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

Barbara Ehrenreich
4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Oct. 13 2009

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 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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Review

“Deeply satisfying. . . I have waited my whole life for someone to write a book like Bright-sided.”—The New York Times Book Review
 
“A brilliant exposé of our smiley-faced culture.”—Forbes.com
 
“Insightful, smart, and witty. . . Ehrenreich makes important points about what happens to those who dare to warn of the worst.”—BusinessWeek

"Ehrenreich's examination of the history of positive thinking is a tour de force of well-tempered snark, culminating in a persuasive indictment of the bright-siders as the culprits in our current financial mess."—The Washington Post

"Bright-sided scours away the veneer of conventional wisdom with pointed writings and reporting. . . . Helping us face the truth is Ehrenreich at her best."—The Miami Herald
 
“Contrarians rejoice! With a refreshingly caustic tone, Barbara Ehrenreich takes on the relentlessly upbeat attitude many Americans demand of themselves, and more damagingly, of others.”—USA Today
 
“A rousing endorsement of skepticism, realism, and critical thinking.”—San Francisco Bay Guardian
 
“Ehrenreich delivers her indictments of the happiness industry with both authority and wit. . . . Bright-sided offers both a welcome tonic and a call to action—and a blessed relief from all those smiley faces.”—The Plain Dealer
 
“Precisely crafted, hard-hitting. . . analysis of the national mass fantasy of wishful thinking ”—The Dallas Morning News
 
"Relentless and persuasive. . . In a voice urgent and passionate, Ehrenreich offers us neither extreme [between positive thinking and being a spoilsport] but instead balance: joy, happiness, yes; sadness, anger, yes. She favors life with a clear head, eyes wide open."—San Francisco Chronicle
 
“Ehrenreich reprises her role as Dorothy swishing back the curtain on a great and powerful given.”—The Oregonian
 
“A message that deserves to be heard.”—Jezebel
 
“Gleefully pops the positive-thinking bubble. . . Amazingly, she'll make you laugh, albeit ruefully, as she presents how society's relentless focus on being upbeat has eroded our ability to ask—and heed—the kind of uncomfortable questions that could have fended off economic disaster.”—FastCompany.com
 
"Ehrenreich convinced me completely. . . I hesitate to say anything so positive as that this book will change the way you see absolutely everything; but it just might."—Nora Ephron, The Daily Beast
 
"Ehrenreich delivers a trenchant look into the burgeoning business of positive thinking."—Publishers Weekly, starred review
 
"Bright, incisive, provocative thinking from a top-notch nonfiction writer."
Kirkus, starred review
 
"Wide-ranging and stinging look at the pervasiveness of positive thinking. . ."
Booklist, starred review
 
“We're always being told that looking on the bright side is good for us, but now we see that it's a great way to brush off poverty, disease, and unemployment, to rationalize an order where all the rewards go to those on top. The people who are sick or jobless—why, they just aren't thinking positively. They have no one to blame but themselves. Barbara Ehrenreich has put the menace of positive thinking under the microscope. Anyone who's ever been told to brighten up needs to read this book.”—Thomas Frank, author of The Wrecking Crew and What's the Matter with Kansas?
 
“Oprah Winfrey, Deepak Chopra, Andrew Weil: please read this relentlessly sensible book. It’s never too late to begin thinking clearly.”—Frederick Crews, author of Follies of the Wise: Dissenting Essays
 
“Barbara Ehrenreich’s skeptical common sense is just what we need to penetrate the cloying fog that passes for happiness in America.”—Alan Wolfe, author of The Future of Liberalism
 
“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, author of The Mind-Body Problem: Poems
 
“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, author of God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything
 
“In this hard-hitting but honest appraisal, America’s cultural skeptic Barbara Ehrenreich turns her focus on the muddled American phenomenon of positive thinking. She exposes the pseudoscience and pseudointellectual foundation of the positive-thinking movement for what it is: a house of cards. This is a mind-opening read.”—Michael Shermer, author of Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time
 
“Once again, Barbara Ehrenreich has written an invaluable and timely book, offering a brilliant analysis of the causes and dimensions of our current cultural and economic crises. She shows how deeply positive thinking is embedded in our history and how crippling it is as a habit of mind.”—Thomas Bender, author of A Nation Among Nations: America’s Place in World History

About the Author

Barbara Ehrenreich is the bestselling author of Nickel and Dimed, Bait and Switch, Bright-sided, This Land Is Their Land, Dancing in the Streets and Blood Rites, among others. A frequent contributor to Harper's and The Nation, she has also been a columnist at The New York Times and Time magazine. She is the winner of the L.A. Times Book Prize for Current Interest and ALA Notable Books for Nonfiction.
 
Ehrenreich was born in Butte, Montana, when it was still a bustling mining town. She studied physics at Reed College, and earned a Ph.D. in cell biology from Rockefeller University. Rather than going into laboratory work, she got involved in activism, and soon devoted herself to writing her innovative journalism. She lives and works in Florida.

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18 of 18 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Suffering the 'Yoke' of Happiness Nov. 10 2009
By Flippy TOP 1000 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
For those who feel that the self-help-spiritual gurus of The Secret fame were handing us a crock pot of crap, this is the book to read. Over the years, having worked in book stores, seeing the corporate side of the retail world (trying to smile during a downsize) as well as the charlatans of the New Age movement, this book was a welcome treat. For many years I've battled with the blinders of blatant optimism and for me, Ehrenreich has shown a spotlight on the yoke of happiness thinking.

It's not that being positive is completely blinding, it is just that there is a constant in-balance. A bright, shiny attitude is fine and dandy but let's be realistic about certain things. If you're driving through Hell, the last thing you want to do is ask for a blanket. The same thing goes for the commodity of the forced smile. When people are working overtime and holidays, afraid of the next lay off, how can people be happy? Ehrenreich addresses these issues, pointing her critical pen at the pink ribbon society of breast cancer alumni (the survivors vs. those who die, those who weren't positive 'enough'), the self-appointed gurus of optimism, corporate churches, and corporations hellbent of force feeding employees happiness (a negative attitude might lead to a firing).

We are complex creatures in a complex world and to go through life with a monotone emotion, we deny ourselves our humanity. She argues that we lose insight and direction if we befuddle ourselves with optimism. We lose our hold on life. Also, it was the Communist states of the former Eastern Bloc as much as Iran pre-1979 that manipulated its citizens to be happy and have a positive attitude.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Ehrenreich does it again July 31 2010
Format:Hardcover
What to say about Barbara Ehrenreich except "Thank you!" I first read a few online articles from her a dozen years ago and was hooked. Then I read Nickel and Dimed, the best expose and analysis of the underclasses in the USA that I'm aware of. When I later read Bait and Switch, which demonstrated how the program in Nickel and Dimed had succeeded so well (in stealing the little the underclass had) that the ruling elites moved the program into the middle classes, I was shocked. The audacity by the elite classes was astounding and the carefully-constructed "acceptance" by the lower and middle classes was disheartening.
And now comes Bright-Sided, her effort to explain how the "positive psychology" movement has attempted to shift the blame of so much personal and societal anguish on to the shoulders of those who the trickery was foisted on, rather than on the true cause of the pain: a social system based on the economics of rob-from-the-poor-to-give-to-the-rich. She does it in her usually witty way, never failing to wince at the injustice while detailing it in sometimes savage prose. While not as personal as the other two books I noted (in which she lives and works with members of those classes), it is more probing of one of the tools that the elite use to get their way: make the robbed feel responsible for the robbery. As long as we have such a corrupt system there will never be a time we do not need such people as her.
On a final note I ask how much longer, in a shrinking world with a burgeoning human need-greed, can this go on?
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Negative Result of Positive Thinking Sept. 29 2010
By Alison S. Coad TOP 50 REVIEWER
Format:Paperback
Barbara Ehrenreich is one of my favourite investigative writers, partly because I tend to agree with her left-of-centre political take but mostly because she's a really interesting writer. Her latest book, Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America, deals with the whole concept of positive thinking in American society, from its historical roots as an answer to dour Calvinism to its relentless drive into the business world (where it essentially told workers, "if you're negative, you're out of here," while at the same time demanding that remaining workers cheerfully take on larger and larger amounts of work to be done in less and less time), to the "God wants you to be rich!" evangelical "religious" leaders (you know, those preachers who kind of forget to mention anything about Christianity and instead invoke God as a kind of magician, to whom you need only chant the right words in order to get everything you want in life), and finally to the cult of positivism that destroyed the financial system and the housing market in the US in 2007-2008. Perhaps Ehrenreich's greatest outrage is kept for the demands made of cancer patients (in particular, breast cancer patients as she herself was one of them) that they see their cancer as a positive opportunity in their lives and that they deny any negative feelings about their illness lest their negativity "contribute" to the disease. Provocative stuff, and thoughtfully and painstakingly laid out (complete with copious citations in the notes, something that the academic in me is a sucker for), and well worth reading. As someone once said, "if you're not pissed off, you're not paying attention," and I'm glad that there are still people like Ehrenreich around to remind us about everyday reasons to be angry about how our world works. Recommended!
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