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

Finally, it’s OK to be a grouch in this world of smiley faces and positive thinking.   For someone who was raised on the mantra – “If you don’t expect a lot, you will not be disappointed ”  – Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Bright-Sided is a welcome tonic.

“The choice seems obvious – critical and challenging people or smiling yes-sayers.”

Ehrenreich sets the tone for her scientific inquiry into America’s fascination with positive thinking and its consequences, by first tackling the pink ribbons of cancer as an angry “survivor” herself.  Ehrenreich, with a Ph.D. in cellular biology, and the penchant for critical analysis that goes with questioning authority – gives afflicted women permission to feel justifiable anger and fear.  Although positive thoughts may help along the cure, pretending you have them,  doesn’t.

She moves on to debunk the “law of attraction” espoused by Oprah and The Secret.  Think it and it will be – as in, “carry a twenty-dollar bill in your pocket to attract more money.”  In this world of positive thinking, anyone can envision what he or she wants, and get it.  But, asks Ehrenreich – what if two people want the same thing?  What if your vision conflicts with someone else’s?  What happened to free will? And – are you serious?

As a scientist, Ehrenreich’s curiosity prevails.  She explores the roots of the movement – from strict Calvinism with predestination worrying the population to death – to its  reactionary cure from Christian Scientists’ belief that ” all disease could be cured by thought.”  Henry James, the father of modern psychology, and Ralph Waldo Emerson legitimized positive thought in the 19th century.  Along the way, their high-minded aspirations were misinterpreted by modern advocates who use positive thinking as an obsession for success (defined as wealth).

Ehrenreich’s scrutiny extends to motivational speakers and team building, the modern balm to business, as well as to modern religion – “God Wants You to Be Rich.” She cynically points out that positive thinking here seems to be working – all those speakers and evangelists in “corporate churches” are getting the money.

She tackles the Authentic Happiness Inventory with glee, skewering Penn’s guru of happiness, Martin Seligman; you’ll feel better with your score after reading her evaluation of its “arbitrary questions.”

Bright-Sided has a conversational tone, with a hard look at how Americans uniquely approach problem-solving – well, not all Americans.  Ehrenreich has little patience with those who pretend to use science as the basis for what positive thinking can do, and cautions that ” bringing good news instead of honest reports” can be dangerous.   In her last chapter, “How Positive Thinking Destroyed the Economy,” she gives familiar examples of the cost of ignoring reality.

Mike Gelband, who ran the real estate division of Lehman Brothers, was getting nervous (in 2006) about what looked increasingly like a real estate bubble.  (When he advised): “We have to rethink our business model,”  he was fired, and two years later Lehman went bankrupt.

Despite all indications against positive thinking, Ehrenreich’s admonition to seek realism has a positive note in the end.  In her call to action to recognize the ills of society – and to do something about them – she replaces self-absorption with the call to action.  Positive thinking doesn’t make the world better; you have to do something about it.

As for me, I plan to be skeptical most of the time and cranky when the mood hits – but keep a fifty in my pocket, hoping to attract more.