Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, by Barbara Ehrenreich (Metropolitan Books)
One can hardly enter a bookstore these days without seeing a plethora of books that pledge that the reader can achieve any number of goals—money, love, health, to name a few—merely by thinking enough positive thoughts. Barbara Ehrenreich stands athwart this rising tide of pernicious positivism and shouts “Stop!” in her latest book, Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, which brings a badly needed breath of fresh air and dose of realism to forefront of modern culture.
Ehrenreich begins her book with some personal history: her diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer that introduced her to the world of the “pink ribbon culture” in which a kind of cheery optimism festooned with pink ribbons and kitschy bric-à-brac bothered her nearly as much as her disease did. She exposes some of the darker elements of this movement—for example, patients whose disease progress badly are made to feel as if they were to blame for not being positive enough—as well as demolishing the belief that patients’ mood could affect their outcome.
From there she traces the history of the positive thinking movement and how it infiltrated religion, business, and culture at large in addition to spawning a whole industry devoted to selling the idea that success and fortune come to those who merely wish hard enough. Although I think she may have slightly overstated her case that the pervasiveness of the positive thinking culture was a major contributor to the financial collapse of the 2000’s—after all, speculative bubbles that collapse have existed at least since the Dutch tulip mania of the 17th century—she makes a compelling case that such thinking has gone beyond silly and into the harmful.