn't the only one she takes down, she also talks about Edwene Gaines.

When the $200 she needed for a plane ticket failed to materialize, she writes, "I sat down and gave God a severe talking-to. I said, "Now look here, God!..As far as I know, I've done every single thing that I know to do in order to manifest this trip to Mexico City. I've kept my part of the bargain. So now I'm going to go right down there to that travel agent and when I get there, that money had better be there!"

As she discussed earlier in her analysis of breast cancer culture, Ehrenreich emphasizes the dark and insidious message that accompanies this kind of philosophy: "If you are poor, sick, or unemployed, it's completely your fault. Why aren't you thinking positively enough?!!?! You must have done something wrong."

It's cruel, it's immoral, and it's horrifying.

Positive thinking is a great way to control the populace, Ehrenreich says.

By and large, America's white-collar corporate workforce drank the Kool-Aid, as the expression goes, and accepted positive thinking as a substitute for their former affluence and security. They did not take to the streets, shift their political allegiance in large numbers, or show up at work with automatic weapons in hand.

In the end, Ehrenreich calls for a resurgence of realism and the freedom to be someone who asks the hard questions and points out the flaws in an idea or system. She uses the mortgage crisis as an example of a system in which people who tried to warn the higher-ups about what was going to happen got fired. Kill the messenger. I like and agree with her message about bringing realism and clear eyesight back. I also strongly, strongly recommend Nassir Ghaemi's amazing book, A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness for some utter brilliance on the topic of realism and whether it is helpful or hurtful to an individual's life.

Tl;dr - Unfortunately, there were only two chapters I can say I honestly enjoyed in this book: Chapter One on breast cancer, and Chapter Five on "positive theology." That leaves five chapters that had my eyes glazing over.

It's not that Ehrenreich has lost her edge, it's simply that I found most of the areas she explored here to be uninteresting. Your mileage may vary. In my opinion, the book is worth reading for the breast cancer and theology part alone - whether you skip the other chapters or just skim them is your own affair.

This isn't Ehrenreich's strongest offering, nor is it going to set your world on fire like Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America did.

VIDEO: SMILE OR DIE (Barbara Ehrenreich - Sonríe o muere (subtítulos en español)) here, Ehrenreich talking and an artist illustrating, in English with Spanish subtitles, highly recommended:
Profile Image for MJ Nicholls.
2,049 reviews4,113 followers
September 12, 2012
This Just In

Short paragraphs and emoticons in reviews quadruple reading pleasure. :)

Shiny Happy People

Apparently, forced happiness is crushing the spirit of the American workforce and driving ravenous capitalists to unstoppable heights of self-delusion that contribute to the one hundred trillion dollars or so national debt. :) :)

I Love Your Smile

Millions of unemployed people, many middle-class professionals, have been forced into taking minimum wage jobs, in which any negative comments are met with a swift and firm dismissal. :) :) :)

Happiness is a Warm Gun

In Ehrenreich’s startling book, the spineless manipulative world of corporate blackmailing (Disney oddly absent), is exposed as the contagious ideological malaria it is. :) :) :)

Don’t Worry, Be Happy

The disillusioned and depressed in their millions are forced to feign happiness at the workplace despite the rancid capitalist cancer eating out their souls and then be grateful for the chance to work at all. :) :) :) :)

Joy Unlimited

The American Dream has been a con-job from the start but those forever optimistic Americans are made to see layoffs, poverty, bowls of watery gruel and anal lice as challenge. Lying in a pool of your own piss and faeces in a Harlem gutter? Stop whining! All you have to do is visualise that tuberculosis away, and you’re cured! :) :) :) :) :)

This Just Out

How fortunate to live in a nation where whining and carping is a national characteristic—no corporate policy will come between us and a long self-pitying moan. :( :( :(


A happier review than mine by Lucy Ellmann here in The Guardian. :p
Profile Image for Sara.
588 reviews60 followers
October 10, 2019
This is a 2009 review. I belatedly found some really embarrassing typos and couldn’t help myself. :0

Last year, while working in one of the roughest schools in one of the roughest districts of Orange County, I had a chance to see how the positive thinking/ self-help movement had slimed its way into public education. Each day at School X came with newly minted (and labeled) behavioral issues, expulsions, and cop cars, always cop cars. Many of the kids were flirting with, or had already joined, local gangs, and during my last week a group of students caused a five car pile up by hurling rocks into passing traffic.

Despite the poverty and often abusive situations in which many of these kids lived, the only remedy the principal could arrive at with his fevered lack of imagination was chicken soup. Real soup might have been better considering the crap they were being fed at school, but no, I’m talking about Jack Canfield.

The school had made a deal with the Chicken Soup tripe spewing machine, and each week before their lessons for the day would commence, students were subjected to three minute mini morals read in a cracked, schmarmy voice that made the After School Specials of the 70s seem weighty in comparison.

I remember standing in the classroom one post Christmas morning, the economy having just ground to a halt, when a riveting story about a curtain salesman who screwed up an order sprang forth from the loudspeaker. The salesman had mistaken a customer’s order for Venetian blinds, but rather than owning up to it, he’d blamed the credit card company for his mistake.

I couldn’t help wondering what kind of loony, officious moron would think that a lie told by a terrified, eight-dollar-an-hour service rep would be compelling to kids whose parents, in the age of deregulation, likely had one or more creditor’s hands at their throats. If they were listening at all, they would probably side with the salesman, whose foisting the blame on an industry responsible for so many of this country’s financial ills was less a character-damning lie than an act of resistance.

I tell this story because it is exactly the kind of thing that Barbara Ehrenreich tackles in her book “Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America.” Ehrenreich’s book explores how our Calvinist work ethic mingled with the new thought of Mary Baker Eddy into a gallimaufry of blind optimism and a blame-the-victim mentality just ripe for corporate manipulation. Much of it doesn't really come as a surprise, although it was great fun reading her evisceration of the new gospel touted by preachers such Joel Osteen who encourage their followers to demand "their stuff" from God -- the personal assistant.

It’s not your poverty, or your “language arts” teacher whose interest in the language stops at the Michael Jackson slogans she’s pasted to her podium; it’s not the lack of art or music available in your school because your test scores haven’t met state requirements; it’s not the standards peddling principal who won’t let even your good teachers enjoy some creative freedom, or that your parents must work two or sometimes three low-paying jobs in order to feed you, and often must take you with them while they work, or that you live in a motel or share an apartment with three other families.

It’s your attitude, see?

Now, click your heels.
Profile Image for Berengaria.
404 reviews75 followers
July 18, 2023
4 stars

*warning: this review contains some personal experience beefs, but ties them in to the book in the 2nd half. *

There is a reason I don't like Americans.

Not individual Americans, individuals are always just that - individuals. I mean Americans taken as a conglomerate.

This is often difficult for Europeans to understand. Americans are friendly extroverts who smile a lot; I'm a friendly extrovert who smiles a lot. Americans love their fizzy drinks and peanut butter; I love my fizzy drinks and peanut butter. Americans have bizarre, off-beat spiritual ideas and are (in comparison to Euros) very polite in public...again, can't say that isn't me.

But here is the difference between me and your average American my age and older. I don't believe America is a living god who hands out gobs of endless opportunity to those blessed among humans to be born there. That the Great God America will provide. Just hum the national anthem, work hard and smile -- and you're all set for gold!

And I never have.

This always put me at odds with those who angrily ranted "LOVE IT OR LEAVE IT!!!!" at anyone with the audacity to point out that America was not the greatest country on earth and was drowning in problems. (A stance which lead to some absurd situations like people screaming at Native Americans protesting discriminatory laws to "go back to where you come from if you don't like it here". )

If you, as a young person, went to any administrator for help, you came out of their office feeling like sparkly sunshine had been trumpeted up your ass, but that nothing concrete would ever happen.

If you pointed out a real problem, people would agree and then just ignore its existence. Or shrug and say "that's America" (= deus vult, God Wants It [that way]). America will solve it if it needs solving...somehow.

If you personally had a problem, you just worked harder and smiled harder. America would lift it from your back...somehow. (And if not, then you turned to America 2: praying to Jesus.)

But above all, you had absolutely no reason to be depressed or have mental-emotional problems or complain about jack shit, you lazy slob. You were an AMERICAN! An AMERICAN! What more could you ask for? What more could any human being ask for!?!

The Fascism of Happiness. The Cult of America.

I couldn't wait to leave (and have never been back).

It's this happy-clappy, "Great God America" attitude, its origins and effects, that Barbara Ehrenreich examines in her book "Bright-Sided". She shows how the unshakeable optimism much of the American character is based on originated as a rebellious reaction to that super-downer of all faiths, Calvinism.

Instead of having to labour for nothing because you were damned to Hell from before your birth (Calvinism), God - in his guise of America - became a generous provider of all things. You weren't damned! You had a way out!

The Devil wasn't your enemy, your own negative attitude was! Your thoughts are more powerful than you know and can undermine your happiness if you let them. Tame your negative thoughts! Work hard to scrub every scrap of negativity, critique, doubt or the-cup-is-half-empty POV, because only YOU are responsible if things go wrong. YOU are in charge of your destiny!

And if you have problems or fail, it's not because of God America, oh no. It's YOU and your negative attitude. Only YOU are to blame.

People scarred by Calvinism flocked to this New Thought movement and turned it into a magical thinking, pseudo-religion that invaded pretty much everything.

The book looks at a few of the places where New Thought made the most in-roads. Some reviewers found this somewhat repetitive, but it was interesting to me to see how New Thought was interpreted in medicine, finance, business, the media, the workplace, churches, schools and social services.

And the world-wide destruction some of it led to. (Think: Lehman Brothers fail and the world financial crash)

And how it spawned an entire global industry of motivational speakers and products.

Many reviewer found the opening chapter where Ehrenreich hammers away at the enforced fluffy positivity demanded of women with cancer to be the best one, but I found it the hardest to get through. Not least due to the bristle brush, judgemental (and somewhat arrogant) attitude she writes all of her personal experiences in. When she steps back out of her own experiences and just deals with facts, I found her a lot more tolerable. And interesting.

In the end, Ehrenreich says there is nothing wrong with moderate positivity and optimism. It's the overdone, semi-religious one Americans so exemplify and so believe in that's the problem.

She pleads a case for realism, for not being distracted by fluffy, feel-good vibes from actual problems that need actual solutions. Not to be so relentlessly positive - or be required by your workplace, church or family to be so - that you refuse to see the wolves at the door.

America has had to deal with long ignored problems busting up through the floorboards since this book was written.

Its optimism has taken a beating, but I'm sure it's still there and going strong or the slogan "Make America Great Again" and that whole show wouldn't have worked the magic it did.

I'm glad I read this. Learned a lot. (Still don't like America.)
Profile Image for notgettingenough .
1,032 reviews1,185 followers
May 15, 2018
I dare say I'm too late to the party on this one to say anything that hasn't already been said. However....

Of course I  knew all about the delusion of 'positive thinking', radiating from independent hucksters and Christian conmen, making a fortune from the scam. But I didn't realise that the scam reached deep into academia, shysters claiming to be teaching science, aka positive psychology.  And I hadn't cottoned onto the point that it is a manipulative tool to keep people down in the US, in exactly the same way it has been used in, for example, Soviet society. Optimism is denial of reality. As people lost their jobs en masse, middle-class workers, sacked by CEOs who were themselves entirely removed from the morality of the situation, these ordinary folk were expected to be optimistic about everything.

The level of deception goes so far that it explains breast cancer as an opportunity which some women are lucky to get. Equally, each person thrown into the cold trauma of joblessness in the US, is expected to be positively grateful for the blessing thrown their way. Not only that, but part of the scam is that there is to be no complaining, no regrets, no objective analysis implying others might be at fault for one's predicament. Everything is one's own fault. What a horrifying judgment to put on people, and to think that they lapped it up, these moronic sheep constituting the middle part of the US's economy.  Everything, they were prepared to believe - and still are, as far as I know - is in their heads. It is there that the good and the bad, the winners and losers, the success and failure is engendered. Question nothing except your own thoughts. 

It's just got to make your blood boil, reading a book like this and to think it's only getting worse. And the worse things get, the further people fall, the more people fall, the more 'positivity' is drummed into a servile population's heads.

rest is here: https://alittleteaalittlechat.wordpre...
Profile Image for Jafar.
728 reviews250 followers
March 15, 2010
I remember reading this line in Paul Coelho’s The Alchemist: "When you really want something to happen, the whole universe conspires so that your wish comes true." I didn’t think about it too much. The book was full of such ridiculous but touchy-feely-warm-and-fluffy pronouncements. But then I kept seeing this quote everywhere. And Coelho is not the only one going around saying such vacuous platitudes. The reason why so many people find such patently-false absurdities charming or even inspiring has to do with the cuteness factor. People don’t really believe this stuff. They just read it and feel nice and warm about it, and then go about their life. The reason that I don’t get the same nice and warm feeling about it must be my dry overanalyzing of everything and my particular brain chemistry. That’s what I’ve been telling myself.

It turns out I was completely wrong and didn’t know about it. It’s not fluff. It’s much, much more than that. There’s this thing called the Law of Attraction which basically says that if you want something, you just put a lot of time and energy into visualizing it, and it should come to you. The universe is just a mail-order store. There’s a long history behind this drivel, and it has penetrated all corners of modern life, especially in the U.S., from New Age to mega-church Christianity to pop culture to corporate culture. It has become big business with coaches and gurus and motivational speakers busy milking the masses who apparently think that this is not the same as the old-fashioned voodoo magic. The ramifications of this trend of thought are so wide and deep that society in general, including those who haven’t fallen for this law-of-attraction gimmick, is in the grips of something called positive thinking.

This is a great book. Ehrenreich starts off with her personal account of her fight with breast cancer and finding herself smothered with pink ribbons and teddy bears. She then moves to discussing the roots of American optimism, and then all the interesting analysis on the tyrannical hold of “positive thinking” on the American way of life today. If Deepak and Coelho are your heroes, you need to read (and get annoyed by) this book.
Profile Image for Jessaka.
901 reviews136 followers
September 2, 2021
“Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” –Monty Python

Anymore, I have an aversion to much of this positive thinking cult and to religion that promotes it. It isn’t that I am against positive thinking, because I know it can help others; I am against its use in controlling people, as It is used for in religion or the business world, or, I might add, when it is used by anyone for this same reason.

I saw its positive effects on a woman close to me who had been depressed for many years. She was reading metaphysical books at the time and had read in one of them that it is your thoughts that depress you. She looked at her thoughts and noticed that they were all negative and set out to change that, just to see if it were true about negative thoughts. She then turned each thought into a positive one, using it as an affirmation during the day, but silently to herself. Her depression lifted, and in less than a month she was no longer depressed. I realize from talking with the medical profession that not all depression can be treated by positive thoughts, and if you tell depressed people about this method, most will ignore your opinion on this matter.

But here is what I hate about Positive thinkers: They don’t wish to hear anyone speak negatively. They remind me of the time I was wearing a rabbit jacket in Berkeley, and a woman confronted me on Telegraph Avenue, “Your coat offends me, “she yelled. I ran into a store to get away from her. She followed me into the store, but I.

I was in a Buddhist group years ago, SGI Buddhism. I could find no other when living near Memphis. The people were really lovely, but it was believed that chanting the mantra “Nam Myoho Renge Kyo” could bring you whatever you desired. You just think of what you want while chanting the words. Some people wanted a job, some a new car. You get the picture. The sad part is, if you don’t get what you want, then you are chanting in the wrong way. The wrong way was never explained, but it put the blame on you. This happens in all positive thinking religious groups.

Later, after leaving SGI, I joined Self Realization Fellowship, and it was worse there. You could not say anything negative. I recall asking a question about a book I had read, and I was hushed up. We don’t read that book here. Yogananda, their dead guru, when alive, would not allow anyone to say anything negative when they were around him. Don’t even think of questioning the religion.

One thing I will never forget about SRF is this: One of their members was dying of cancer. She tried everything, but when nothing worked, some of the members told her that she must want to die because she is not curing herself with positive thoughts. She died.

What I liked about this book is that it exposed teaching positive thinking as a form of mind control. I used to tell people this, but everyone seemed to think that it was a healthy attitude, not sued to control others. Nice to get validated.

Shunning is used in these types of religions and even businesses if you don’t follow their rules of positive thinking. But I am not exempt from shunning because I will walk away from anyone who is trying to push positive thinking off on me in a negative way. For example, I was meeting with a group of people who meditated, and we talked about things beforehand. I had just read “The Sixth extension,” and it bothered me to learn that most scientists think that it is too late for fix climate change and gave us only 50 years. I was told that I was “so negative.” Every week when I came to the group, she would find some other reason to tell me that I was “negative.” I tried confronting her about it, but then I just left the group. The members would tell me to ignore what she had said. I don’t do ignore very well.

But positive thinking is very useful at times, maybe even most times. Still, it can be taken too far. I am not going to stick my head in the sand, nor will I ask my friends to do so. I have also seen how the mainstream Buddhist handle it. “Don’t think about it.” There has to be balance. My own philosophy is to think about a problem, examine it, but don’t continue to dwell on it is there is nothing you can do about it, but that doesn’t always work. It is just good to let go at times.

This book only helps you to see what is going on in the business and religious world. I knew about religion, but I did not know about the business world. I just found it agitated me after all the dealings I have had with positive people. Even someone telling me to “count my blessings,” can tick me off.
Profile Image for Judie Holliday.
266 reviews
December 14, 2010
Ehrenreich is the Richard Dawkins of positive thinking. While I like to think that I broadly agree with her, I'm sometimes put off by the way she says things and the spin she likes to put on certain people. Sarcasm should not be such a major weapon of an obviously intelligent and otherwise convincing author.

In some chapters, along with some very reasoned and potent argument, she attacks people for the way they dress or for their hairstyle (mullets and bulletheads). Do I have to dislike everything about a person to disagree with what they say or do? And why do the sceptics, the ones she agrees with, have 'majestic' posture and nicer hair? Should I care? Is she not arguing that being well groomed is somehow an indicator of intelligence?

However, as I say, I broadly agree with her. I've been accused in my life of being 'negative' and it always seems to me that what people really mean is 'realistic' or not falsely enthusiastic. I won't pretend that there is a good side to everything that happens. I know that some things that have affected my life and the lives of my good friends (suicide, divorce, rape) are not good things and that there is no goodness that comes out of them. Although they can be overcome and people can be stronger afterwards, I will not ever accept that they 'happened for a reason' and I would gleefully go back into a world where they never happened in the first place. It tears me up to hear my friends beating themselves up for feeling down about something by saying 'I know I shouldn't be like this - other people have it worse.' Yes, some do, but you are having a bad time right now and you are allowed to feel bad about it.

Positive thinking, when it has no basis in truth, no foothold in objective reality, is a dangerous thing.
Profile Image for Cara.
778 reviews68 followers
October 27, 2014
This is one of the rare books that I can read, agree with the author on most points, and still hate. It took me a while to figure out why this was. I completely agree with Barbara Ehrenreich that people suffering from cancer and other chronic diseases shouldn't be coerced into thinking that they are responsible for their disease progressing poorly if they don't think positively enough. I completely agree with her assessment of "The Secret" and other such programs being complete BS. I also completely agree that it's terrible that corporate America prefers to get employees to "think positively" to accept being exploited. And I agree that Martin Seligman and other proponents of positive psychology seem like con artists or, at best, terrible scientists.

So what's the problem? It's that this entire book neglects to ask one basic question: why do people even want to think positively? And the answer to that is, quite simply, that it makes them happy. Thinking positively is a coping mechanism for many people. When you feel like you are not in control of some aspect of your life (your health, your job, your finances), thinking positively gives you that control. I'm not saying that thinking positively actually gives you what you want*, because it doesn't. But it changes the way you feel about what you want, which is sometimes all you have control over.

Interestingly enough, I was reading this book at the same time I was reading Alain de Botton's Status Anxiety, wherein he argues that a lot of the unhappiness of the modern condition comes from thinking we deserve things (status, money, etc.) that previous generations would never have thought they could have. They may have lived more miserable lives, but that fit in entirely with their expectations, so they weren't especially unhappy about it. Knowing that you will never have all that you want, that even if you get what you want you will want more, the obvious solution is to stop basing your happiness on an exterior view of your life. This is essentially positive thinking, though not in the same way that Barbara Ehrenreich characterizes it.

One of my other criticisms is Barbara Ehrenreich's attitude towards the positive thinkers in this book. Because she doesn't recognize positive thinking as a coping mechanism for unhappy people but rather characterizes it solely as an attitude for selfish people, she comes across as having absolutely no compassion. It's really telling that Joel Osteen doesn't come across in this book nearly as bad as the author herself.

*I'm not talking here about The Secret and other BS philosophies that claim that you will actually get what you want if you just think positively. Ehrenreich's extreme focus on The Secret in this book is really a strawman argument. Most people, including most positive thinkers, don't believe in it.
Profile Image for Julie.
2,010 reviews38 followers
August 30, 2023
I almost spit my coffee when Barbara Ehrenreich quotes from the book, "Secrets of the Millionaire Mind" by T. Harv Eker - "Negative people have to go," Ehrenreich, continues, "even, presumably the ones that you live with." Further, she tells us that the overall advice from self-help books, both secular and christian is to choose to be around negative people less if you can't get rid of them completely.

However, if we purge our lives of all of those who question us, or provide 'reality-checks' in our lives, we will be left with only the vapid cheerleaders who agree with everything we say, where's the fun in that?! Ehrenreich explores what this means and writes, "the challenge of family life, or group life of any kind, is to keep gaging the moods of others, accommodating to their insights and offering comfort when needed." In other words, these authentic relationships help hone our communication skills, fill the gaps in our knowledge, keep us grounded in reality, and foster empathetic understanding.

I was less interested in the chapters related to business but my ears pricked again on the topic of critical thinking. We were a homeschool family for about a dozen years and I researched and bought critical thinking skills curriculum, which we used and benefitted from. Over the years, we have discussed whether or not critical thinking skills are becoming increasingly devalued, which is to our detriment.

As Ehrenreich writes, "the best students, and in good colleges, the most successful are the ones who raise sharp questions even at the risk of making a professor uncomfortable." They don't take everything at face value, they question and explore, and discover. In other words, they exercise their minds to improve life for everyone.

Ehrenreich explains that, "According to some measures as a nation we've grown sadder and more anxious during the same years that the happiness movement has flourished." Is this surprising when we put so much effort into being positive all the time, always looking inward and adjusting our outward appearance to remain 'sunny.' This prevents us from sharing our truths and problem solving or sharing our experience with others. Creating an authentic connection with another person is one of the true joys of life.

From the conclusion: "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..."
Profile Image for Eric_W.
1,923 reviews368 followers
May 4, 2011
Read the reviews by Trevor (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...) and Lena (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...) They are better, but I couldn’t resist a few comments.

I didn’t expect to like this book. I wasn’t wildly enthusiastic about Nickle and Dimed, but this title was chosen for our reading club, so I gave it a whirl.

Ehrenreich uses her personal experience with breast cancer as a jumping off point.which led to her loathing for the pink-ribbon-cancer-is-a-blessing-and-will-make-you-stronger theories that surround the modern cancer patient. Ehrenreich who has a Ph.D. in cell physiology is well trained to look at much of the so-called evidence for the idea that being happy reduce the risk of cancer. She also notes that skeptics tend to be marginalized so the general public is bombarded by pseudo-science and quackery. She was especially troubled by the idea promoted in some quarters that cancer is a good thing, that it makes you appreciate life and helps you “evolve to a much higher level of humanity.” I suppose if all that were true perhaps we should be handing out Carter’s Little Cancer pills so we could all be more enlightened.

The destructive downside to this is that getting sick is all the patient’s fault. (I hear this constantly from my Republican friends as they decry health care. If people would only eat right, exercise, etc. everyone would be healthy.) If only we had been happier we would not have become sick. This kind of thinking just makes one more burden for the patient to bear. “Failure to think positively can weigh on the patient like a second disease.”

She demolishes the idea that we need to magnetize our minds since positive thoughts are like little magnets that attract positive energy. Thoughts do indeed generate tiny electromagnetic fields since they are the result of electrons firing around the brain, but it’s a pathetically weak one. As Michael Shermer noted in Scientific American the magnetic field registers at 10 to the -15 Tesla which is promptly swamped by the earth’s magnetic field of 10 to the minus 5, a difference of 10 billion to 1. “Our heads are not attracted to our refrigerators.”

Then there is the abuse of quantum physics by New Age thinkers. The wave particle duality of matter is translated into human beings being waves and vibrations. The uncertainty principle also comes in for abuse. “The mind is actually shaping the very thing that is perceived,” they say, so we are creating the entire universe with our minds. “Quantum flapdoodle,” said one physicist. These folks have abandoned science where evidence is examined and results are replicated in favor of revelation. The live in a false world where anyone can believe whatever they want.”

Having suffered through countless team-building sessions, I recognize their silliness and bemoan the enormous amounts of money being spent on them. They don’t always achieve their stated goals, however. I remember two in particular. One was in the early years of my career and there was no question the members of the group needed something to bring them together. After going through countless exercises,, e.g., face your supervisor and each of you tell what’s wrong with the other, - even I could have told them that wouldn’t work, over a couple of days, the leader, a well-known psychologist at the university, announced we were his first failure and that it was apparent our management team was dysfunctional. Well, daaah. So things continued happily as before until many of the problems were solved demographically, i.e. the old died off.

At another state-wide attempt at team building, about a hundred of us were chosen (most of us were directors) to attend a three-day workshop that I suppose was to get us all into a positive-thinking frame of mind. About the only thing good about it was the constantly replenished bowls of M&Ms on each table. We did things like take pictures of each other with Polaroids and then make collages, lots of cutting and pasting, kindergarten stuff. I think the leader got a lot of push back, because on the last day she tearfully told us how much trouble she was having. What a crock of shit. About the only positive thing to come out of the meetings I could tell was that an affair developed between two of the directors in a hot tub and they later got married.

At the college where I spent most of my career, about 25 years, and rose through the ranks of management, we really did quite well, and most of the issues seen as problems were not endemic to the institution. A larger problem that several of us tried to address was the recurring nature of initiatives. Three of us even made a presentation to the Board plotting each initiative and its outcome over three decades and demonstrating that each initiative (MBO, different budgeting schemes, diversity awareness, AQIP, etc., etc.) was good but never became institutionalized over the long haul. We struggled up the hill, almost reached the summit, but never quite made it over the top, and soon one initiative was replaced by another. For those of us who represented a lot of institutional memory, that could be demoralizing and made us perhaps less enthusiastic about the latest institutional fad.

One can only speculate on the desperation leaders must wallow in to try and solve what may be serious management issues with such trivia and balderdash. What’s even worse is to go on one of these management seminar retreats, have everyone do some serious thinking and develop proposals, and then have senior management ignore all the recommendations.

And let’s face it, to paraphrase Ehrenreich. If you can be motivated by a pretty girl and superficial speaker you are probably in a very easy job that will soon be done by a robot. But I shouldn’t be so negative and will try to be positive. The food was always great.

Good quote: "We go through life mis-hearing, and mis-seeing, and mis-understanding so that the stories we tell ourselves will add up." Janet Malcolm
Profile Image for Ciara.
Author 3 books356 followers
December 18, 2009
another book i wanted to like more than i did. also a book that makes me realize that i need to expand my book categories a little. anyway...i contemplated buying this book, but i saw barbara ehrenreich's interview on "the daily show" & found it really frustrating (is it absolutely necessary to be so hyperbolic & smug on national television?), so i settled for putting it on hold at the library. & i'm glad i did, because i was really disappointed.

i was hoping for a smart, clever, somewhat mean-spirited book that i could use to formulate my own arguments with anarcho-punk types that talk about "keeping it posi". not that i expected barbara ehrenreich to have a lot of experience with anarcho-punks, of course. but still--there's pretty much nothing in this book that relates to my own crusade against mindless positivity. there's a lot of stuff that tries to debunk claims that positive thinking has immune system benefits. there's a whole lot of stuff about the development of motivational products as a major american industry. there's a lot of stuff about so-called "positivity preachers" who claim that "god wants to prosper you". there's a lot of stuff about the secret. ehrenreich basically touches on every element of mainstream "positive thinking" & shines a big bright spotlight on how absurd & self-serving it is, which is great, but you know. tell me something i don't already know.

i guess the biggest issue is that the book is written in such a tone that anyone who is inclined to agree with ehreneich from the outset is going to be "in on the joke," so to speak, & chuckling at how dumb & self-centered she makes all these positivity hucksters seem. & anyone who is big on the whole positive thinking thing is going to dismiss her as cranky & crabby & up to no good. as is typical with ehrenreich books, there's no middle ground, no attempt to avoid rhetorical excess, not even a sliver of an attempt at objectivity. that's not necessarily something that i really object to a whole hell of a lot, but...it does get a bit tiresome. reading this book was basically like having coffee with someone who just sits there & says, "look at all these morons. isn't it great that we're so much smarter than everyone else?" well...sure. the world is full of morons & we're smarter than everyone else. so the fuck what?

also, it clocked in at a slim, generously-margined, & large-fonted 200 pages. SURELY there is more to say about the culture of positive thinking? & how it "destroyed america"? the entire chapter about how positive thinking spurred on the financial crisis seemed tacked on for the sake of having a timely PR talking point (even though i don't necessarily disagree with her basis thesis that chapter).

i am quite relieved i didn't waste any money on this book. it was worth a quick & easy read, but call me when there's an expanded edition.
Profile Image for Ross Blocher.
431 reviews1,389 followers
December 17, 2021
This book grew on me, surely and steadily. I hadn't read anything by Barbara Ehrenreich, and at first she came off as a curmudgeonly contrarian, railing against elements of positive thinking that aren't really hurting anyone. She also launched very quickly into her own story of diagnosis with breast cancer and the sad facts about just how helpless a situation it can be (tension-releasing spoiler: this was written in 2009, and Ehrenreich's still alive at 80). One can sympathize with all of the people around her sharing well-wishes, pink ribbons, teddy bears and positive-yet-empty clichés: that can be an easier and more comfortable response than saying, "Well shit. I'm sorry. That sucks."

With the warning that the first section is a bit of a slog, Ehrenreich then gets into the real meat of her argument, which is the industry of motivational speakers and consultants, prosperity gospel preachers, new age "law of attraction" gurus, positive psychology "researchers", and other flim-flam artists who sell us on a false vision of the world to better themselves and to place a bandaid on massive corporate layoffs and the housing bubble that brought down our economy (which was fresh on everyone's mind in 2009). There are fascinating histories and connections between figures such as Norman Vincent Peale (he of the infamous The Power of Positive Thinking), Mary Baker Eddy, her inspiration Phineas Parker Quimby, and John Templeton, as well as still-active figures like Tony Robbins, Joel Osteen, Rick Warren, Rhonda Byrne (who wrote that heap of quantum nonsense The Secret), Deepak Chopra and Oprah Winfrey. If Ehrenreich were to add a new chapter today, she could say so much about the destructive force of Peale's The Power of Positive Thinking as expressed through one of his acolytes: Donald Trump.

It's not until the very end that Ehrenreich addresses head-on the lingering question: Well, if not positivity, then what? She makes the case that the opposite of positive thinking is not negative thinking (another unhelpful excess), but realistic thinking. Honesty. Seeing things as they truly are.
Profile Image for Linda.
24 reviews
February 18, 2010
Before you back away from this title, understand that the opposite of positivism is not negativism, but realism. Ehrenriech does a masterful job of taking on the "happyness" culture that pervades business, organized religion, pop psychology, and the American way, where being "upbeat" is no longer a guideline, but a requirement. Particularly disturbing are her accounts of people being drummed out of cancer support groups for not being positive enough during obviously failing prognoses, and the quite common occurence of being let go from a job for not being cheerful enough and/or in agreement with all aspects of a company's future plans. Her description of the role of this relentness positivism in the current economic crisis will make you wonder what other areas of government(homeland security? bailouts?) are under a similar threat. Despite this, her message is a proactive one: If you know something is really wrong, don't be blindly positive, look at all sides of the issues, speak up and most importantly, take action in the world.
Profile Image for Allison DeLauer.
55 reviews6 followers
February 16, 2010
I've been waiting my whole life for someone to write this book. THANK YOU! Ever since the positive thinking curriculum in sixth grade I've loathed the philosophy. Then there was the junior high math teacher who wanted us to visualize getting the "A." It makes me feel awful to want to slap any person who says, "everything happens for a reason" or "why did you draw that into your life?" -would you say that to a someone in the third world, or in a war -torn country?- Now someone has taken my side - the side of all those who quietly stew afraid to be labeled "negative" or ostracized for thinking critically about the socio-personal phenomenons that impact our lives. Ms. Ehrenreich traces the introduction of this absurd cultural meme "positive thinking" into our society - and even more toxic - our individual consciousness. We can and must pursue joy in tandem with the realities of trial and suffering - we don't have to fascisticly monitor our thoughts to purge the dark. Our efforts are better spent acknowledging the dark and working to bring what change is possible -slow as that might be - and not as promising - into the world and our lives. Her rigorous and though-provoking work on this topic is a deep service to a culture addicted to denial.
Profile Image for Debbie "DJ".
352 reviews403 followers
August 19, 2015
Great read. This book takes a look at the whole "positive thinking" culture. It offers a different viewpoint. Sometimes things just suck! Ehrenreich discusses everything from cancer, to the economic downfall. In order to have an informed opinion, I think both sides need to be investigated. While I may not agree with all her points, many rang true. I thought this was a well articulated and compelling read.
Profile Image for Elyse Walters.
4,010 reviews585 followers
July 3, 2015

But I didn't know how to say what I wanted to say without saying I read it!!!!!!

Hearing somebody be TOO positive at inappropriate times ...just feels worse!

If your (fill in the blank), was dying... or you had found our you had Cancer ...
would you want to hear... "Oh just keep your chin up" .... "Hang in" ... or "THINK POSITIVE", "cheer up".

might you just prefer to hear....

"I'm so sorry"!

which feels better?

I can name a hundred of other negative outcomes for 'thinking too positive" ... (kids for example -grow up with a shaded reality of their limitations), etc. etc. etc.

Its great to have a basic positive outlook on challenging situations -- (especially if you follow it up with diligent 'what-can-be done'-to-solve-the-problem-and-move-towards-desired-results'), but false positives are nothing but balongna.

I give this book 5 stars BEFORE reading it! --just for writing a book on the topic!

Profile Image for Rebecca.
3,661 reviews2,659 followers
April 12, 2016
(Though I prefer the more provocative UK title: Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World.) The week I was reading this book, my mother happened to ask what I had been reading lately during our regular phone call and I replied that I was reading a book about positive thinking. Her pleased “oh?” quickly morphed into a not-very-effectively-smothered whimper of dismay as I explained that it was a critical book about how self-help and pop psychology have done America a disservice and kept people from facing the truth. After that we didn’t talk so much about books; I think she is best off not knowing about the many books I read that she would surely deem ‘heretical’.

Ehrenreich brings her piercing journalist’s eye to the burgeoning positive thinking and self-help industry, exposing all the hypocrisy, manipulation, and general quackery you might expect. She opens with a chapter about her experience of having breast cancer, when she found that a patient cannot express a single note of skepticism or pessimism without being branded a bad apple. Fellow sufferers insisted that without a positive attitude she was unlikely to beat her cancer; one even pointed her towards counseling when she admitted she was angry that more was not being done to identify and eradicate environmental carcinogens.

From motivational speakers’ conferences to Christian Science and megachurch theologies, Ehrenreich traces the history of the idea that a blithely optimistic outlook will get you everything you want in life, including health, wealth, and happiness. The problem is that in the meantime you have to ignore anything that could possibly threaten your mindset, including the news (she highlights a few preposterous websites that only offer “happy” news), science, and the gospel.

I’m not sure I learned anything new from this book, though that doesn’t mean it wasn’t enjoyable or worthwhile. It confirmed for me many things I already knew (i.e., Joel Osteen and his ilk are a bunch of ridiculous unchristian frauds) and made my blood boil at the thought that some of my family members are probably the victims of this kind of thinking. Even the Church isn’t giving out the right messages, what with lies about the “prosperity gospel” and sermons that never go beyond the platitudes of self-help itself.

Of course it is important to have hope, but denying reality will do nothing but damage. I think Ehrenreich’s conclusion would be that it is best to be critically realistic – approaching life with eyes wide open – rather than either despairing or thoughtlessly optimistic.

(A portion of this review formed part of an article on “anti-self-help” books for Bookkaholic.)
Author 5 books615 followers
August 18, 2013
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.
Profile Image for Jay Green.
Author 4 books236 followers
July 10, 2018
If you have to read one Barbara Ehrenreich book, make it "Dancing in the Streets," a tour de force of eye-opening research. Smile or Die is pleasant enough but doesn't surprise in any way. Decades ago I worked as a correspondence course teacher for a company in the UK that had imported many of the principles of positive thinking, so I'm familiar with the tropes and the cynicism underlying the business: the managing director of the company told me when I took the job on that "Our products are mostly aimed at losers." She regarded it as her lifelong meal ticket to extract even more cash from such suckers while feeding them a feel-good message that would ensure they didn't give up quite yet - not until she'd impoverished them further.

The chapters feel like articles from Harper's, which is to say that they are good articles, but also that the whole is no more than the sum of its parts. Good without generating a coherent or comprehensive thesis. The post-script, the one non-article chapter, feels perfunctory and appended purely in an attempt to tie things up.

For what it's worth, my view is that a positive attitude is valuable insofar as it encourages you to believe in your right to pursue a particular goal. A negative self-image will prevent you from even having a go, and who knows what you might miss out on in life. That's different, of course, from thinking that if you will something to happen, it will happen. But there's a place for believing you're just as entitled as anyone else to give life a go. Maybe the fact that we think of such an attitude as "positive" is indicative of British self-effacement. Who knows?
Profile Image for Al Bità.
377 reviews41 followers
March 29, 2010
This is a superb examination of a current cultural malaise which has taken over and dominated western thinking: Positive Thinking. So prevalent is this malaise that we automatically accept its premise: be positive. Nobody wants to be negative!

But 'being negative' is not what this book is about. It is concerned to reveal to the reader that there are deep and ugly realities that masquerade under the big smiley face we see everywhere; and it can and does do real harm. This is to be found in politics, commerce, religion, kindergarten, and just about everywhere in all our social dealings. It's meant to 'reassure' us, or 'encourage' us — and there's nothing wrong with that. But it also tends to make us deny reality, and when that happens (and it happens a lot) people 'hate' you if you point out a realistic interpretation, for example, and they don't want to hear anything about that! So it can and does become a very dangerous addiction, and besides causing actual physical harm (to us, the environment, the physical world, etc.) it can also provoke serious psychological disturbances within individuals.

This book is a polemic against promotion of the extremes of positive thinking. Indeed, wisdom tells us that any extremes, of any kind, and in any direction, is bad for us. By highlighting the evil aspects of 'being positive' this book should be essential reading — a mild, but hopefully effective antidote to the poison that inhabits every extreme position. It is presented in easy to read, readily accessible language. Well worth reading!
Profile Image for Kristina Coop-a-Loop.
1,227 reviews483 followers
November 5, 2014
At the conclusion of her introduction to Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, Barbara Ehrenreich states that the first step towards making substantial changes for the better in our world is to “recover from the mass delusion that is positive thinking” (13). I agree. This is a very perceptive and interesting book. I regret not writing this review after finishing the book (which I did a month ago) because some of the details have faded from my memory. Thus this review will not do the book justice.

Ehrenreich does not write this book in the spirit of bitterness or negativity (as she states) nor does the book have any kind of cranky overtone. It is humorous, self-deprecating, and honest. Ehrenreich appeals to realists, people who want to see situations as they are and decide how to best deal with them, not sugar coat them or perceive them through rose-colored glasses in order to deny the reality of problems. Being a realist, I appreciate this. I absolutely cannot stand the fakeness of positive thinking. I don’t see that it is helpful to deny the existence of problems—that only lets the problems get bigger. In Bright-Sided, Ehrenreich covers the history of positive-thinking and how it has permeated American culture and business to the extent that positive thinking is now its own business.

Positive thinking arose from a backlash against the harsh negativity of Calvinism. However, “if one of the best things you can say about positive thinking is that it articulated an alternative to Calvinism, one of the worst is that it ended up preserving some of Calvinism’s more toxic features—a harsh judgmentalism, echoing the old religion’s condemnation of sin, and an insistence on the constant interior labor of self-examination” (89). This “self-examination” is the basis of positive thinking and the evil genius of how corporations use it. If you didn’t get a raise or lost your job, that’s your fault. You didn’t want it enough. You had negative thoughts. It’s the perfect strategy for capitalism to thrive: greedy CEOs who want employees to work longer hours for less pay aren’t to blame for loss of jobs—it’s the employees themselves. They didn’t work hard enough.

While I found the whole book relevant (there are lots of scribbles in the margins expressing: “yes!” and “exactly!”), the section called “The Menace of Negative People” in the chapter “The Years of Magical Thinking” resonated the most with me because I am living that right now. The university at which I am employed has always been mediocre (which is why I matriculated elsewhere) but the declining local population of graduating high school seniors and the decades-long squeeze of the economy is definitely being felt. The university is in the red and in danger of losing its accreditation (its biggest brag: “Come here! We’re cheap!” isn’t effective any longer). Morale is low. To pump us up, the university is now engaging in positive thinking tactics. So far, this nonsense is not mandatory (with the exception of one “Customer Service Experience” hours-long workshop I had to attend; it was amazingly poorly done and offensive to common sense), however the general attitude is that “nay-sayers” need to shut up. My specific area (the university library) is incompetently managed and struggling to find its direction in this new world of digital books, journals and databases (aka “e-resources”). My supervisor is, to say the least, unable and unwilling to negotiate this new world and when she retires, my department will be a complete mess. However, no one wants to hear this. The prevailing attitude (both at my level and university-wide) is: “if we ignore it, it will go away.” I, who care deeply about books, education, research and learning, have been trying, along with a few other brave souls, to make our concerns heard. No one wants to hear it. We are the negative people. We are complainers. We need to shut the fuck up. So this section about negative people echoes my work environment almost exactly. I’m being pressured in my department to put on a false happy face, to go along to get along, to increase my “interpersonal skills.” Is it important to be able to communicate effectively with your coworkers? Yes. But their definition of communicating effectively means being positive, not offering criticism, and going along with prevailing opinion, no matter how wrong or damaging it is. “The choice seems obvious—critical and challenging people or smiling yes-sayers? And the more entrenched the cult of cheerfulness becomes, the more advisable it is to conform, because your coworkers expect nothing less” (54). Exactly. My problem is the same problem I’ve always had—I’m a nonconformist. I’m a rebel. I don’t think I’m a rebel, but apparently just expressing my honest opinion is rebellious. I never knew that. I was always naïve enough to think that when someone said to me: “Kris, what do you think?” they really wanted to know. Silly me. My perspective is: there’s a problem. Let’s acknowledge it, discuss how to deal with it, and put that plan into action. My coworkers’ perspective is: there is a problem. It’s you. You’re negative and when you say critical things, you draw attention to our shortcomings. So shut the hell up. I have gradually been painted as a problem employee. The director of the library calls me a “troublemaker” merely because when he asks me how things are, I tell him. I point out problems to him and expect him, as the director, to address them. Not necessarily to fix them, that’s everyone’s challenge, but to at least acknowledge they exist. He does not do this. He sticks his head in the sand and calls me the troublemaker. So the coworkers in my department had a “creating a culture of respect” workshop—just for us. Really, just for me. It didn’t address the real problems; that wasn’t the goal. The goal was to single me out and to shame me for what? Having an opinion? Caring about how wrong things are? That we are failing miserably to plan for the challenges of an-all digital future? That our department is going to shit? However, if they can’t reprogram me, their new strategy is to punish me: “the penalty for noncomformity is going up, from the possibility of job loss and failure to social shunning and complete isolation” (55). Because we’re all union employees, the odds of my being fired are slim; seriously, I’d have to kill someone and leave the body next to my desk. So they go with social shunning and isolation. Because I don’t fool myself into thinking my coworkers (at least, not these) are my friends, social shunning is useless. They are trying to isolate me by not informing me of meetings and whatnot, but since we are a small department and I’m the only person who does my job (I don’t share my duties), that doesn’t work either. If you want me to do my work, you have to keep me informed. So that doesn’t work. But it is exhausting trying to be a professional and get my work accomplished while dealing with a bunch of children.

My rant above isn’t to draw attention to my work-related woes (I am dealing with them quite efficiently), but to point out how pervasive, disturbing, and unhelpful this enforced positive thinking culture is. Even if we are not aware we are practicing it, we may be. I sometimes chide myself for having negative thoughts about some things or saying something that isn’t positive and having to quickly follow up with: “Oh, but I’m not a negative person, it’s just… .” How ridiculous. There’s nothing wrong with expressing negativity—that’s just how things are sometimes. Is it better (and more healthy) to be someone who behaves like a grinning idiot and refuses to see the world around him/her realistically? The real world has very real problems. Denying them is not helpful. Being a doom-and-gloom “nothing will ever change” person doesn’t help either. Like most healthy options in life, what you want is a happy medium. Goldilocks is right—you want a little of this, a little of that, a perspective that allows you to see reality, but isn’t immediately overcome by hopelessness. The university where I’m employed, and my coworkers and the director of the library, are doing more harm to themselves and the future of the university by turning a blind eye to the problems—to the negativity. And that’s one of the major points Ehrenreich makes with this book—that all this enforced positive thinking is harmful to economic progress and Americans in general.

This is not the most in depth and coherent review of this book I could have written. It truly is enlightening, especially if you are one of those people who buys into the positive thinking culture (and its commercialism) or is being forced into by your employers or coworkers. She also discusses positive thinking as it affects the medical community (“Smile or Die: The Bright Side of Cancer”), psychology, and religion. The chapter “God Wants You to be Rich” is appalling. I’m an atheist and I find the takeover of Christianity by this crass materialistic, positive thinking nonsense horrifying. Ehrenreich discusses how the “prophets of prosperity” (Joel Osteen, for one example) have “put Mammon over God; they ignore the reality of sin; they reduce God to a servant of man; they trivialize a spiritually demanding religious tradition” (133). About Joel Osteen’s despicable religious practices, Ehrenreich says specifically:
Even God plays only a supporting role, and by no means an indispensable one, in the Osteens’ universe. Gone is the mystery and awe; he has been reduced to a kind of majordomo or personal assistant. He fixeth my speeding tickets, he secureth me a good table in the restaurant, he leadeth me to book contracts. Even in these minor tasks, the invocation of God seems more of a courtesy than a necessity. Once you have accepted the law of attraction—that the mind acts as a magnet attracting whatever it visualizes—you have granted humans omnipotence (132-133).
This is a fascinating and well-written book. It is full of facts, but because of Ehrenreich’s wit and chatty, conversational style, the book is an easy but extremely thought-provoking read. Even if you never read nonfiction, I would encourage you to take the time to read Bright-Sided.
Profile Image for Jason.
114 reviews626 followers
March 22, 2010
Yes. I agree with this author, Barbara Ehrenreich. So how about a rant that supports her suspicion of the recent American fad with 'Positive Thinking?'

Thank goodness for The Great Recession. It came exactly at the right time. And global warming too! For the last 40 years or so (but especially since the 1980s) Americans have absorbed the opiate of positive thinking. It's a happiness movement run amok across our culture. And we hope--the author and I--that the global financial meltdown has stopped it in its course.

Are you a happy person? Are you clinically happy? There's so much pop psychology, career faith healing, and apoplectic fiscal cheerleading out there contagious in our communities that it's a wonder there aren't more Stepford families next door. Until 2009, it was starting to sound like if you wished hard enough, avoided negative thoughts, brokered a written contract with your god, maintained the right quantum vibration, and attended a certain amount of motivational seminars (the ones where you perfect rhythmic breathing, discover your inner OOOhm, and where you jump around in sock feet yelling MONEY enthusiastically enough), then you could become powerful, wealthy, attractive, healed, successful, blessed, promoted, married, toned, rescued, forgiven, lionized, or a Level-64 Elf Druid with wicked hit points and manna.

Have you bought into:
- Life Coaches
- The 'Gospel of Relaxation'
- Motivational Gurus
- Psychomicrobiotic Shaman Healing
- The 'Don't Worry Movement'

Are you a/an:
- 'Positive Pal'
- 'Complaint Free Zone'
- 'Victor, Not a Victim'
- 'Incentivized Christian'
- 'Authentic Believer'

Have you read:
- Chicken Soup For the Soul
- The Secret
- The Little Gold Book of YES! Attitude
- Who Moved My Cheese
- The Gift of Cancer
- Become a Better You

Do you agree with the following propositions:
- In most ways my life is close to my ideal
- The conditions of my life are excellent
- I am overjoyed with my life
- So far I've gotten the important things I want in life
- If I could be reborn, I would change almost nothing

There's a hundred billion dollar epidemic in America of the relentless promotion of positive thinking. We've inhaled the seminars, swallowed the team building camps, and metabolized all the sugar peddled at the entrepreneurial mega rallies. All this to motivate you. All this to make you a better worker. All this to make you post-modern parents. All this to cure you of sins, and evil, and poison. America is deluded. How did we become so wrapped up in our crystal healing and our political correctness and our business casual Hawaiian T-shirt Fridays?

Pain and suffering has changed in the last 20 years. You're not supposed to feel sorry for yourself over some terminal illness. You're supposed to remain positive, and exercise, and keep smiling. Barbara Ehrenreich had breast cancer and was accosted repeatedly by other cancer patients for being so glum about it. She had a range of feelings, but those feelings weren't positive enough, motivational enough, or spiritual enough for the bullies out there that push 'Positive Thinking.' Psychotherapy has changed in the last 20 years. Now it's all about moving beyond affliction and stress. There's no reprimanding now; everything is forgiven. It's almost as if individuals aren't accountable for their mistakes. You are not a victim, something else deserves the blame. Business has changed in the last 20 years. Leadership at the top is so insulated from the bottom, that they move in bubbles. For reference, see big financial company CEOs during the Wall Street crash. Religion has changed in the last 20 years. Mega-churches have 300+ paid employees, most of them in production studios working slick equipment streaming live sermons to millions. Ministers with 7-digit salaries preaching to the unemployed that, if they only willed it enough, God would listen. Churches sell not only religion, but other services too, like counseling, and day care, and macked-out retreats, and clothing lines, and literature on Amazon, and lecture tours, and real estate.

There is a complete and almost institutionalized American avoidance of pain and sorrow and suffering. But suffering still happens. It's essential. I quite need suffering. Here's a random pull.

"I postpone death by living, by suffering, by error, by risking, by giving, by losing."--Anais Nin
"Character cannot be developed in peace and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved."--Hellen Keller
"Seeing much, suffering much, and studying much, are the three pillars of learning."--Benjamin Disraeli
"Strength is born in the deep silence of long-suffering hearts; not amid joy."--Sir Arthur Helps
"We are never so defenseless against suffering as when we love."--Sigmund Freud
"Most people get a fair amount of fun out of their lives, but on balance life is suffering, and only the very young or the very foolish imagine otherwise."--George Orwell
"Absence and death are the same - only that in death there is no suffering."--Theodore Roosevelt
"If there was no suffering, man would not know his limits, would not know himself."--Leo Tolstoy

So how could I possibly root for a financial collapse, you ask, or Global Warming? Individuals will suffer, families will suffer, the country will suffer, perhaps the world will suffer. Maybe you will suffer. I don't wish any particular person ill-will, but as a collective homo erectus, I think we're in deviant terroritory. The pendulum has swung way too far in apogee. The current fiscal crisis will--hopefully--ground us collectively back into a full range of human emotion. There is a place in the arc of our lives for suffering, for pain, for sorrow. It provides a balance to life. It's real, it's pervasive, and it should not be washed over like a colony of growing coral at high tide by the waves of 'Positive Thinking.'

This is a well-balanced book. It's quick reading, but revealing. Ehrenreich includes loads of examples. A good 3-stars.
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