Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America

Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America

3.8 54
by Barbara Ehrenreich

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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 is the key to getting success and prosperity. Or so we are told.

In this utterly original debunking, Barbara Ehrenreich confronts the false promises of



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 is the key to getting success and prosperity. Or so we are told.

In this utterly original debunking, Barbara Ehrenreich confronts the false promises of positive thinking and shows its reach into every corner of American life, from Evangelical megachurches to the medical establishment, and, worst of all, to the business community, where the refusal to consider negative outcomes--like mortgage defaults--contributed directly to the current economic disaster. With the myth-busting powers for which she is acclaimed, Ehrenreich exposes the downside of positive thinking: personal self-blame and national denial. 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.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Deeply satisfying. . . I have waited my whole life for someone to write a book like Bright-sided.” —The New York Times Book Review

“A brilliant exposé of our smiley-faced culture.” —

“Insightful, smart, and witty. . . Ehrenreich makes important points about what happens to those who dare to warn of the worst.” —BusinessWeek

“Ehrenreich's examination of the history of positive thinking is a tour de force of well-tempered snark, culminating in a persuasive indictment of the bright-siders as the culprits in our current financial mess.” —The Washington Post

Bright-sided scours away the veneer of conventional wisdom with pointed writings and reporting. . . . Helping us face the truth is Ehrenreich at her best.” —The Miami Herald

“Contrarians rejoice! With a refreshingly caustic tone, Barbara Ehrenreich takes on the relentlessly upbeat attitude many Americans demand of themselves, and more damagingly, of others.” —USA Today

“A rousing endorsement of skepticism, realism, and critical thinking.” —San Francisco Bay Guardian

“Ehrenreich delivers her indictments of the happiness industry with both authority and wit. . . . Bright-sided offers both a welcome tonic and a call to action--and a blessed relief from all those smiley faces.” —The Plain Dealer

“Precisely crafted, hard-hitting. . . analysis of the national mass fantasy of wishful thinking ” —The Dallas Morning News

“Relentless and persuasive. . . In a voice urgent and passionate, Ehrenreich offers us neither extreme [between positive thinking and being a spoilsport] but instead balance: joy, happiness, yes; sadness, anger, yes. She favors life with a clear head, eyes wide open.” —San Francisco Chronicle

“Ehrenreich reprises her role as Dorothy swishing back the curtain on a great and powerful given.” —The Oregonian

“A message that deserves to be heard.” —Jezebel

“Gleefully pops the positive-thinking bubble. . . Amazingly, she'll make you laugh, albeit ruefully, as she presents how society's relentless focus on being upbeat has eroded our ability to ask--and heed--the kind of uncomfortable questions that could have fended off economic disaster.” —

“Ehrenreich convinced me completely. . . I hesitate to say anything so positive as that this book will change the way you see absolutely everything; but it just might.” —Nora Ephron, The Daily Beast

“Ehrenreich delivers a trenchant look into the burgeoning business of positive thinking.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review

“Bright, incisive, provocative thinking from a top-notch nonfiction writer.” —Kirkus, starred review

“Wide-ranging and stinging look at the pervasiveness of positive thinking. . .” —Booklist, starred review

“We're always being told that looking on the bright side is good for us, but now we see that it's a great way to brush off poverty, disease, and unemployment, to rationalize an order where all the rewards go to those on top. The people who are sick or jobless--why, they just aren't thinking positively. They have no one to blame but themselves. Barbara Ehrenreich has put the menace of positive thinking under the microscope. Anyone who's ever been told to brighten up needs to read this book.” —Thomas Frank, author of The Wrecking Crew and What's the Matter with Kansas?

“Oprah Winfrey, Deepak Chopra, Andrew Weil: please read this relentlessly sensible book. It's never too late to begin thinking clearly.” —Frederick Crews, author of Follies of the Wise: Dissenting Essays

“Barbara Ehrenreich's skeptical common sense is just what we need to penetrate the cloying fog that passes for happiness in America.” —Alan Wolfe, author of The Future of Liberalism

“In this hilarious and devastating critique, Barbara Ehrenreich applies some much needed negativity to the zillion-dollar business of positive thinking. This is truly a text for the times.” —Katha Pollitt, author of The Mind-Body Problem: Poems

“Unless you keep on saying that you believe in fairies, Tinker Bell will check out, and what's more, her sad demise will be your fault! Barbara Ehrenreich scores again for the independent-minded in resisting this drool and all those who wallow in it.” —Christopher Hitchens, author of God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything

“In this hard-hitting but honest appraisal, America's cultural skeptic Barbara Ehrenreich turns her focus on the muddled American phenomenon of positive thinking. She exposes the pseudoscience and pseudointellectual foundation of the positive-thinking movement for what it is: a house of cards. This is a mind-opening read.” —Michael Shermer, author of Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time

“Once again, Barbara Ehrenreich has written an invaluable and timely book, offering a brilliant analysis of the causes and dimensions of our current cultural and economic crises. She shows how deeply positive thinking is embedded in our history and how crippling it is as a habit of mind.” —Thomas Bender, author of A Nation Among Nations: America's Place in World History

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By Ehrenreich, Barbara


Copyright © 2010 Ehrenreich, Barbara
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780312658854


Americans are a "positive" people. This is our reputation as well as our self-image. We smile a lot and are oft en baffled when people from other cultures do not return the favor. In the well-worn stereotype, we are upbeat, cheerful, optimistic, and shallow, while foreigners are likely to be subtle, world-weary, and possibly decadent. American expatriate writers like Henry James and James Baldwin wrestled with and occasionally reinforced this stereotype, which I once encountered in the 1980s in the form of a remark by Soviet émigré poet Joseph Brodsky to the effect that the problem with Americans is that they have "never known suffering." (Apparently he didn’t know who had invented the blues.) Whether we Americans see it as an embarrassment or a point of pride, being positive—in affect, in mood, in outlook—seems to be engrained in our national character.

Who would be churlish or disaffected enough to challenge these happy features of the American personality? Take the business of positive "affect," which refers to the mood we display to others through our smiles, our greetings, our professions of confidence and optimism. Scientists have found that the mere act of smiling can generate positive feelings within us, at least if the smile is not forced. In addition, good feelings, as expressed through our words and smiles, seem to be contagious: "Smile and the world smiles with you." Surely the world would be a better, happier place if we all greeted one another warmly and stopped to coax smiles from babies—if only through the well-known social psychological mechanism of "mood contagion." Recent studies show that happy feelings flit easily through social networks, so that one person’s good fortune can brighten the day even for only distantly connected others.1

Furthermore, psychologists today agree that positive feelings like gratitude, contentment, and self-confidence can actually lengthen our lives and improve our health. Some of these claims are exaggerated, as we shall see, though positive feelings hardly need to be justified, like exercise or vitamin supplements, as part of a healthy lifestyle. People who report having positive feelings are more likely to participate in a rich social life, and vice versa, and social connectedness turns out to be an important defense against depression, which is a known risk factor for many physical illnesses. At the risk of redundancy or even tautology, we can say that on many levels, individual and social, it is good to be "positive," certainly better than being withdrawn, aggrieved, or chronically sad.

So I take it as a sign of progress that, in just the last decade or so, economists have begun to show an interest in using happiness rather than just the gross national product as a measure of an economy’s success. Happiness is, of course, a slippery thing to measure or define. Philosophers have debated what it is for centuries, and even if we were to define it simply as a greater frequency of positive feelings than negative ones, when we ask people if they are happy we are asking them to arrive at some sort of average over many moods and moments. Maybe I was upset earlier in the day but then was cheered up by a bit of good news, so what am I really? In one well-known psychological experiment, subjects were asked to answer a questionnaire on life satisfaction—but only after they had performed the apparently irrelevant task of photocopying a sheet of paper for the experimenter. For a randomly chosen half of the subjects, a dime had been left for them to find on the copy machine. As two economists summarize the results, "Reported satisfaction with life was raised substantially by the discovery of the coin on the copy machine—clearly not an income effect."2

In addition to the problems of measurement, there are cultural differences in how happiness is regarded and whether it is even seen as a virtue. Some cultures, like our own, value the positive affect that seems to signal internal happiness; others are more impressed by seriousness, self-sacrifice, or a quiet willingness to cooperate. However hard to pin down, though, happiness is somehow a more pertinent metric for well-being, from a humanistic perspective, than the buzz of transactions that constitute the GDP.

Surprisingly, when psychologists undertake to measure the relative happiness of nations, they routinely find that Americans are not, even in prosperous times and despite our vaunted positivity, very happy at all. A recent meta-analysis of over a hundred studies of self-reported happiness worldwide found Americans ranking only twenty-third, surpassed by the Dutch, the Danes, the Malaysians, the Bahamians, the Austrians, and even the supposedly dour Finns.3 In another potential sign of relative distress, Americans account for two-thirds of the global market for antidepressants, which happen also to be the most commonly prescribed drugs in the United States. To my knowledge, no one knows how antidepressant use affects people’s responses to happiness surveys: do respondents report being happy because the drugs make them feel happy or do they report being unhappy because they know they are dependent on drugs to make them feel better? Without our heavy use of antidepressants, Americans would likely rank far lower in the happiness rankings than we currently do.

When economists attempt to rank nations more objectively in terms of "well-being," taking into account such factors as health, environmental sustainability, and the possibility of upward mobility, the United States does even more poorly than it does when only the subjective state of "happiness" is measured. The Happy Planet Index, to give just one example, locates us at 150th among the world’s nations.4

How can we be so surpassingly "positive" in self-image and stereotype without being the world’s happiest and best-off people? The answer, I think, is that positivity is not so much our condition or our mood as it is part of our ideology—the way we explain the world and think we ought to function within it. That ideology is "positive thinking," by which we usually mean two things. One is the generic content of positive thinking—that is, the positive thought itself—which can be summarized as: Things are pretty good right now, at least if you are willing to see silver linings, make lemonade out of lemons, etc., and things are going to get a whole lot better. This is optimism, and it is not the same as hope. Hope is an emotion, a yearning, the experience of which is not entirely within our control. Optimism is a cognitive stance, a conscious expectation, which presumably anyone can develop through practice.

The second thing we mean by "positive thinking" is this practice, or discipline, of trying to think in a positive way. There is, we are told, a practical reason for undertaking this effort: positive thinking supposedly not only makes us feel optimistic but actually makes happy outcomes more likely. If you expect things to get better, they will. How can the mere process of thinking do this? In the rational explanation that many psychologists would offer today, optimism improves health, personal efficacy, confidence, and resilience, making it easier for us to accomplish our goals. A far less rational theory also runs rampant in American ideology—the idea that our thoughts can, in some mysterious way, directly affect the physical world. Negative thoughts somehow produce negative outcomes, while positive thoughts realize themselves in the form of health, prosperity, and success. For both rational and mystical reasons, then, the effort of positive thinking is said to be well worth our time and attention, whether this means reading the relevant books, attending seminars and speeches that offer the appropriate mental training,


Excerpted from Bright-sided by Ehrenreich, Barbara Copyright © 2010 by Ehrenreich, Barbara. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Barbara Ehrenreich is the bestselling author of sixteen previous books, including Nickel and Dimed, Bait and Switch, Bright-sided, This Land Is Their Land, Dancing In The Streets and Blood Rites. A frequent contributor to Harper's and The Nation, she has also been a columnist at The New York Times and Time magazine.

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Bright-Sided 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 49 reviews.
BillPilgrim More than 1 year ago
Ehrenreich criticizes and makes fun of the positive thinking crowd in this book. That part is enjoyable to read and often humorous. And, it is very easy to do. I mean, come on, does anyone but the most easily manipulated people really believe that the "Law of Attraction" can really work in a direct way for you, and that by simply imaging success (or whatever it is that you want - a lover, a cure) for yourself, you can magically make it happen. Ehrenreich seems to believe that Americans have in large numbers accepted this clap-trap in some sort of deluded group-think. But, despite the fact that some charlatans have been able to become rich in part by selling this theory, there is nothing much to suggests that many people really swallowed the tonic wholesale. I think that she her argument that the popularity of their self-help books, motivation coaches and some religious leaders was the major cause of the recent financial collapse of the economy is similarly quite thin on evidence. Since she takes positive psychology to task in this book for lacking scientific studies to support their theories, I would have thought that she would not claim that positive thinking has caused the "undermining" of America based only on a co-relation, some anecdotal stories and the similarly unsupported opinions of others. While some corporations attempted to use positive thinking's approach to help the company's mission succeed financially, there is no reason to conclude that the corporation's top management were exercising it when they chose what the mission should be. Or, that their commitment to any business plan was influenced by a belief that they could have it work if only every employee believed it would. Also, I think that she is mistaken to equate the feelings of opportunity that some people may have when faced with a great adversity in their personal life, whether it is a medical diagnosis such as cancer, getting laid off or experiencing some other devastating loss, with the delusional positive thinking that she rightly ridicules. When someone goes through a major change in their life, even one that also causes great personal pain and suffering, it seems to me to be reasonable to view that as an opportunity to question the assumptions that you had been living with and to rethink your priorities. It can make you realize what is really important and what is just veneer. This reminds me of the joy that people experience in the face of major societal disruption that Rebecca Solnit wrote about in A Paradise Built in Hell - The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster. I would hope that Ehrenriech would not find it incorrect for people to experience these positive feelings in the face of great stress. Finally, I was put off and must also comment on one small point that Ehrenriech makes. At pages 56-57, when noting that Reverend Will Bowen had distributed his purple anti-negativity bracelets in "schools, prisons and homeless shelters." Ehrenriech then wonders "how successful they have been in the latter two settings." This makes it seem that she is equating the residents of prisons and homeless shelters in ways that are not necessarily true. It is unclear exactly what her thinking is.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Intelligent conversations have been sabotaged more than once by people who "don't want my negativity." Finally someone speaks up to this air headed idiocy.
hidden_treasure More than 1 year ago
Interesting concepts regarding the brainwashing of the world to blame themselves for everything from unemployment to being swept away by nature's wrath. Today we're told to personally take the blame for whatever misfortune comes our way. If something bad is happening in our lives is because we've slacked off on our mission of self improvement. Supposedly anyone can be a millionaire if they practice the secret of positive attraction. That conveniently leaves blameless government, Wall Street, history, economics, education, global competition, the church, etc. I enjoyed her book. My only disappointment was her stand doesn't leave room for faith in a Higher Power.
Bliokh More than 1 year ago
Modern society nixes importance of philosophers and poets. Yet, in purely practical terms, without philosophers political discourse becomes incredibly shallow. And with poets reduced to drudgery in "liberal arts" colleges, the language of political debate becomes increasingly colorless and nasty. Politics is and always was a hyper-competitive business but for the observer of the Kennedy-Nixon exchange of 1960, there is a feeling of unbelievable deterioration of collective intelligence in recent times. Barbara Ehrenreich is one of the very few, may be the only remaining, SOCIAL PHILOSOPHER of distinction in America. She is the only person whom I know, who poses questions relevant for the everyday life. The so-called academic philosophy is sterile. Academic social science should better be called "applied statistical research." These things could be useful for budgetary planning-- how many public toilets with Wi-Fi access an average city must have-- but are irrelevant in the terms in which normal people comprehend the society. Her new book is not so daring and unusual in its treatment as "Nickel and dimed" and "For her own good". Yet, she identifies the 180 degrees turn in values, which has occurred in American Puritanism. While the pilgrims held the dim view of "institutionalized depression" (Ehrenreich's term), modern American outlook heavily influenced by the Southern Baptist culture of megachurches and the New Age, propagates superficially "sunny" concept of reality and the supernatural. Neither repentance, nor continual self-improvement are necessary. Salvation can be achieved by having "the right attitude." The opposite side of this worldview also with the roots in pilgrim Puritanism is that if one is unhappy and/or unlucky--all mostly understood in terms of material wealth--one is beyond salvation and must fake a positive attitude not to become an outcast. Kudos for Barbara! Keep up the good work! My other reviews can be viewed on
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Rain-Lee More than 1 year ago
I am a huge Barbara Eherenreich fan, and have read several of her books, and jumped at reading Bright-sided. Now, my nook is new, so perhaps this is operator ignorance, but i couldn't figure out how to get to the end-notes until I finished the book. I HATE END-NOTES even in paper books. So, for the content, I give her book 5 stars, alas the frustration of end-notes brings it down to a 3 star. If you are one of those folks who never read foot/end-notes anyhow, it's a great read!
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