How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America
By Barbara Ehrenreich
(Metropolitan Books, Hardcover, 9780805087499, 256pp.)
Publication Date: October 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.
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.
When author Barbara Ehrenreich was diagnosed with breast cancer, she was bombarded with wildly optimistic, inspirational phrases. But a cheerful outlook, she argues, does not cure cancer. In her new book, Bright-Sided, Ehrenreich explores the negative effects of positive thinking. More at NPR.org
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Rather than focus on some particular tool of oppression -- like religion or television -- that's misled the masses into believing they're happy, Ehrenreich trains her ire on happiness itself. Bright-Sided is a sustained attack on enforced optimism and positive thinking, on the belief that speaking no evil is an effective way to ward off evil.
“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
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