Always stay on the bright side of life.-Monty Python
Late last October I came across a review in my local newspaper The Oregonian of Barbara Ehrenriech’s book Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. Prior to reading the review I’d heard good things about her previous books Nickel and Dimed and Bait and Switch. So, when I happened to spot a copy of Bright-Sided during one of my frequent visits to the public library needless to say I was intrigued. On closer inspection, I noticed endorsements from Michael Shermer, Christopher Hitchens and Thomas Frank. Encouraged by all of this, I decided to grab it. I’m glad I did. I found Ehrenreich’s book to be nice breath of fresh air from the positive thinking hogwash we’ve been subjected to over the last decade or so.
While many folks might consider Bright-Sided as simply a piece of extended journalism, I on the other hand would classify it as one of those “big picture” kind of books like The Tipping Point, Freakonomics and The Logic of Life since the subject matter discussed in Bright-Sided has near universal relevance, impacting far more individuals than just the personalities interviewed in this book. Plus, by showing the reader the historical origins of positive thinking as a reaction against the pessimistic Calvinist mindset pervasive in early America and its subsequent evolutionary development over the years, Ehrenreich treats the subject matter in a deeper historical context that one would not find in most works of journalism.
Bright-Sided covers a wide world of irrational positive thinking, starting with the misguided notion that individuals can influence certain aspects of the physical universe, such as defeating cancer, losing weight or conquering any other road blocks to physical well-being. From there, Ehrenreich, quietly and efficiently examines how others have promoted positive thinking as a means to achieve personal success and fortune by critically examining such phenomena like The Secret, the prosperity gospel and 2004 New Age docudrama and hijack of quantum physics What the Bleep Do We Know ?
Sadly according to Ehrenreich, the problem of misapplied positive thinking goes beyond such personal matters like weight loss or attracting the ideal mate. Billions of dollars are spent each year by corporate America on seminars, speakers’ fees and instructional materials as an opiate to create a more cheerful and pliant workforce as it’s beset by wide-spread lay-offs and shrinking paychecks in this world of economic uncertainty. Meanwhile at the top, corporate leaders are prized for making quick and impulsive decisions based not on hard evidence or empirical reasoning but solely on “feeling”- sometimes spurred on by their personal “life coach” or other high-paid professional guru. On many levels, even the recent sub prime crises could be seen as failure of some inside and outside the financial industries to act realistically and not succumb to temptations of reckless wishful thinking.
Bright-Sided is a subtle yet thought-provoking book. A little positive thinking is nice and given the tough world we live in, probably more than a bit necessary. But even too much of a good thing can ultimately be a bad thing. By showing us the risks of vacuous positive thinking, Ehrenreich’s book does a nice job teaching us why we shouldn’t always be walking around wearing rose-colored glasses.