Positive thinking usually has a, well, positive connotation.
That’s a position that’s sorely unearned, according to the skeptical and prolific Barbara Ehrenreich. In her book, Bright Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Ruined America, she holds positive thinking responsible for everything from bad health to the recent economic collapse from which we are still trying to emerge.
Ehrenreich’s first and perhaps most potent chapter describes her battle with breast cancer. Far from finding it a source of new meaning, she felt anger and fear, among many other emotions. Sharing these thoughts while taking a swipe at the ribbons people wear earned her a recommendation to run, not walk to therapy from one of the excessively upbeat people. In this chapter she also takes on Bernie Siegel and others who maintain that good cheer can lead to better health outcomes, letting us know that she has a dusty science PhD. in the process. She does score points with me in this chapter by talking about the strain that acting cheerful when you don’t feel that way can take.
From there she moves on to trace the history of positive thinking to its Calvinist roots. Ironically, she maintains that the philosophy of positive thinking, which got its first popular boost from Norman Vincent Peale, carries with it many of the same judgmental elements of the Calvinism it sought to shed.
In typical Ehrenreich fashion, she covers a lot of ground. Beyond the two chapters mentioned above, she looks at megachurches, giving the Osteens a particular good going over, Martin Seligman and his doctrines of authentic happiness, and the aforementioned economic collapse. She ends the book with a call to have a more measured approach to life, reminding us that students go to college to develop their critical, not positive, thinking.
If this sounds a tad sprawling, it is. Ehrenreich’s point at the end of the book about wealthier people being happier than their poorer counterparts was not real convincing to me, and she does not in any meaningful way address the very real consequences of learned helplessness and despair for people’s lives.
book.To be fair, the latter does not appear to be her purpose in this provocative, entertaining and relatively persuasive I’d like to think that this often sardonic work can be a corrective to what Ehrenreich says is too much positive thinking among some sectors.
But, then again, maybe I’m being too optimistic.