Bright Sided

Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America. Barbara Ehrenreich. Picador, 2010.

Twenty seconds before I sat with this book for the first time and saw the opening chapter’s title, ‘Smile or Die,’ an acquaintance walked by and saw me in my harried, just come in from the cold state, and said – “Hey, man, Smile!”

So the context I’m working from is one where I have a very immediate sense that Ehrenreich is looking at real attitudes that exist everywhere around me: Smiling is Happy. Happy is Good. Good is Mandatory. 

I was attracted to ‘Bright Sided’ because I knew it would take on ‘positive psychology,’ and propose that ‘thinking good thoughts’ is more delusional than anything else. As I’ve written before, I have personally benefited from learning about positive psychology – the ‘What Went Well’ exercise had a tangible effect on my life. 

Ehrenreich believes that focusing on what’s good and going well is selling ourselves short – whether it be through academia, as in the case of positive psychology, or whether it’s through an American megachurch, a corporate team-building exercise, or even a breast cancer support group. 

Books like ‘the Secret’ and motivational coaches like Tony Robbins are identified as the latest manifestations of a long-held American tradition of optimism, going back to the refutation of Calvinism in the 19th century. ‘The Secret’ draws significant reproach, for its blatant resemblance to magic and mysticism – its central tenet that ‘desire’ leads directly to ‘ownership’ leaves Ehrenreich incredulous that such crap could receive acceptance and be celebrated by the American public. While ‘the Secret’ and several of her other targets are probably worthy of some ridicule, I was also frequently left thinking… “What a grumpy woman!”

Ehrenreich spends hundreds of pages hacking away at the foundations of positive thought-groups, beginning with her personal experience of breast cancer diagnosis, which piqued her interest in whether or not ‘staying positive’ had any real or lasting purpose. She dives into the science, brushing off what discourages her argument and championing any studies that support it.

The book finishes by blaming the economic crash of 2007 on the positivity-fueled and motivational-poster-dependent managers of corporate America, who had they not been busy with motivational speakers, life coaches, and positive thinking would have surely anticipated and prevented the housing bubble that caused market collapse. 

A succinct summarization of Ehrenreich’s theory is written in the closing paragraph: “The threats we face are real and can be vanquished only by shaking off self-absorption and taking action in the world.” 

In other words: She is very positive about how bad it is to be positive. 

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