Ben'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
Nov 25, 2009

it was amazing

San Francisco Bay Guardian
January 6-12, 2010

Not Mrs. Brightside
Barbara Ehrenreich’s new book takes on the pernicious disciples of Norman Vincent Peale

By Ben Terrall

I have a friend whose significant other’s breast cancer metastasized and is now in her bones. Members of the cancer support group she tried to join informed her that she wasn’t eligible for membership, as they were doing fairly well and needed to stay positive. My friend’s girlfriend, being that much sicker, would bring the others down.

Maddening? Disgusting? Depressing? Yes, all of the above, and, as Barbara Ehrenreich shows in her wonderful new book, Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America (Metropolitan Books, 256 pages, $23), not an isolated incident. Ehrenreich begins her exploration of happy-face/thumbs up culture by recounting her own experiences battling breast cancer. Though understandably angered at her condition (and soon to become angry about environmental carcinogens, battles with insurance agencies, and toxic treatments), she encountered an entire industry devoted to exhorting cancer sufferers to be cheerful. Ehrenreich writes, “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.”

I had my own brush with such bilge when a former therapist suggested that I view the loss of a friend who drank himself to death as (yes, he actually said this) “a gift,” apparently because of insights into mortality I could gain from my pal’s untimely demise. Not surprisingly, I declined his invitation.

The same shrink, who I can’t say I particularly miss, also touted the “law of attraction,” a favorite pseudo-law among contemporary peddlers of positive thinking. Ehrenreich, a PhD in Cell Biology, takes it apart and shows it won’t stand up to the most basic scientific scrutiny.

“The law of attraction” states, basically, that if you think positive thoughts, positive things, including material riches, will come to you. To nice comic effect, Ehrenreich describes an early version of this concept found in the 1937 volume Think and Grow Rich!, which explained that “thoughts, like magnets, attract to us the forces, the people, the circumstances of life which harmonize with [them:].”

Ehrenreich gamely inserts herself into various conventions and seminars where she interviews “life coaches,” motivational speakers and other participants in a world she describes as “New Age meets middle-American business culture” (in her 2005 book Bait and Switch, Ehrenreich masterfully exposed the lucrative business similar “coaches” conduct passing on dubious wisdom to white-collar job seekers). She writes, “If early capitalism was inhospitable to positive thinking, ‘late’ capitalism, or consumer capitalism, is far more congenial, depending as it does on the individual’s hunger for more and the firm’s imperative of growth.” Further, “Perpetual growth, whether of a particular company or an entire economy, is of course an absurdity, but positive thinking makes it seem possible, if not ordained.”

Most conspicuously in the “mega-churches” of the “prosperity gospel” movement, growing numbers of Americans have come to believe material wealth to be one of the blessings of devotion to strip-mall friendly Christianity. The positive thinking church tradition traces back to Mary Baker Eddy and Christian Science, but Ehrenreich argues that secular trends also influence churches, and notes, “certainly by the 1990s there was no dodging the positive thinking available in the business literature, the self-help books, and even weight-loss plans.”

The mega-churches take in and spend millions of dollars each year, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that some of their leaders move in the same circles as corporate big-wigs who have been systematically gutting U.S. companies for the past several decades. Pastor Rick Warren describes himself as a “mentor” to notorious job-slasher Jack Welsh of GE, and counts Rupert Murdoch among his flock. It makes perfect sense that Murdoch, Welsh, and their ilk would take a shine to a doctrine which taught that newly laid-off workers need not blame their bosses or agitate for change, but should instead stay positive at all costs and pray more.

Ehrenreich convincingly argues that even Oprah and other ostensibly liberal purveyors of positive thinking wind up erring on the side of the status quo. Her book’s subtitle refers to the damage done when thoughtful naysayers – underlings cognizant that making subprime loans will have destructive consequences, military strategists who realize the insanity of invading Iraq – are marginialized.

Bright-Sided is not a call for nihilist escapism or terminal bitterness. It’s a rousing endorsement of skepticism, realism, and critical thinking. As Ehrenreich said in a recent interview, “The alternative is not despair, not depression. The alternative is to look at things as they are. ... Let's look at what's actually going on and see what we can do about things that are making people miserable.”

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