Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Bright-Sided” — A Curmudgeon’s Frustration with the Cult of Positive Thinking

Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America by Barbara EhrenreichBarbara Ehrenreich’s BRIGHT-SIDED is all about what Ehrenreich called “America’s obsession with positive thinking,” and how it’s helped to wreck our culture and economy.  Ehrenreich carefully showed the beginning of the positive thinking movement and includes major figures from it like Mary Baker Eddy (the founder of the Christian Science faith) to the present, and uses well-known examples along with more personal ones to show that by our culture insisting that we think positive even when the worst-possible things have happened (like the loss of a spouse, home foreclosures, losing your entire retirement due to the stock market meltdown or Bernie Madoff’s mismanagement), we’ve lost our empathy somewhere along the way.

Ehrenreich started off BRIGHT-SIDED by discussing what happened to her when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.   From the start, she was told to “think positive,” almost as fervently as if she’d just been to church, and she saw pink everywhere — pink “therapy bears,” pink ribbons, pink coffee mugs, all sorts of things that were meant to cheer up a breast cancer victim but only depressed her due to these things being so omnipresent.  Worse yet, Ehrenreich’s true feelings of anger and frustration over the breast cancer diagnosis were not able to come to the fore right away due to so many people (including some medical personnel) insisting that in order to fight the disease of breast cancer, she must “think positive” all the time or the cancer cells wouldn’t go away.

Of course this whole thought process is ridiculous on its face, but most people in the grasp of cancer are not rational; they grasp at straws, and aren’t able to push away nonsense like this.  And even well-intentioned nonsense (as this could arguably be considered) is unhelpful, as is covering over your true feelings of anger, despair, etc., merely because other people are uncomfortable with it.  Ehrenreich’s breast cancer diagnosis showed her how few other survivors were willing to even admit they were angry with what happened, while most told her she was “being unhelpful” when she pointed out that positive visualization of something like “eating the cancer cells” isn’t any more likely to work than anything else.

Ehrenreich then turned her weather eye on to other things, like the stock-market meltdown and the woefully out-of-touch CEOs.  Some of the rituals she uncovered there would make a NeoPagan blush, things like CEOs being led by “motivational speakers” who’d help them find their “power animals” in order to better take over the market** rather than rational, cold-hearted analysis of the risks and benefits of various forms of trading, including commodities and derivatives.  Worse yet, when someone underneath the CEO in question would point out a possible monetary risk, he or she might be ostracized (at best) or fired (at worst), which led to ever more stupid decisions by those who were in charge of companies like Countrywide Financial, Lehman Brothers, and Citigroup because no one was willing to risk either of these things even though many knew the foundation they stood upon wasn’t stable.

Now, this last shocked me, because I’d always thought of business people as sturdy rationalists who did their financial homework as a matter of course.  But in the cases Ehrenreich studied, she found that when the worst struck, these muzzy-headed positive thinkers often had to call upon a specialist — someone who was trained the old fashioned way to do his homework and try to salvage something from whatever hot mess was going on at the time.  The “last resort” specialists would have to go in and say something like, “You won’t like this, but this crisis is not an opportunity.  The only thing we can do now is salvage whatever we can.”  (Note these are not exact quotes.  They are my best paraphrase of the last two chapters in Ehrenreich’s book, which showcase some of the worst business decisions ever made, mostly because these folks refused to believe the stock market was about to crash due to their belief in “power animals” and the like.)

The middle chapters, though, are in some ways the most devastating, as Ehrenreich discussed the founding of America up to the present.  She pointed out how many Calvinists came over here, worked hard, abjured all temptation for work, work, and more work, which seems OK.  But that same hard-headed rationalism somehow eventually led enough people toward positive thinking, to the point that in our culture, we are told that if we’re not “thinking positive” no matter what calamity is going on, there’s something wrong with us.

At any rate, this overreliance on positive thinking led some to write books like Napoleon Hill’s 1937 classic THINK AND GROW RICH! or Rhonda Byrne’s more recent THE SECRET.  These books insist that it’s the power of our mind, our thoughts alone, that determine whether or not we’ll win the lottery.  Or die in a tsunami (as Byrne reportedly said) if our thoughts “aren’t in resonance with the universe.”

Now, the latter attitude — that it’s our thoughts alone that power everything — is absurd.  Because think about it, folks: it’s more likely than not that if most humans had their way, there would be no death.  There would be no disasters.  There’d be no poverty, disease, infirmity, or anything else bad whatsoever, including breast cancer.  Ehrenreich rightly excoriates this attitude that everything is our fault if we don’t think positively enough, because this attitude is, at best, a way of refusing to be empathetic.   At worst, it’s emotionally depraved.

You see, if human beings really were as powerful as all that (as THE SECRET claims), and we humans were able to “create our own reality,” then what would disasters like tsunamis be?  The work of mental terrorists?

This makes no logical sense at all, yet it’s what Byrne claims to be the truth.  (Not the mental terrorists part; that’s my own elaboration.)  Byrne believes that anything that comes to us is because of us — that we’re poor because we “want to be,” which is so asinine as to make me want to spit nails. 

But that attitude is not limited to the authors Byrne and Hill.  It’s also why Christian Scientists refuse to give their diabetic children needed medicine, though there, at least they believe God — a Deity — who loves us will provide.  That’s a hair better than insisting that we humans are in control of everything, so if we’re ill, poor, weak, or helpless, it’s somehow our own fault.   It’s why breast cancer victims are told to “battle” or “fight” their illness, to use active verbs rather than the more passive word “victims” even though that’s exactly what they are (not that they can’t fight their illnesses, mind you, but to be told they must, that if they have one day of crying over their bad health that they’re possibly forever damaging their chances of healing?  What sense does that make?).  And it’s why those clueless, out to lunch CEOs, who went from limosine to catered lunch to palatial homes or hotel rooms, didn’t have any idea about human suffering and forgot what they were supposed to be about in their relentless search for the winning edge — which, for some, led them to power animals, of all things, rather than do the work to make informed, rational decisions as you’d hope they’d do as custodians of inordinate wealth.

Look.  There is nothing wrong, in small doses, with thinking positive.  I know that I, myself, have asked people to “think good thoughts” at times, especially when talking to atheists whom I know do not believe in an afterlife of any sort (much less a positive one).  I do not think there’s anything wrong with doing this, because I’m willing to do the work of living.

In short, I’m willing to do whatever it takes to learn, to grow, to change, to have meaningful human interactions, and most importantly, not to deny the reality of suffering on this plane of existence.  My word, Gautama Buddha pointed out many centuries ago that “All is suffering” and that in order to transcend to a better existence, it was necessary to understand that and try to ease it — not to ignore it completely because supposedly we’re so much in control of our own lives that if we’re poor, ill, disabled, or worse that it’s somehow our fault for thinking the wrong thoughts.  And most Buddhists believe that positive action — what they call “right action” — like working to improve poverty, or against corruption, in other words, doing the actual work of living is the way to improve life while we’re here. 

This, to my mind, is a far batter attitude than insisting that the “law of attraction” will bring you opulence if that’s what you desire.  Much less the far worse corollary to the law of attraction, which is that if you don’t have opulence, it’s your own damned fault.

So the upshot here is, Ehrenreich knows she is a curmudgeon.  But she’s also right.  BRIGHT-SIDED makes a very strong case for empathy and against stupidity of all sorts, most especially of the wrong-headed pseudo-religious variety espoused by people like Byrne.

Grade: A-plus.  Highly recommended for its wit, its empathy, and its refreshing belief that sometimes circumstances do win out over positive thoughts.  Or perhaps that circumstances should be fought no matter how bad they are, rather than giving up and saying, “My thoughts must not have been positive enough and that’s why I’m in this mess.”

— reviewed by Barb


** Note: there is a time and a place for things like “power animals” in some legitimate religious displays.  I do not think the well-being of American CEOs, who are or were opulent beyond the dreams of avarice, falls into that category.

  1. Tonight’s SBR review: Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Bright-Sided” « Barb Caffrey's Blog

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