Book Review: “Bright-Sided” by Barbara Ehrenreich

Monday, February 7th, 2011 at 7:22 am

Half-full or half-empty?

The perennial question has always puzzled me.

Which one exactly is supposed to mean optimism?

Is it better to have fullness, even if the fullness is not complete–or is it better to know that one does not have complete emptyness?

But however difficult I find it to determine the optimistic choice, it’s not hard to figure out which one is the right choice.

The optimistic choice is the right choice.

Of course.

Or at least, so says our culture–where optimism is considered a virtue and negativity a sin.

But what’s so great about optimism? And is negativity really as bad as it’s made out to be?

Barbara Ehrenreich explores these questions in her Bright-Side: How the relentless promotion of positive thinking has undermined America.

As is apparent from the title, Ehrenreich is not convinced that positivity is the answer to all life’s ails. In fact, she’s willing to blame positive thinking for any number of societal ills.

Ehrenreich begins her narrative with her own story of being a breast cancer victim who was overwhelmed and put-off by how the breast cancer machine (the activism groups, support groups, online discussion boards, awareness campaigns, etc.) pushed positivity into everything, as though breast cancer were a rite of initiation to be celebrated rather than a disease to be mourned over.

She moves quickly from this personal story to tell the story of self-help industries built around positive thinking: success coaching and prosperity preaching in particular.

According to Ehrenreich, positive thinking as a philosophy was a reaction against the Calvinism of early America–which Ehrenreich describes as “a system of socially imposed depression.” Apparently, “the focus on happiness [was] itself an implicit reproach to Calvinism.” So, thinkers like Mary Baker Eddy (founder of Christian Science) and Phineas Parkhurst Quimby (founder of the New Thought movement) reacted to the harsh strictures of their upbringing by pushing for happiness. Enter positive thinking.

The problem with positive thinking, to hear Ehrenreich explain it, is that positive thinking borrowed too much from Calvinism’s work ethic and sense of sin. While Calvinism used work to escape the evils of this world, positive thinking made positivity into the “work” that allows one to escape the “sin” of negativity.

Looking back, I’m kind of amazed that I finished this book. Ehrenreich’s complete and utter lack of understanding of Calvinism, particularly American Puritan Calvinism is laughable. Her portrayal of Puritan America is unjust.

However, her portrayal of the sugary-sweet positivity that has seeped into American churches and corporations is often spot on.

Her critiques of the supposed “science” of happiness are straightforward and worth considering. (The weakness of the correlational studies which “prove” that positive thinking leads to any number of positive health or lifestyle outcomes, the pseudoscientific nature of the “equations” set to describe positivity’s effect, the lack of attention paid to studies which support the null hypothesis, etc.)

In general, I think I agree with Ehrenreich’s conclusion: It is better to see the world as it truly is rather than to see it through rose-tinted glasses of “positivity” (or the dirty lenses of pessimism, for that matter).

What I don’t agree with is, well, everything else Ehrenreich says. In addition to vilifying our Protestant forebearers and criticizing those who seek silver linings in clouds like breast cancer or layoffs, Ehrenrich takes the opportunity to jump on her favorite hobby-horse: poverty. According to Ehrenreich, poverty is the result of positive thinking’s insistence on a free-market economy; but “positive thinkers” put down those in poverty as being there because they just don’t think positively enough. To hear Ehrenreich describe it, it’s a vicious cycle that pretty much destroys everyone–except those evil robber barons in the top x% of the American economy, who trample all over the little people…

Ad nauseum.

Anyway, this could have been a good book. It’s certainly a fascinating topic. But Ehrenreich’s biases make it just another “complain about conservatives and scream that the sky is falling” story.

Just like everything Ehrenreich writes.

Someday, I’m going to wise up and stop hoping that she’ll break out of her ideological narrowness. Until then, I guess I’ll just have to settle with writing rather pessimistic reviews of her books.

Sorry to be a downer.

Rating: 0 stars
Category:Optimism? Journalism? Pseudo-political commentary?
Synopsis:Ehrenreich briefly refutes the cult of positive thinking–and then complains for a good long time about the condition of America and how things are getting worse rather than better and…
Recommendation: Yeah. Not sure I really need to say anything more than I’ve already said. I’m not recommending this one.

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Reader Comments (3):

  1. Monica says:

    That’s a hard one. I don’t pretend to know much about Calvinism or Christina Science but I DO NOT agree with the Prosperity message that is being preached so very much. We are not promised a rose garden. We will suffer, Christ Himself did…For a preacher to stand up in front of a congregation who is suffering and tell them that this is the year that things are going to get better is just complete nonscense! I am not a negative person as you would think of negativity, but I “see the world as it is” and I pray a lot. The Lord knows the end and that is all that matters to me. I am not going to sit and worry about every little thing. If I should end up with cancer, as my mother and her mother, then so be it. The Lord will see me through or take me home!
    Keeping our tongues closely garded because as believers others are watching our responses to lots of things…I will get off my soap box. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Monica says:

    boy I messed up a few words in my flurry to get that comment posted. Sorry.

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