Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America / Edition 1

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Overview

A sharp-witted knockdown of America’s love affair with positive thinking and an urgent call for a new commitment to realism

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, we are told, is the key to success and prosperity.

In this utterly original take on the American frame of mind, Barbara Ehrenreich traces the strange career of our sunny outlook from its origins as a marginal nineteenth-century healing technique to its enshrinement as a dominant, almost mandatory, cultural attitude. Evangelical mega-churches preach the good news that you only have to want something to get it, because God wants to “prosper” you. The medical profession prescribes positive thinking for its presumed health benefits. Academia has made room for new departments of “positive psychology” and the “science of happiness.” Nowhere, though, has bright-siding taken firmer root than within the business community, where, as Ehrenreich shows, the refusal even to consider negative outcomes—like mortgage defaults—contributed directly to the current economic crisis.

With the mythbusting powers for which she is acclaimed, Ehrenreich exposes the downside of America’s penchant for positive thinking: On a personal level, it leads to self-blame and a morbid preoccupation with stamping out “negative” thoughts. On a national level, it’s brought us an era of irrational optimism resulting in disaster. 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.

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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.”—Forbes.com

“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.”—FastCompany.com

"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

Hanna Rosin
I must confess, I have waited my whole life for someone to write a book like Bright-Sided…Now, in Barbara Ehrenreich's deeply satisfying book, I finally have a moral defense for my apparent scowl. All the background noise of America—motivational speakers, positive prayer, the new Journal of Happiness Studies—these are not the markers of happy, well-adjusted psyches uncorrupted by irony, as I have always been led to believe. Instead, Ehrenreich argues convincingly that they are the symptoms of a noxious virus infecting all corners of American life that goes by the name "positive thinking."
—The New York Times
Kate Tuttle
Ehrenreich's examination of the history of positive thinking is a tour de force of well-tempered snark…We're not talking here about garden-variety hopefulness or genuine happiness, but rather the philosophy that individuals create—rather than encounter—their own circumstances. Crafted as a correction to Calvinism's soul-crushing pessimism, positive thinking, in Ehrenreich's view, has become a kind of national religion, an abettor to capitalism's crueler realities and an overcorrection every bit as anxiety-producing as the Puritans' Calvinism ever was.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Ehrenreich (Nickel and Dimed) delivers a trenchant look into the burgeoning business of positive thinking. A bout with breast cancer puts the author face to face with this new breed of frenetic positive thinking promoted by everyone from scientists to gurus and activists. Chided for her anger and distress by doctors and fellow cancer patients and survivors, Ehrenreich explores the insistence upon optimism as a cultural and national trait, discovering its “symbiotic relationship with American capitalism” and how poverty, obesity, unemployment and relationship problems are being marketed as obstacles that can be overcome with the right (read: positive) mindset. Building on Max Weber's insights into the relationship between Calvinism and capitalism, Ehrenreich sees the dark roots of positive thinking emerging from 19th-century religious movements. Mary Baker Eddy, William James and Norman Vincent Peale paved the path for today's secular $9.6 billion self-improvement industry and positive psychology institutes. The author concludes by suggesting that the bungled invasion of Iraq and current economic mess may be intricately tied to this “reckless” national penchant for self-delusion and a lack of anxious vigilance, necessary to societal survival. (Oct.)
Kirkus Reviews
Accomplished social critic Ehrenreich (This Land Is Their Land: Reports from a Divided Nation, 2008, etc) eviscerates the positive-thinking movement, which she blames for encouraging us to "deny reality, submit cheerfully to misfortune, and blame only ourselves for our fate."The author argues that the promotion of unwarranted optimism began in the early days of the American republic, was taken up by 19th-century philosophers and mystics-William James urged people to repeat to themselves "Youth, health, vigor!" while dressing in the morning-and entered the American mainstream in the 20th century, when it became an integral part of consumer culture. Ehrenreich's quarrel is not with feeling upbeat but rather with the "inescapable pseudoscientific flapdoodle" of life coaches and self-improvement products claiming that thinking positively will result in wealth, success and other joyful outcomes. Such magical thinking has become a means of social control in the workplace-where uncheerful employees are ostracized-and prevents action to achieve social change. With life coaches, business motivators and evangelical preachers promoting delusional expectations-"God has a plan" for those who have lost jobs and homes in the current economic crisis, says Christian preacher Joel Osteen-positive thinking can claim partial credit for a major role in such recent disastrous events as the Iraq war and the financial meltdown. Ehrenreich's many interviews include meetings with psychologist Martin Seligman, whose "positive psychology," she finds, offers little credible evidence to make it any different from the wishing-will-make-it-so thinking of writers from Dale Carnegie (How to Win Friends & Influence People)to Rhonda Byrne (The Secret). The author's tough-minded and convincing broadside raises troubling questions about many aspects of contemporary American life, and she provides an antidote to the pervasive culture of cheerfulness-reality-based critical thinking that will encourage people to alter social arrangements in ways that improve their lives. Bright, incisive, provocative thinking from a top-notch nonfiction writer.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780805087499
  • Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 10/13/2009
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Barbara Ehrenreich

Barbara Ehrenreich is the bestselling author of Nickel and Dimed, Bait and Switch, Bright-sided, This Land Is Their Land, Dancing in the Streets and Blood Rites, among others. A frequent contributor to Harper's and The Nation, she has also been a columnist at The New York Times and Time magazine. She is the winner of the L.A. Times Book Prize for Current Interest and ALA Notable Books for Nonfiction.

 

Ehrenreich was born in Butte, Montana, when it was still a bustling mining town. She studied physics at Reed College, and earned a Ph.D. in cell biology from Rockefeller University. Rather than going into laboratory work, she got involved in activism, and soon devoted herself to writing her innovative journalism. She lives and works in Florida.

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Read an Excerpt

Introduction

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, or just doing the solitary work of concentration on desired outcomes—a better job, an attractive mate, world peace.

There is an anxiety, as you can see, right here in the heart of American positive thinking. If the generic "positive thought" is correct and things are really getting better, if the arc of the universe tends toward happiness and abundance, then why bother with the mental effort of positive thinking? Obviously, because we do not fully believe that things will get better on their own. The practice of positive thinking is an effort to pump up this belief in the face of much contradictory evidence. Those who set themselves up as instructors in the discipline of positive thinking— coaches, preachers, and gurus of various sorts—have described this effort with terms like "self-hypnosis," "mind control," and "thought control." In other words, it requires deliberate self-deception, including a constant effort to repress or block out unpleasant possibilities and "negative" thoughts. The truly self-confident, or those who have in some way made their peace with the world and their destiny within it, do not need to expend effort censoring or otherwise controlling their thoughts. Positive thinking may be a quintessentially American activity, associated in our minds with both individual and national success, but it is driven by a terrible insecurity.

Americans did not start out as positive thinkers— at least the promotion of unwarranted optimism and methods to achieve it did not really find articulation and organized form until several de cades after the founding of the republic. In the Declaration of Independence, the founding fathers pledged to one another "our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor." They knew that they had no certainty of winning a war for independence and that they were taking a mortal risk. Just the act of signing the declaration made them all traitors to the crown, and treason was a crime punishable by execution. Many of them did go on to lose their lives, loved ones, and fortunes in the war. The point is, they fought anyway. There is a vast difference between positive thinking and existential courage.

Systematic positive thinking began, in the nineteenth century, among a diverse and fascinating collection of philosophers, mystics, lay healers, and middle-class women. By the twentieth century, though, it had gone mainstream, gaining purchase within such powerful belief systems as nationalism and also doing its best to make itself indispensable to capitalism. We don’t usually talk about American nationalism, but it is a mark of how deep it runs that we apply the word "nationalism" to Serbs, Russians, and others, while believing ourselves to possess a uniquely superior version called "patriotism." A central tenet of American nationalism has been the belief that the United States is "the greatest nation on earth"—more dynamic, democratic, and prosperous than any other nation, as well as technologically superior. Major religious leaders, especially on the Christian right, buttress this conceit with the notion that Americans are God’s chosen people and that America is the designated leader of the world—an idea that seemed to find vivid reinforcement in the fall of Communism and our emergence as the world’s "lone superpower." That acute British observer Godfrey Hodgson has written that the American sense of exceptionalism, which once was "idealistic and generous, if somewhat solipsistic," has become "harder, more hubristic." Paul Krugman responded to the prevailing smugness in a 1998 essay entitled "American the Boastful," warning that "if pride goeth before a fall, the United States has one heck of a come-uppance in store."5

But of course it takes the effort of positive thinking to imagine that America is the "best" or the "greatest." Militarily, yes, we are the mightiest nation on earth. But on many other fronts, the American score is dismal, and was dismal even before the economic downturn that began in 2007. Our children routinely turn out to be more ignorant of basic subjects like math and geography than their counterparts in other industrialized nations. They are also more likely to die in infancy or grow up in poverty. Almost everyone acknowledges that our health care system is "broken" and our physical infrastructure crumbling. We have lost so much of our edge in science and technology that American companies have even begun to outsource their research and development efforts. Worse, some of the measures by which we do lead the world should inspire embarrassment rather than pride: We have the highest percentage of our population incarcerated, and the greatest level of inequality in wealth and income. We are plagued by gun violence and racked by personal debt.

While positive thinking has reinforced and found reinforcement in American national pride, it has also entered into a kind of symbiotic relationship with American capitalism. There is no natural, innate affinity between capitalism and positive thinking. In fact, one of the classics of sociology, Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, makes a still impressive case for capitalism’s roots in the grim and punitive outlook of Calvinist Protestantism, which required people to defer gratification and resist all pleasurable temptations in favor of hard work and the accumulation of wealth.

But 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. The consumer culture encourages individuals to want more—cars, larger homes, television sets, cell phones, gadgets of all kinds—and positive thinking is ready at hand to tell them they deserve more and can have it if they really want it and are willing to make the effort to get it. Meanwhile, in a competitive business world, the companies that manufacture these goods and provide the paychecks that purchase them have no alternative but to grow. If you don’t steadily increase market share and profits, you risk being driven out of business or swallowed by a larger enterprise. 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.

In addition, positive thinking has made itself useful as an apology for the crueler aspects of the market economy. If optimism is the key to material success, and if you can achieve an optimistic outlook through the discipline of positive thinking, then there is no excuse for failure. The flip side of positivity is thus a harsh insistence on personal responsibility: if your business fails or your job is eliminated, it must because you didn’t try hard enough, didn’t believe firmly enough in the inevitability of your success. As the economy has brought more layoffs and financial turbulence to the middle class, the promoters of positive thinking have increasingly emphasized this negative judgment: to be disappointed, resentful, or downcast is to be a "victim" and a "whiner."

But positive thinking is not only a water carrier for the business world, excusing its excesses and masking its follies. The promotion of positive thinking has become a minor industry in its own right, producing an endless flow of books, DVDs, and other products; providing employment for tens of thousands of "life coaches," "executive coaches," and motivational speakers, as well as for the growing cadre of professional psychologists who seek to train them. No doubt the growing financial insecurity of the middle class contributes to the demand for these products and services, but I hesitate to attribute the commercial success of positive thinking to any particular economic trend or twist of the business cycle. America has historically offered space for all sorts of sects, cults, faith healers, and purveyors of snake oil, and those that are profitable, like positive thinking, tend to flourish.

At the turn of the twenty-first century, American optimism seemed to reach a manic crescendo. In his final State of Union address in 2000, Bill Clinton struck a triumphal note, proclaiming that "never before has our nation enjoyed, at once, so much prosperity and social progress with so little internal crisis and so few external threats." But compared with his successor, Clinton seemed almost morose. George W. Bush had been a cheerleader in prep school, and cheerleading— a distinctly American innovation— could be considered the athletically inclined ancestor of so much of the coaching and "motivating" that has gone into the propagation of positive thinking. He took the presidency as an opportunity to continue in that line of work, defining his job as that of inspiring confidence, dispelling doubts, and pumping up the national spirit of self-congratulation. If he repeatedly laid claim to a single adjective, it was "optimistic." On the occasion of his sixtieth birthday, he told reporters he was "optimistic" about a variety of foreign policy challenges, offering as an overview, "I’m optimistic that all problems will be solved." Nor did he brook any doubts or hesitations among his close advisers. According to Bob Woodward, Condoleezza Rice failed to express some of her worries because, she said, "the president almost demanded optimism. He didn’t like pessimism, hand-wringing or doubt." 6

Then things began to go wrong, which is not in itself unusual but was a possibility excluded by America’s official belief that things are good and getting better. There was the dot-com bust that began a few months after Clinton’s declaration of unprecedented prosperity in his final State of the Union address, then the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001. Furthermore, things began to go wrong in a way that suggested that positive thinking might not guarantee success after all, that it might in fact dim our ability to fend off real threats. In her remarkable book, Never Saw It Coming: Cultural Challenges to Envisioning the Worst, sociologist Karen Cerulo recounts a number of ways that the habit of positive thinking, or what she calls optimistic bias, undermined preparedness and invited disaster. She quotes Newsweek reporters Michael Hirsch and Michael Isikoff, for example, in their conclusion that "a whole summer of missed clues, taken together, seemed to presage the terrible September of 2001."7 There had already been a terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in 1993; there were ample warnings, in the summer of 2001, about a possible attack by airplane, and flight schools reported suspicious students like the one who wanted to learn how to "fl y a plane but didn’t care about landing and takeoff ." The fact that no one—the FBI, the INS, Bush, or Rice—heeded these disturbing cues was later attributed to a "failure of imagination." But actually there was plenty of imagination at work—imagining an invulnerable nation and an ever-booming economy—there was simply no ability or inclination to imagine the worst.

A similar reckless optimism pervaded the American invasion of Iraq. Warnings about possible Iraqi resistance were swept aside by leaders who promised a "cakewalk" and envisioned cheering locals greeting our troops with flowers. Likewise, Hurricane Katrina was not exactly an unanticipated disaster. In 2002, the New Orleans Times- Picayune ran a Pulitzer Prize–winning series warning that the city’s levees could not protect it against the storm surge brought on by a category 4 or 5 hurricane. In 2001, Scientific American had issued a similar warning about the city’s vulnerability.8 Even when the hurricane struck and levees broke, no alarm bells went off in Washington, and when a New Orleans FEMA official sent a panicky e-mail to FEMA director Michael Brown, alerting him to the rising number of deaths and a shortage of food in the drowning city, he was told that Brown would need an hour to eat his dinner in a Baton Rouge restaurant.9 Criminal negligence or another "failure of imagination"? The truth is that Americans had been working hard for decades to school themselves in the techniques of positive thinking, and these included the reflexive capacity for dismissing disturbing news.

The biggest "come-uppance," to use Krugman’s term, has so far been the financial meltdown of 2007 and the ensuing economic crisis. By the late first decade of the twenty-first century, as we shall see in the chapters that follow, positive thinking had become ubiquitous and virtually unchallenged in American culture. It was promoted on some of the most widely watched talk shows, like Larry King Live and the Oprah Winfrey Show; it was the stuff of runaway best sellers like the 2006 book The Secret; it had been adopted as the theology of America’s most successful evangelical preachers; it found a place in medicine as a potential adjuvant to the treatment of almost any disease. It had even penetrated the academy in the form of the new discipline of "positive psychology," offering courses teaching students to pump up their optimism and nurture their positive feelings. And its reach was growing global, first in the Anglophone countries and soon in the rising economies of China, South Korea, and India.

But nowhere did it find a warmer welcome than in American business, which is, of course, also global business. To the extent that positive thinking had become a business itself, business was its principal client, eagerly consuming the good news that all things are possible through an effort of mind. This was a useful message for employees, who by the turn of the twenty-first century were being required to work longer hours for fewer benefits and diminishing job security. But it was also a liberating ideology for top-level executives. What was the point in agonizing over balance sheets and tedious analyses of risks—and why bother worrying about dizzying levels of debt and exposure to potential defaults—when all good things come to those who are optimistic enough to expect them?

I do not write this in a spirit of sourness or personal disappointment of any kind, nor do I have any romantic attachment to suffering as a source of insight or virtue. On the contrary, I would like to see more smiles, more laughter, more hugs, more happiness and, better yet, joy. In my own vision of utopia, there is not only more comfort, and security for everyone— better jobs, health care, and so forth—there are also more parties, festivities, and opportunities for dancing in the streets. Once our basic material needs are met—in my utopia, anyway—life becomes a perpetual celebration in which everyone has a talent to contribute. But we cannot levitate ourselves into that blessed condition by wishing it. We need to brace ourselves for a struggle against terrifying obstacles, both of our own making and imposed by the natural world. And the first step is to recover from the mass delusion that is positive thinking.

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Table of Contents

Introduction 1

Smile or Die: The Bright Side of Cancer 15

The Years of Magical Thinking 45

The Dark Roots of American Optimism 74

Motivating Business and the Business of Motivation 97

God Wants You to Be Rich 123

Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness 147

How Positive Thinking Destroyed the Economy 177

Postscript on Post– Positive Thinking 195

Notes 207

Acknowledgments 223

Index 227

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 54 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 54 Customer Reviews
  • Posted May 14, 2010

    Obvious Arguments Against the Power of Positive Thinking

    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.

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 27, 2009

    Happy Faces: Get Real!

    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.

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 8, 2010

    Brave stand -- but harsh on faith

    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.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 20, 2010

    Readable but not worth the time.

    Like Ehrenreich's other books, this one is very readable and moves quickly. Unlike her other books, this one was not enjoyable. Ehrenreich seems to have decided to write a 200-page rant instead of a more thoroughly researched piece that adds insight. She seems to have left no room for any balance which makes the books very lopsided and hard to finish.

    2 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 28, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Barbara Ehrenreich. Bright-sided. How the relentless promotion of positive thinking undermines America.

    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 oldpossumsbookreview.blogspot.com

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 25, 2013

    Find a male wolf at..

    Yo mama's house

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 25, 2013

    A large white female

    A large white female wolf walked in. Her pu.ssy was beautiful, wet and juicy. "I want a female to eat out my pu.ssy! There's nothin better and if you do I'll eat out yours for you!" She days with a h.orny look in her eyes.

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 23, 2013

    Goldeshine

    Pads in looking ho r n y

    0 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 23, 2013

    Flash

    I think u already r......

    0 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 25, 2013

    Male

    Leaves

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 6, 2013

    Silver

    I wanna spam sanwich at yo mammas house bang bang

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 21, 2013

    To Bloodshred

    A golden she wolf ( alpha ) says,"you called me?"

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 25, 2013

    White Wolf

    She whines in pleasure and paws at you.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 20, 2013

    Red

    Il take all you hrny girls!

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 21, 2013

    To the golden she

    Im an alpha too babe

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 26, 2013

    To White Wolf

    He mounts you and starts fu.ck.in.g you harshly.

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 4, 2012

    BlueBellkit's hole in the ice

    ?..

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 31, 2011

    liked the words, hated the end-notes

    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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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 30, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted July 12, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

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