Bright-sided: Book summary and reviews of Bright-sided by Barbara Ehrenreich

Bright-sided

How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America

By Barbara Ehrenreich

Bright-sided
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  • Published in USA  Oct 2009,
    256 pages.

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Book Summary

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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Reviews

Media Reviews


BookBrowse Review - Amy Reading
Barbara Ehrenreich is definitely onto something with Bright-Sided, a breezy survey of positive thinking as espoused by those in psychology, business, cancer recovery, mega-churches, and most messianically, self-help books. Her naturally skeptical mind lances right through the heart of this doctrine to find its central paradoxes. Positive thinkers believe that the world is only going to get better, yet they also discipline themselves to only think positive thoughts in order to help bring that world about, thus admitting a deep anxiety and a need for self-deception about the state of reality. Ehrenreich is at her best when she argues that positive thinking prevents other emotions necessary for progress and prosperity, such as outrage, empathy, and conviction. She personally embodies this argument in the first chapter, in which takes her readers along for her own ride through breast cancer and its syrupy culture of pink-ribboned optimism.

Ehrenreich goes out of her way to state that she does not write the book in "a spirit of sourness or personal disappointment," but what she does not acknowledge is the condescension that powers her argument against positive thinking. For a thinker who has distinguished herself with her theory and reporting on American class, this is an upsetting tone to take. Positive thinking likely appeals to a very specific demographic, a less-educated one for whom doubt and skepticism are not paramount values. Ehrenreich is very clear how she feels about this lack of critical thinking: she feels as if whole swathes of people have let themselves be brainwashed by the positive thinking gurus, quite against their own best self-interests. But it never occurs to her to ask those people how they perceive their own self-interests and why this philosophy has so compelled them. She simply assumes her readers will agree with her that such thinking is déclassé.

Bright-Sided began life as two essays for Harper's ("Welcome to Cancerland" and "Pathologies of Hope" (only available to subscribers) but the book does not thicken those essays with sympathetic analysis or substantive history. This is, alas, Ehrenreich-lite and she leaves much more to be said on a timely and compelling topic.

Other Reviews
"Starred Review. Building on Max Weber's insights into the relationship between Calvinism and capitalism, Ehrenreich [invesitigates] today's secular $9.6 billion self-improvement industry and positive psychology institutes." - Publishers Weekly

"Bright, incisive, provocative thinking from a top-notch nonfiction writer." - Kirkus Reviews

"Starred Review." - Booklist

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Author Information

Barbara Ehrenreich Author Biography

Barbara Ehrenreich is the author of thirteen books, including the New York Times bestseller Nickel and Dimed. She is a frequent contributor to the New York Times, Harpers, and the Progressive, as well as a contributing writer to Time magazine. She lives in Florida.

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