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Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America by Barbara Ehrenreich

Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America is a funny and poignant book examining America’s obsession with positive thinking. In it Ehrenreich not only details her own experiences with the positive-thinking movement, but delves into its history and evolution.

The book begins with Ehrenreich’s diagnosis of breast cancer in 2000 and her personal experience with the “pink ribbon culture” surrounding the disease. In this incessantly upbeat culture, fear and anger are not tolerated; only optimism is acceptable. Cancer is viewed as an opportunity, even a gift.

Ehrenreich explores this world in various ways. She touches on the crass consumerism of the “pink ribbon culture” (you would not believe some of the products that are being pinked and sold in the name of breast cancer research). She explains the prevailing mindset that being positive will help you feel better and even cure you more quickly (mind over matter). She then proceeds to debunk this long-standing myth with the relevant psychological studies; previous studies declaring a link between positive thinking and cancer survival are replete with problems and have been discounted by most researchers.

And she goes one step further, proposing that this culture of positivity may in some cases make women feel worse. If they don’t feel positively about their cancer, if they are in fact scared, sad, and angry, they are made to feel guilty and ashamed for feeling the wrong way. The patient is left to feel that since they have negative thoughts, they must be partly to blame for their illness.

Why do Americans discount reality, facts, and science in favour of magical thinking? Ehrenreich takes us through the history and reach of the positive-thinking movement. She begins at its inception with the New Thought Movement, which may itself have been a response to Calvinism’s bludgeoning pessimism. The New Thought Movement is the group of people who invented the ‘law of attraction,’ which has recently been re-discovered and re-packaged in the best-selling books and videos, The Secret. From there she discusses famous mid-20th-century positive-thinkers like Norman Vincent Peale and Dale Carnegie (author of How to Win Friends and Influence People). She ends with the current state of affairs, from Oprah Winfrey and The Secret to practitioners, motivational speakers, preachers, and hucksters who make a living off of telling people to think positively.

The author attends the National Speakers Association conference in San Diego, which contains all manner of woo. After listening to a lot of what Nobel physicist Murray Gell-Mann called ‘quantum flapdoodle,’ Ehrenreich addresses her concerns to one of the speakers, a life coach. In a funny and biting tone, she writes:

“After I summarized my discomfort with all the fake quantum physics in a couple of sentences, she gave me a kindly therapeutic look and asked, ‘You mean it doesn’t work for you?’ […] If science is something you can accept or reject on the basis of personal tastes, then what kind of reality did she and I share? If it ‘worked for me’ to say that the sun rises in the west, would she be willing to go along with that…?”

Today the relentless and often harmful culture of positivity permeates the world of disease, the business world (a very interesting chapter; at one point employees in a seminar chant, “I feel healthy, I feel happy, I feel terrific!”), religion (pastors at mega-churches are essentially motivational speakers declaring that God wants believers to be rich), and even science. Ehrenreich argues that the field of Positive Psychology (yes, that’s a field — there’s even a Journal of Happiness Studies) does not seek to understand and improve social ills, but bolsters the status quo by concluding that how cheerfully one views their circumstances directly relates to how happy one is. Which is to say, if you’ve been laid off and are feeling down, it’s because you’re not viewing your new-found unemployment as an opportunity. If you live in poverty and are feeling oppressed, it’s because you’re not viewing your circumstances as an opportunity to pull yourself up by your boot-straps and show the world that you have what it takes to get through it.

Bright-sided exposes the myth (a la The Secret) that people create their own circumstances, and that if bad things happen to you it’s because you were thinking negatively. As the purveyors of positive thinking and positive psychology would have you think, the only thing keeping you from having a good life is your negative attitude. Therefore, you are to blame for anything bad that happens in your life. This, Ehrenreich believes, is not only hackneyed, but dangerous because it leads to a form of denial that actually stunts social progress. If one’s thoughts are the causes of outcomes, then little else need be studied.

Do not misunderstand the basis of this book. While it has its share of snark, sarcasm, and humour, this is not a cynical or sardonic book. Ehrenreich is not damning happiness or hopefulness; rather she is exposing the almost religiosity with which people preach positive thinking while exposing its downsides. She allows that happy, positive people are more likely to make friends and be successful in business because of their upbeat personalities. But this is very different from the magical thinking that positive thought can lead to a better life regardless of one’s circumstances.

To conclude, here is another excerpt from the end of the book, which readers of this newsletter will likely cheer:

“This is the project of science: to pool the rigorous observations of many people into a tentative accounting of the world, which will of course always be subject to revisions arising from fresh observations… All the basic technologies ever invented by humans to feed and protect themselves depend on a relentless commitment to hard-nosed empiricism: you cannot assume that your arrowheads will pierce the hide of the bison or that your raft will float just because the omens are propitious and you have been given supernatural assurance that they will. You have to be sure.”

7 responses to “Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America by Barbara Ehrenreich”

  1. Chaos Cunt says:

    In response to MK;
    I hate to break the news to you, but…psychology IS bullshit. Pure and unadulterated bullshit; conjecture and guesswork and nothing more. If that was the point of her book, then Ehrenreich hit the nail right on the head. Your review has convinced me to buy the book, thank you!

  2. Patricia Farrow says:

    S**t happens–We’re born to abusive parents, live in poverty, have unfaithful spouses, have a child who dies, get cancer. That’s reality. It can be a very empowering moment when someone realizes that they can choose how they are going to experience that life event or deal with that situation. As thinking beings we can choose to get lost in the morass of fear, hate, self-pity and other “negative” emotions or we can choose to replace those with proactive, inspiring, life-affirming emotions. There is a huge difference between the Law of Attraction and Abram-Hicks theories and Cognitive Psychology or CBT. Anyone who doubts that is ignoring the evidence in practice and vastly underestimating the power of the human will. Ehrenreich’s book seems to be throwing the baby out with the bath water–perhaps in an emotional reaction to her own life experience with cancer. Give her a break; she’s only human.

  3. […] for a architects? Sure. Scientific, effective, value a weight in book prices and convention fees? Not during all. In fact, a supposed energy of certain meditative transformation is not only lacking in a […]

  4. Rainer Weber says:

    I did not read the book. But what I read in your synopsis leads me to believe that I am in substantial agreement with Barbara Ehrenreich about the fallacy of positive thinking especially widespread in the US. As far as the criticism by MK goes: I don’t think throwing around with accusations like

    “She is a quack. Her book is quackery.”

    contributes much to the issue of the dangers inherent in positive thinking, namely the illusion that we create our own reality and the rat’s tail of misconceptions and unnecessary suffering that come with it. I very much agree with Ken Wilber on that: we don’t create our own reality, psychotics do. If anything, we co-create our reality.

    Accusing Ehrenreich of ideology and denigrating cognitive psychology seems to me missing the point: the loud and clear danger of the reductionist mind set and world view of positive thinking.

  5. mplax says:

    Chris Hedges has some great comments about the “positive thinking” movement in his recent Cspan interview (

  6. MK says:

    Bright-Sided is a *horrible* book. It’s a bait and switch con job, and if it suckered you in, you need to step back and re-examine your critical thinking skills.

    The book starts off by attacking something that is patently unreasonable, and then once it has you nodding your head in agreement, it switches to attacking cognitive psychology. And make no mistake, Ehrenreich isn’t attacking positive psychology — she’s attacking *cognitive* psychology through positive psychology, which is a subset of the field.

    Ehrenreich is a classic 1960s liberal. Behaviorism and cultural determinism underpin the entire philosophical framework of the old-school left, and she is a student of that nonsense. You take Ehrenreich at face value, instead of considering her ideological motives. She is a quack. Her book is quackery.

    Bright-sided carries two implicit messages:

    1. Cognitive psychology is bullshit
    2. Our mental states and behaviors are better explained by environmental and cultural factors.

    That’s what her book is about. That’s the subtext. That’s what you get if you actually bother to follow her arguments to their natural conclusions.

    “People have no self-control, their behaviors and mental states are determined by their environment, and if people are unhappy jerks, it’s because they live in unhappy environments. Society made them that way.”

    Psychology was held back immensely by behaviorism and cultural determinism. Paul Ekman was afraid of publishing his work on facial expressions because it went against the idea that emotions are cultural, and that there are no human universals. He wasn’t alone in his fears. For decades, researchers and professors were blacklisted if they didn’t toe the party line. Martin Seligman, who Ehrenreich savages in her book, played a huge role in wrestling control of psychology away from the determinists and behaviorists. Ehrenreich knows this. I suspect that’s the real reason she showers him with so much contempt.

    Bright-Sided pretends to be a polemic against positive thinking, but it’s really a polemic against the existence of universal principles in psychology. For Ehrenreich, cognitive psychology has no basis.

  7. My sister read this book and she loved it! I will have to take a look at this and check it out! There is nothing hearing others living a positive lifestyle. Thats how everyone should live. Thanks for sharing!

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