Book Review: Bright-Sided. How the relentless promotion of positive thinking has undermined America

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Barbara Ehrenreich examines dangerous flaws in America’s thinking

Bright-Sided. How the relentless promotion of positive thinking has undermined America by Barbara Ehrenreich. Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2009

The author of “Nickel and Dimed” and fifteen other socially conscious books dares to attack the preachers and hucksters of “feel good” America, and she does it successfully. For some, her steely iconoclasm might be hard to take at first. Almost gleefully, she reveals that preachers lie, God doesn’t necessarily want you to be wealthy, losing your job is not necessarily the best thing that every happened to you, and that pleasant thoughts will not cure cancer.

In other words, positive thinking as expounded by Norman Vincent Peale (Power of Positive Thinking), Mary Baker Eddy (Christian Science), televangelists, and the Human Resources expert in charge of layoffs is a crock. Further, all of them are essentially working for the bosses who owe their own happy thoughts to material comfort and to their confidence in their ability to pay somebody to manipulate the rest of us into a world of delusions.

The big lie of positive thinking is so pervasive that it would be difficult to read through Ehrenreich’s book without thinking of some of our own misconceptions. Do we sing with sincerity, “Dream, and it might come true…”, “Pretend you’re happy when you’re blue…”, and “Put on a happy face…”?

If we leave the TV on while reading, we’ll probably notice dozens of examples leaping right off Ehrenreich’s pages onto our television screen! All of the religion spokespersons, all of the commercials, most of the dramatic content, and much of the news promotes the same “don’t worry, be happy” misguidance.

Ehrenreich is right on, and the book has considerable value. But criticisms come to mind as well. A damaging lack in Ehrenreich’s work against positive thinking is that it doesn’t go nearly far enough. She doesn’t emphasize the millions (billions?) of dollars being spent to buy “scholars,” “newspaper columnists,” and “think tank experts.” Modern society is not merely seduced by the positive thinking preachers and gurus, the bosses actually drives us into a false philosophy much larger and stronger than that – idealism as opposed to scientific materialism. Idealists make easy victims for positive thinking hucksters and the bosses who guide them. Check out materialism versus idealism.

1 comment
  1. I have not read Ehrenreich’s book yet. However, I agree with Lantz’s point that “modern society is not merely seduced by the positive thinking preachers and gurus…” There is at play a much larger and deeper cultural and social dynamics which “drives us into a false philosophy,” a false conception, a superficial and false understanding of reality. It looks that behind this entire “feel good,” this false happiness, is the aim for avoiding the real happiness; for preventing an objective understanding of reality. This “feel good” America is the easiest and cheapest way out from the so called “American pragmatism.” Pragmatism that means: this is what we got; we can’t change it… so, it’s best to work within what we got. I see this deceiving “feel good” America in the psychological core of the epidemic irrational violence in modern American society.

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