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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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3.9 (246 )
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  •  
    Susan Amery, WI, United States 12-14-10
    Susan Amery, WI, United States 12-14-10 Member Since 2007
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    "Finally an Answer to "The Secret""

    At last! Someone SANE! Someone who can see the downside to being Up and Thinking Positive all the time.

    I had heard Barbara's take on the "cancer survivor" issue on Book TV on CSPAN a few years ago. In the book, she goes into more detail. I agree and won't buy anything "pink" as a result.
    The Secret and all the other Think Positive, Use the Universe and Magnetism to Attract, and the Name It Claim It people out there are really messing up the minds of a generation or two. It is insidious and has crept into almost every aspect of American life. It is frightening.
    If you are tired of the Blame The Victim mentality of this nation, here is a book that at least explains the source of that way of thinking. Because, you see, if anything bad happens to you, it is because YOU attracted it to yourself by considering it, by not thinking positively enough, or by allowing it to happen to yourself -- according to the prevailing thought. Lost your job? Lost your home to foreclosure? Got sick? Yep, Positive Thinking will tell you it is all your own fault. Barbara Ehrenreich tells you that is all bunk! And I believe her.

    7 of 7 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Alyssa NH, United States 10-22-09
    Alyssa NH, United States 10-22-09 Member Since 2009

    I listen to books when I'm at work or doing chores. I prefer history and fantasy. My favorite audio book is Going Postal by Terry Pratchett.

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    "Balanced"

    I was skeptical when I heard about this book since I know first hand what stress can do to the body. However, this book isn't an argument for pessimism so much as it's a call to action in the fight against the pervasive passivity that's been seeping into our culture. The "positive attitude" rhetoric that I'm constantly confronted with at school and work has been driving me nuts for years, and now hearing someone point out all its flaws provided me with a feeling of relief and (go figure) hope.

    10 of 11 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Jeremiah Detroit, MI, United States 09-05-10
    Jeremiah Detroit, MI, United States 09-05-10
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    "Bright-Sided Gives Realists Hope"

    This is a solid book. This looks at the idea that the culture of "positive thinking" has turned into groupthink and why it was key to why we had the giant economic crash we did in recent years.. and is in many ways a psychological pacifier for the masses.

    Not that one should be negative all the time - this isn't about depression, or always criticizing - but when dealing with facts is falsely called "pessimism" there's a real problem; when questioning assumptions is "negative thinking," that means an organization is living in delusion and it's time is numbered. And that's what happened at Lehman Brothers and other companies where they could of avoided the problems that befell their companies and our country.

    4 of 4 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Kathryn London, ON, Canada 05-16-11
    Kathryn London, ON, Canada 05-16-11
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    "A Great Book Deserving of a Much Better Reader"

    Thanks goodness Barbara Erinreich is still publishing. This book is such a relief for those of us oppressed by unrelenting demands to be optimistic even when the worst outcomes are inevitable. This book is so important for people to read. The reader is really terrible, I think and that was a big disappointment.

    9 of 11 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Die Falknerin 01-05-14 Member Since 2008

    Painter, musician, bibliophile...

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    "Waking up to reality"

    This review is personal and not as objective as I like my writing to be under normal circumstances. I've watched as several friends and family members attempt to follow positive thinking philosophies, both New Age and Judeo-Christian. Invariably, the attempt has come to a bad end.

    Barbara Ehrenreich learned how pervasive the belief in positive thinking is, and just what this may mean to you when you're in crisis, through her experience with cancer treatment. While she didn't hold with positive thinking, but rather had it thrust upon her, others who do believe in positive thinking have had no less shocking encounters with its pervasive influence and the limits of its belief system.

    My closest friend was deeply involved in a New Age group whose main tenet was of the positive thinking "You create your own reality" variety. When her young son was killed in a car accident, she was told a number of things. "He manifested his death," and "You chose this experience for your growth." I watched in horror as her group of "friends" and fellow believers responded with coldness and trite phrases, indeed anything but support or understanding.

    Another friend allowed her terminal illness to grow worse without treatment because she believed she brought it on herself with her "negative thinking." Still another followed "The Secret" religiously, only to find herself less productive and deeper than ever in debt. It has been heartbreaking to watch and left me with much anger.

    Sadly, the positive thinking mindset is difficult to penetrate with logic. As when you deny a tenet of Freudianism and you are told, "You are in denial," in positive thinking philosophies, you may be told, "It's not working because you don't believe in it," or some other variation, such as "You don't have enough faith." Whatever the case, it's your fault and you may be ostracized for your questioning and disbelief.

    Why people "wishful think" there is an easy way through life is difficult to understand, but Ehrenreich's work is a meaningful contribution toward deeper understanding. The fact is, your body may very well "betray you" despite your care of it, death is certain, and before any of that happens, hard work is required to achieve anything worthwhile in this world. For some reason, no one wants to hear that.

    The narrator was extremely annoying and sounded condescending. Rarely do I think an author should read her own work, but this is an exception. Had I not been pressed for time, I would have returned this and read it on a Kindle.

    If you enjoy this book, I'd also highly recommend another take on the subject, Oliver Burkeman's "The Antidote."

    2 of 2 people found this review helpful
  •  
    D Bellevue, NE, United States 02-05-12
    D Bellevue, NE, United States 02-05-12 Member Since 2010
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    "For the Positivity Deficit"

    If you’ve ever read an economic forecast in the newspaper and thought it sounded suspiciously like a TV weatherman, "This is up while this is down but, all in all, the outlook is fair to good", then this book is for you.

    It’s an excellent study in hegemony for anyone haunted (and alienated) by the feeling that the world they live in is a little less candy-coated than the world they’re told they live in (via media). Furthermore, Ehnrenreich’s amused but cynical take on the subject, and the humor she finds in it, is well served by Reading’s perky narration. One of my favorite finds on Audible so far.

    2 of 2 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Barbara United States 04-01-10
    Barbara United States 04-01-10 Member Since 2006
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    "A breath of fresh air"

    I have always had the vague suspicion that all the hype about positive thinking was not as harmless as advertised, but attributed that to my natural tendency toward skepticism. It was nice to finally hear from the 'dark side'. The ideas discussed were thought provoking.

    2 of 2 people found this review helpful
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    Alan Minnetonka, MN, United States 02-20-10
    Alan Minnetonka, MN, United States 02-20-10 Member Since 2009
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    "This book changed my life"

    Every now and then a book will actually change how I see the world, and this book is one of those. Wonderfully written and beautifully read, it points out a way of thinking that's so ubiquitous it's hard to see. And the author doesn't hammer you with arguments--she mainly just gives the facts and lets you draw the conclusions yourself.

    2 of 2 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Kevin Hallowell, ME, USA 10-17-09
    Kevin Hallowell, ME, USA 10-17-09
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    "A Comeback for Realism"

    Dr. Ehernreich writes a fascinating account the puritanical roots of positive thinking. Her taking apart of Positive Psychology is superb. She presents an excellent case for us to get out of magical thinking and pay closer attention to what our five senses are showing us about the world.

    8 of 10 people found this review helpful
  •  
    M Lexington, KY, USA 10-16-09
    M Lexington, KY, USA 10-16-09
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    "Finally!"

    At last someone's taken on the positive-thinking crowd with some much-needed realism and humor. Ehrenreich doesn't totally discount the power of being positive but neither does she buy into the hype and nonsense of continual positive thinking and creating your own reality. With nice touches of juxtaposition she brings life to what would otherwise be a dull statistic-filled tome.

    14 of 18 people found this review helpful
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