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Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America | [Barbara Ehrenreich]

Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America

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 19th-century healing technique to its enshrinement as a dominant, almost mandatory, cultural attitude.
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Audible Editor Reviews

Liberal essayist Barbara Ehrenreich has been cranking out a fresh book on some aspect of the follies and failings in American social justice every few years since 1969. Twenty books later, she brings us this gem addressing the perils of positive thinking. Named a "Voice of the Century" by AudioFile magazine, Kate Reading has given voice to well over a hundred books and is one of Audible's featured narrators. This is Reading's first time at bat with Ehrenreich's work, and predictably, she knocks it out of the park.

The majority of Ehrenreich's books tend to focus on a large institution or systemic national problem, such as health care or concerns of the middle class. Bright-sided tackles the increasingly fashionable idea that "the power of positive thinking" can guide Americans through any type of crisis. Unlike some of her previous work, this book aligns all of Ehrenreich's interests and brings each facet of her expertise to bear on one very nebulous and fluffy opponent. Across this shady and shifting psychological battlefield, Reading keeps up every step of the way. Her tone is terrifically authoritative and methodical in the opening chapters where Ehrenreich uses her degree in microbiology to knock down the pseudoscientific studies and rationales for promoting optimism one by one. Reading softens the critical edge without getting overly syrupy when Ehrenreich moves into her more personal anecdotes about struggling to defeat breast cancer without the aid of cheerfulness.

Where both author and narrator really shine is the second half of the book, which attacks the three-headed zombie of academic, religious, and economic blindness created by this new culture of "optimism at all costs". Reading's witty account of Ehrenreich's reluctant participation in a set of terrifyingly solipsistic corporate motivation seminars is laugh-out-loud funny. Her sly report of the author's attempt to interview one of the most renowned psychologists in the positive thinking industry and her indignant take on the author's visitation to an evangelical mega-church will leave your blood boiling. After all the piling up of mortgage defaults and other assorted hardships that stem from too much happy talk and not enough material consideration, Ehrenreich's call to vigilant realism is as inevitable as it is refreshing. Kate Reading's crafty rendering of Ehrenreich's latest myth-busting book is sure to lift the spirits of all who feel guilty for finding little to smile about in these uncertain times. —Megan Volpert

Publisher's Summary

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 19th-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.

©2009 Barbara Ehrenreich; (P)2009 Macmillan Audio

What the Critics Say

"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)
"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)

What Members Say

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  •  
    Dave San Jose, CA, United States 11-03-09
    Dave San Jose, CA, United States 11-03-09 Member Since 2004
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    "Great research"

    At times when listening to this book I wonder who Barbara Ehrenreich is trying to impress. Some sentences are packed full of impressive-sounding words which would be great for a game of Scrabble but give her tone a lofty and pedantic air.

    That being said, I love some of the history uncovered by the book and found it to be a great tempering to the extremism of "positive thinking" I've encountered with some people.

    0 of 3 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Tomas Vastervik, Sweden 04-01-11
    Tomas Vastervik, Sweden 04-01-11
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    "Not what the title says it is"

    In her eager to spread her dislike of positive thinking, the author doesn't follow her own advice to "look at the world the way it is". As "typical positive thinkers" she takes extremists in the religion and among motivational speakers who have found a way to make big money of the human weakness of hunger for money without effort.
    The title of the book is misleading, because what she mostly writes about is "The Law of Attraction", the belief held by some that money and success comes from pure wishing. And to make the conclusion that the financial crisis and the fall of Lehmann Brothers was caused by positive thinking seems to me a mix-up of positive thinking with the human weakness called greed.
    To talk about "see the world as it is" I find a bit presumptuos. Is there any "the world as it is"? Doesn't that depend on if you are an american or an african? Or if you ask a christian or a muslim?
    I expected more of this book, and even if the author spent a lot of time trying to find historical evidence about the consequences of positive thinking, it was too evident that the purpose was only to support her own purpose of miscrediting positiveness in society.
    If criticizing a phenomenon like positive thinking, an alternative way of thinking or acting is expected. Nothing of that came out as a result of this book.

    4 of 7 people found this review helpful
  •  
    ro_runner 07-30-14
    ro_runner 07-30-14 Member Since 2013
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    "Well done!"
    Would you be willing to try another book from Barbara Ehrenreich? Why or why not?

    I always learn something new when I read Barbara Ehrenreich. All of her books make my "to read" list.


    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Red Emma Seattle, WA USA 03-05-13
    Red Emma Seattle, WA USA 03-05-13 Member Since 2009
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    "Thank goodness!"
    Any additional comments?

    I stumbled on this in the midst of some really trying circumstances in my life where everyone kept telling me I just had to "stay positive" and employ what I have now adopted as referring to as "magical thinking" (aka "The Secret") to make things work out. Although I am a firm believer that kvetching about something often doesn't help to achieve anything positive, I also think everyone trying convince themselves and others that crappy situations have someone been caused by their "bad" thinking is oppressive and wrong. Thank you, Ms. Ehrenreich, for informing us about the history of this movement in America and being brave enough to keep a critical mind when doing so gets you lambasted for being an "eeyore".

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Winston D. Jen 12-24-12 Member Since 2008
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    "Norman Peale was a Charlatan; Thanks You Barbara!!"

    Barbara's fractally correct in every possible way here; one simply *cannot* choose to be happy. We would all be better off if we dismissed this blatant lie touted by Norman Vincent Peale. In her introduction, she addresses and clarifies the difference between hope (a natural, involuntary emotion we feel when things appear to be going our way, or, at the very least, appear to be improving) and optimism (a state of mind that can be cultivated through sufficient practice and expensive positivity seminars and/or prosperity gospel sermons). This is crucial - the positive charlatans of recent decades advocate forced optimism, not realistic, spontaneous, justified hope. This, obviously, would explain why on most happiness metrics, despite having a reputation has a "positive" country, the US scores deplorably. With an obscenely high poverty rate and prison population, this is hardly news to anyone living outside a cave. And, as Barbara astutely notes, positivity only works when it is not forced. Trying to impose happiness on oneself only leads to bitterness and a desire to rush home and switch off the Optimism Switch in one's head, for the culture of the US has been so polluted by positive thinking that many feel the only place they can be themselves (and realistic and/or pessimistic) is outside the gaze of others.

    She shows how right-wing demagogues often cite pithy positive thinking platitudes as an attempt to blame those in perpetual poverty. And as we all know, those who fail to "will" the cancer away are never the subject of happy positive thinking books. And perhaps worst of all, positive thinking removes all motivation to improve societies and living conditions. External conditions are almost always dismissed by these gurus and charlatans.

    Reading Smile or Die, I was reminded of a horribly callous sermon in Japan, where the pastor extolled the benefits of frugality and unequivocally spoke out against materialism. For his example du jour, he cited victims of the Haiti earthquake and how "happy" they were. Really? Is that the best they can do? If I lost everything and everyone I held dear in an earthquake, smiling might be the only way I could cope. It most certainly would not be a sign of happiness or satisfaction after going through such a grueling natural disaster.

    Positive thinking has a horrible dark side that would lead to the instant dismissal of any doctor who prescribed positivity in lieu of radiotherapy for cancer. As anyone with any experience with the bile that Pollyannas spew forth on a daily basis, one of their implied mantras is "if you fail, it's your own fault." Spare me, please. On a personal note, I particularly enjoyed Barbara's mention of the Despair website, built around the idea of counter-optimism with its Demotivational line of posters, mugs, plaques, etc.

    The author's research is impeccable. She unearths the deadly, fatalistic roots of positive thinking that came from the Calvinist branch of Christianity. Every word is enlightening and well worth reading.

    Barbara ends this book with a clarion call to reason, citing some of the most cruel, heartless and ignorant consequences of positive thinking, including that of Rhonda Byrne, who claimed that tsunamis could only happen to those who are "on the same frequency as the event."

    Everyone who has been deceived by positivity listen to read this book.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Richard Newquist Neptune Beach, FL, United States 09-22-12
    Richard Newquist Neptune Beach, FL, United States 09-22-12

    Audio books are GREAT! Audible makes it easier, faster and cheaper to enjoy them.

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    "Important Book Well Worth The Time And Money"
    Would you listen to Bright-sided again? Why?

    I thought the book was so good I've already listened to it three times just so I could get the many nuanced observations made by the author. The book is very 'literate' meaning she uses a higher level of vocabulary and, as an Audible book, requires some careful listening to get the details of the very rich content. I'll probably listen to it again.


    What was one of the most memorable moments of Bright-sided?

    If the reader (listener) pays attention, the book is excellent all the way through. It starts with an overview of positive thinking then moves into several scenarios where relentless positive thinking is force-fed to us not-so-aware citizens of American society. It starts with the author's own experience with breast cancer and her total immersion into the world of positive thinking. The narrative moves on to the 19th century origins of positive thinking and explains how positive thinking invaded the very social fabric of today. She shows us how positive thinking is so ubiquitous that we are barely aware of it's power to control and shape our individual lives up to and including entire societies.This book is truly an amazing research project and I think the author is brilliant in her analysis of the data and her conclusions. This is stuff I have never even contemplated. I accepted the positive thinking mantras in all their glorious presentations without thinking. My own brother has lung cancer and he is going through a lot of the same positive thinking exposure that the author did.


    What does Kate Reading bring to the story that you wouldn’t experience if you just read the book?

    Kate Reading (she reads the book and that's her name) does a fantastic job of presenting the audible version of the book. Her voice is clear and pronunciation succinct. She gets the right inflection and puts emphasis where the author would want it. I think her reading of the book made a somewhat complex subject with lots of ideas, flow very nicely for the human ear to easily absorb. She's great! I will look for her name on future Audible books that I buy. She literally made the book come alive.


    If you were to make a film of this book, what would be the tag line be?

    Mass hypnosis...how society molds its citizens.


    Any additional comments?

    The book is a super example of a massive research project with the data analyzed through the brain of an obviously extremely bright author, Barbara Eherenreich. Read (listen to) the book...its worth it!!

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Marsha L. Woerner Chicago area 07-29-12
    Marsha L. Woerner Chicago area 07-29-12 Member Since 2005

    Mother and catlover

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    "Is a positive attitude that be all and end all?"
    What did you love best about Bright-sided?

    I've gotten so tired of being told that everything depends on attitude. It was very, very, nice to hear someone saying that there is more to life than that!


    Any additional comments?

    Does money buy happiness/positive thinking? Does happiness/positive thinking attract money? This was a very good book, challenging the idea that happiness and positive thinking are the be-all and end-all in the cause of good things. It points out that a lot of the “positive thinking” agenda basically blames the victim for anything that happens negatively. It challenges everything from religion to health to economics and how “positive thinking” is used to salve people's beliefs into thee feeling that they are responsible for any undesirable outcomes simply because they did not think positive enough. I personally found the section on “positive thinking” and happiness affecting health. When I was in college, I wrote a paper on “health and happiness”, but I approached it from the realm of good health CAUSING happiness, not the other way around. Clearly, the whole “positive attitude” thing is trying to turn it on its head. I now realize that numbers have nothing to do with causality! Similarly, all studies that appeared to point out that thinking good thoughts CAUSES good health does not show any such thing. She spent a little too much time on religion and religious thoughts, as well as “teambuilding”, but overall I think it was a very good book. And it was really REALLY good if you're someone saying that thinking good things is not the be-all and end-all!!

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Daryl United States 01-08-12
    Daryl United States 01-08-12 Member Since 2011
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    "Worthwhile"

    Although unfortunately negative in that the book is critical, the thesis is right on the money. Honest, critical thinking, ... yes, even negative thinking, is the yang without which the positive ying cannot exist. The author intelligently identifies a trend toward suppressing critical, honest thinking which cannot ultimately benefit anyone.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Geeky McFeebe 10-27-09 Listener Since 2004
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    "Not so great"

    I hesitate to give a bad opinion of this book.
    Her book, "Nickel and Dimed" was great in my opinion, but she's gone down hill since.
    With each new book, she sounds less like an objective observer and commentator (as in Nickel and Dimed) and sounds increasingly like a bitter conservative radio talk show host. I couldn't help but to visualize a constant condescending sneer on her face with each new paragraph. Not sure, it actually could have been the selection of narrator on this project that made it hard to listen too or take very seriously.
    As much as I would love to recommend this one, I can't do it. I can get this kind of gratuitous negative commentary for free during drive time.

    4 of 9 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Pablo Saint Petersburg, FL, United States 04-10-11
    Pablo Saint Petersburg, FL, United States 04-10-11 Member Since 2010
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    "Success by been positive"

    I wish I can ask Barbara Ehrenreich her opinion about the book "Think and Grow Rich" by Napoleon Hill about one of the 13 keys of success "Positive mental attitude"

    1 of 3 people found this review helpful
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