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

Bright-Sided by Barbara Ehrenreich
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's review
Oct 20, 2009

really liked it
bookshelves: non-fiction, skepticism

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.
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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
October 20, 2009 – Shelved
December 1, 2009 – Shelved as: non-fiction
December 1, 2009 – Shelved as: skepticism

Comments (showing 1-35 of 35) (35 new)

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message 1: by mark (new)

mark I have just gotten into the "law of Attraction." Makes sense to me. Yes, the power of positive thinking is exploited for profit & The Secret is a good example. But the Law of Attraction is consistent with what is known about Physics, Biology, Chemistry, Psychology, and Evolution. It in no way encourages one to just "wish on a star" and it will be yours. Quite the contrary. It states that you must take baby steps, and reach for the next more positive feeling. For example - if you are in a state of Fear, Grief, Depression, Despair, Powerlessness; the best you can do is move towards Insecurity, Guilt, Unworthiness. It does not "blame the victim"; and allows for how powerful others inhibit ones quest for Love, Freedom, Joy, etc. You might want to check it out. If you are in a state of Hatred and Rage, then the best you can do is move towards Revenge. It's a process, not a quick fix. The law of attraction is misunderstood. Essentially it says - like attracts like - be it for better or worse. The war on terror - gets you more war and more terror. Yes, it is difficult to actually know what it is you are truly feeling - is it yours or someone else's? And why you do what you do and believe what you do? It's damn near impossible to understand your own motivation - let alone someone else's.
Again - check it out. I know you've spent a great deal of energy on this subject of Wellness & would be interested in your take.

message 2: by Anthony (new)

Anthony Buckley A truly excellent review. Like many good ideas, Postive Thinking should be available as one club in one's bag, but definitely not the only one. It is sometimes - perhaps for many people mostly - a good idea to force oneself to look on the bright side, to roll up one's sleeves and get on with life. But it is by no means the only correct approach.

The most celebrated artistic criticism of Postive Thinking is the song, at the end of The Life of Brian, "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life". It says it all, really.

Lena Mark, I’m not familiar with the particular form of the law of attraction you mention, but to be honest, I have my doubts. From what I’ve seen, the science believers point to in order to support the idea that there is such a thing as the law of attraction falls apart as soon as you start examining their claims in depth. The idea that we’re all magnetic and like attracts like, for example, makes little sense when you consider that like magnetic charges actually repel one another. So to call this a “law” in the same way that gravity is a “law” is, in my limited opinion, not grounded in any kind of solid science. And if it were, in fact, an actual law affecting physical reality, I think this world would be a dramatically different place than the one we currently inhabit.

Anthony, thanks! I agree there is definitely a place for positive thinking, particularly as evolution seems to have programmed us to learn how to find the benefit in challenging situations. The problems Ehrenreich points to seem to focus on when this is done in active denial of large portions of reality. Although now that you bring it up, maybe that's not such a bad strategy when you're in the middle of being crucified...

message 4: by mark (new)

mark Actually, not at all - water molecules attract one another, thus we can siphon. We can walk on a wooden plank b/c we humans (our molecular structure) oppose the molecular structure of wood, but we cannot walk on water (we are largely water); and yet all, (humans, wood, water) are made up of molecules in motion - vibrations. Nothing is really solid. Like attracts like. Radio waves, x-rays, etc. are real, though we cannot see them. Physics and chemistry are not my expertise, so forgive me for that. It is rare for a person not to justify (or in Psychology there is what is called: "The Over-Justification effect") our behavior. "I'm sorry - I was wrong." are the most difficult words to speak and believe. It is almost inconceivable that a person who suffers from cancer could accept the possibility that they may have caused the disease themselves (and in fact, the cancer may be a survival [life sustaining mechanism of sorts) AND, like you have uncovered ... everyone profits from a biological cause ... "It's not MY fault, please, doctor, give me a cure." It is complicated for sure. Yes, modern medicine is wonderful and miraculous ... but "things" seem to be getting worse. Our society is w/o a doubt f__ked up; but I do not believe there is a conspiracy ... Everybody does want to feel good and to be right!! There is a reality above our present knowledge -- I just don't know what it is ...

Lena I’m not sure we’re talking about the same thing, Mark. The LOA as I understand it claims that human thought and emotion are capable of affecting external reality via the like attracts like principle. Though there may be aspects of nature in which like attracts like, there is simply no scientific evidence (that I have seen, anyway) demonstrating this behavior translates to human thought and feeling as well. Those who claim that quantum physics supports the idea that we control external reality with our thoughts (the whole outcome-is-determined-by-the-observer thing) have massively misinterpreted the experiments on which they claim this idea is based.

Regarding your comment that, "It is almost inconceivable that a person who suffers from cancer could accept the possibility that they may have caused the disease themselves," that may be true where you live. In my town, however, the belief that we "create" our own cancers is so widespread that I was trying to talk a newly diagnosed friend down from it just last week. Now, if a lung cancer victim has been smoking 3 packs a day for 30 years, I think it’s safe to say they had a part in creating their cancer. Lifestyle choices can certainly raise risk. But the idea that thoughts and feelings can “create” cancer – which is what Ehrenreich is discussing - is a whole different matter. I think people find this idea appealing because it gives them an illusion of control – if I created it, I must be able to fix it. The problem is that if you think this and don’t get better, you have only yourself to blame. Call me crazy, but I think the last thing a cancer patient needs is to be subject to the scientifically groundless idea that if they are failing to get better, it's somehow their own fault.

message 6: by Anthony (new)

Anthony Buckley I entirely agree with your comment, Lena. In the British press, it is very widely stated that a person is "fighting" cancer or that they have "lost their struggle" with cancer. How on earth one is supposed to "struggle" with cancer I do not know. The problem is that this kind of nonsense does seem to indicate that a person who dies of cancer has somehow failed. In real life, of course, somebody with cancer just takes whatever treatment is available and hopes for the best.

Of course, some people are "courageous" in the face of this disease (I've met such people) but that is a very different matter.

message 7: by mark (new)

mark Agreed - I think we are talking the same thing. I think it is impossible, via a controlled experiment, to determine the law of attraction in regards to the power of human thought, for the reason that people (the subject) are not a reliable source when it comes to what it is they are wanting/thinking and so forth. Anecdotally, I can point to numerous times through out my 60 years that what happened to me, was something I had prior very intense thoughts/feelings about. I have no doubt that I created the life i am living. Again - wanted or unwanted - the focused mind is a powerful force. When it comes to disease and death, loss and grief, people can become desperate and that is not a good place to be. Many people, facing death, come to believe that "it" was the best thing that ever happened to them. Go figure. But that was not their initial reaction. Two ways to really get at what is going on within a person's mind - are psychotherapy and writing ... Anyway, read the book if you like, and try it. No one needs to know ...

Trevor "Mr Smith, I'm afraid you have a particularly nasty form of cancer which is likely to kill you in three months. It will be unspeakably painful and the poisons we will be giving you in an attempt to lengthen your life will cause you to lose control of your bodily functions and therefore suffer humiliation after humiliation along the way. Of course, if you don't face all this with a smile on your dial then it is all your fault that things are as bad for you as they clearly are."

A very dear friend of mine still blames herself for how badly she treated her mother when she was dying from cancer because her mother wasn't able to stay positive. It is all truly obscene and horribly sad.

Another wonderful review - I've read her Nickel and Dimed On (Not) Getting By in America and will have to read this now too.

Lena That is so sad, Trevor. As one of the other books I read pointed out, cancer is the place where all this stuff really matters.

I'm going to have to check out Nickel and Dimed as well - it's been on my list, but I'll have to bump it up.

message 10: by Lisa (new) - added it

Lisa Vegan Lena, I loved Nickel And Dimed On (Not) Getting by in America, and I liked Bait and Switch The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream. I really like Barbara Ehrenreich and this book has been languishing on my to-read shelf. I agree with her completely about this issue and have thought a lot about it, but I'm interested in reading the book as I assume I'd learn even more and think about the subject even more than I already have.

message 11: by Lena (last edited Dec 03, 2009 12:14PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Lena I was actually surprised how much I learned from it, Lisa. I'm somewhat familiar with the topic, but much of the info was still new to me. I'll be curious to hear what you think when you manage to get to it.

message 12: by Idiosyncratic (last edited Dec 31, 2009 12:05PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Idiosyncratic Trevor - re your friend's mother with cancer: This reminds me of a story my sister-in-law once told me. She knew someone who was very ill with cancer and, as my sister-in-law cooed admiringly, "she never ONCE complained!" I think one of the reasons we don't want to deal with people who are supposedly "negative" is that we don't want to have to face their very real, intense pain. It's unpleasant and uncomfortable for us. Far easier to have someone who's upbeat and never "bothers" us with their difficult, messy, painful lives.

message 13: by Sobelius (last edited Jan 12, 2010 06:57AM) (new)

Sobelius One of the problems with the misunderstanding of the "law" of attraction is the idea that it means we use our minds to manipulate physical reality directly, a kind of telekinesis if you will. In this sense, I agree that this misunderstanding is dangerous and false.

The law of attraction has more to do with our own thoughts and really only affects our internalized perception of reality, which might then lead us to do something that affects our physical reality.

So, we could better phrase the "LOA" as "like thought attracts like thought". Negative attitudes and comments in groups of coworkers or students tend to create only more of the same. The result, eventually, can affect the physical world in the sense that people may do their work less enthusiastically, more shoddily, less creatively, or at worst by physically harming a fellow worker.

I disagree with the idea that America would be better off without positive thinking. Ehrenreich's book is really not about positive thinking but about how profiteering and deceptive practices undermine America. America would certainly be better off without that. It is not the "relentless promotion of positive thinking" that has undermined America, IMHO. It is, instead, our failure to correct our collective cultural belief that whatever brings us money must be "good and right", and that "having things" is the only thing worth pursuing. The relentless promotion of consumerism and a culture saturated by advertising that is designed to create the desire for more and more is, IMHO, what undermines America. Truer positive thinking, and truer LOA thinking, would instead start from a place of gratitude for what we already have and a recognition of our existing abundance.

From a health perspective, thinking this way might help us avoid over-eating, for example. It doesn't mean cancer won't happen to us. It doesn't mean cancer won't kill us. It does mean that we are free to choose how we deal with something like cancer. Patrick Swayze lived his life to the fullest after his diagnosis, acknowledging the difficulty and pain but not letting that side of the cancer be his only reality. Did he "attract" the cancer? No. Did his positive thinking rid him of the cancer? No. Did his medical treatments rid him of the cancer? No. Did his positive thinking make his own experience of the rest of his life, and the lives of those around him, better? Very likely, yes. This is what LOA can do. That's how LOA affects our reality.

It's also possible Swayze's thinking released chemicals in his brain that eased his pain, or helped him endure it. (I don't know the reality, of course, but there is scientific evidence that buddhist Monks can affect their brains and bodies over time due to meditation.)

Thanks for your review, since it lef to this interesting discussion. :)

Trevor A helpful introduction to the LOA


message 15: by Lena (new) - rated it 4 stars

Lena Trevor, I LOVE those guys!

The sad irony is that James Arthur Ray, who's featured in that clip, is now the subject of a murder investigation for the deaths of three participants in his "Spiritual Warrior" training:


Positive thinking is sadly no match for the very real limits of the physical body.

Sobelius, I don't disagree with some of your points, but I do wonder if you've read Ehrenreich's book. Although she does discuss the exploitation of positive thinking for commercial ends, she also makes some key arguments about the problems with positive thinking itself.

A recently published study highlighted this issue when it showed that people in a bad mood actually made better decisions than their upbeat counterparts.

This doesn't mean we should all cultivate grumpiness, of course; the study also pointed out that those in a positive frame of mind tend to think more creatively than those in a bad mood. But it does point to the fact that unrestrained optimism is not always a good thing, and it might be better to hold off on making certain key decisions until rationality can also have its say.

Jenny I can't wait to read this book, have it on hold from the library. I'm so glad someone has the guts to argue that positive thinking has nothing to do with outcomes; that sometimes very bad things happen to good people; and that we should consider worst possible outcomes when making decisions.

message 17: by Lena (new) - rated it 4 stars

Lena It's funny to think of a book criticizing positive thinking as a breath of fresh air, but I think this one qualifies. I'll be curious to hear what you think of it.

Kirsten Great review! I'm a few chapters in, and I'm really loving this book.

message 19: by Bruce (last edited Jun 23, 2010 08:36AM) (new)

Bruce Wonderful review, and thanks be to Trevor for pointing the way!

From what I gather here, Ehrenreich's point is that a Pollyanna view of the world (or worse, the ostrich's head-in-the-sand approach) is counterproductive. That I can absolutely get behind, inasmuch as I've always been persuaded that it's well-nigh impossible to avoid reacting to any trauma (say... life)... via the coping steps that Kubler-Ross has described. Well, moderation in all things, of course.

However, this is the first time I've encountered any LOA adherents (or even the doctrine of the "law" (?!) of attraction). To me, and as described here, such philosophies always bring to mind the placebo effect, yet I've found folks' sensitivities generally to be such that any attempted rational exploration seems to require walking on eggshells. (It's really annoying, but I suppose no one likes their worldview to be poked fun at.) Anyway, nothing ventured, nothing gained, so at the risk of accidentally triggering further discussion of LOA's merit one way or the other, may I ask whether and how Ehrenreich deals with the placebo effect and the reported, positive somatic effects of smiling and laughter?

Trevor Not that I can remember - although she does take a swipe at the idea that our happiness is not related to bad things that happen to us, you know, the 'I won the lottery and am still unhappy' or 'I am in a wheelchair, but just as happy as I ever was' idea. I, personally, think this idea is possibly true. It is something that is talked about in both The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home and Stumbling on Happiness. But it does make me wonder now what research the idea is based on. I must track down the Gilbert book again to see.

message 21: by Lena (new) - rated it 4 stars

Lena I don't recall her addressing those issues either, Bruce, but it's been long enough since I read the book I'm not certain about that.

message 22: by Lena (last edited Jun 23, 2010 05:21PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Lena Oh, I forgot to mention earlier, Bruce, that "A Biomechanical Explanation for the Placebo Effect" in the book Snake Oil Science: The Truth about Complementary and Alternative Medicine covers some very interesting ground on that topic.

message 23: by Bruce (new)

Bruce Thanks, Lena! Sounds like this will make an excellent companion to Charlatan America's Most Dangerous Huckster the Man Who Pursued Him and the Age of Flimflam. I'll try to get both out of the library at the same time.

message 24: by Bruce (last edited Jul 13, 2010 06:03AM) (new)

Bruce Found this on YouTube - it's the RSAnimate (white-board realtime hand drawing) of Barbara Ehrenreich's summation of her analysis and conclusions. Also searchable under "Smile or Die."

(Amending my previous posting to observe that Trevor had already earlier found and posted the same link.)

message 25: by Riku (new)

Riku Sayuj I have been missing all your reviews! Goodreads should have a suggestion engine for reviewers too, eh? Hey, I think that is a brilliant idea!

message 26: by Riku (new)

Riku Sayuj Great review too, of course!

message 27: by Lena (new) - rated it 4 stars

Lena Thanks, Riku! That is a good idea...

message 28: by Sue (new) - rated it 4 stars

Sue Wow, detailed review, thank you. I almost don't feel like I need to read the book but I also feel the need to be deprogrammed from the cult of positive thinking!

message 29: by Sue (new) - rated it 4 stars

Sue Weird that you wrote a novel about cult life and I made the cult reference before I knew that, I am also intrigued by your book having had a few brushes with cultistic communities myself!

message 30: by Lena (new) - rated it 4 stars

Lena Thanks, Sue! I was amazed at how widespread the positive thinking bias is even outside the communities I was in.

message 31: by Lisa (new) - added it

Lisa Vegan Lena, It keeps getting worse and worse. It's nauseating.

message 32: by Sue (new) - rated it 4 stars

Sue I have started the book and am feeling so much relief similar to that felt when I realized I was being messed with by cultic leaders/groups. There IS a place for thinking and acting in realistically positive ways but it is not a magic wand and the misplaced blame is really toxic.

message 33: by Ted (last edited Aug 11, 2015 03:39PM) (new)

Ted fine review, Lena. Now bookmarked (for ch.6, see section B)

message 34: by Sara (new)

Sara Excellent review, Lena! I think that this syndrome has a lot to do with how many people reacted to Nickel and Dimed - we are truly brainwashed to think it is our fault if things are not working and all we need to do is be a little more positive... I wish she would update Nickel and Dimed to show how things have NOT changed since the late 90s.

message 35: by Lena (new) - rated it 4 stars

Lena Thanks, Sara! I agree an update of that would be good to see.

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