Monday, June 12, 2017

Book Review: 'Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America' by Barbara Ehrenreich

Review by Susan Gardner

Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America 
By Barb
ara Ehrenreich 
Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt: New York 
Hardcover, 256 pages, $12.42 
October 2009

In the middle of the first decade of the twenty-first century, positive thoughts were flowing out into the universe in unprecedented volumes, escaping the solar system, rippling through vast bodies of interstellar gas, dodging black holes, messing with the tides of distant planets. If anyone--deity or alien being--possessed the means of transforming these emanations into comprehensible form, they would have been overwhelmed by images of slimmer bodies, larger homes, quick promotions, and sudden acquisitions of great wealth.
But the universe refused to play its assigned role as a "big mail order department." In complete defiance of the "law of attraction," long propounded by the gurus of positive thinking, things were getting worse for most Americans, not better.
Happy talk is killing us. Faux cheerfulness is blinding us. Optimism is making us delusional. And America is knee-deep in the happy happy joy joy, always looking on the bright side of life schtick, has been from the 19th century on, and Barbara Ehrenreich is, to put it mildly, so over it.
What really pushed her over the edge was a bout of breast cancer that exposed her to the modern American abyss of positive thinking. She recoiled from the resolute cheerfulness of the breast cancer community, so determinedly upbeat that patients end up buying into the guilt trip that any depressed thoughts they might harbor about their illness caused the affliction in the first place. Or the relapse. Or the bad reaction to chemo.
This was the seed of Bright-Sided, which looks at the dark side of the positive-thinking movement, from its origins to The Secret, from its mystical leanings to its manipulation in the modern workplace that aims to make employees compliant with low pay and increasing workloads.
It's a book about happy happy that will piss you off. In a good way.
First off, Ehrenreich says, let's get some basic logic straight: If you're doing okay, you don't need to constantly remind yourself of it through visualizations and mantras.
The truly self-confident, or those who have made their peace with the world and their destiny within it, do not need to expend effort censoring or otherwise controlling their thoughts. Positive thinking may be a quintessentially American activity, associated in our minds with both individual and national success, but it is driven by a terrible insecurity.
... We don't usually talk about American nationalism, but it is a mark of how deep it runs that we apply the world "nationalism" to Serbs, Russians, and others, while believing ourselves to possess a uniquely superior version called "patriotism."
The American compulsion toward optimism, she argues, clearly has more ramifications than just sending messages to ill individuals that their diseases are a result of not thinking positively enough. It's a national compulsion with international consequences, few of which are good. "Positivity is not so much our condition of our mood as it is part of our ideology," she writes, "the way we explain the world and think we ought to function within it." For America and her citizens, this tendency toward cheer fosters "reflexive capacity for dismissing disturbing news."
Like maybe, for example, climate change?
Ehrenreich's research into the positive self-help movement takes her to seminars and conventions nationwide where all kinds of investment advisors, spiritual gurus, self-starting entrepreneurs and lost souls mingle, soaking in the positive vibes of Tom Peters and the like. Here, the author encounters more than a few strange people with some disturbing thought patterns.
But the most startling response I got to my quibbling came from an expensively dressed life coach from Southern California. After I summarized my discomfort with all the fake quantum physics in a couple of sentences, she gave me a kindly therapeutic look and asked, "You mean it doesn't work for you?"
I felt at that moment, and for the first time in this friendly crowd, absolutely alone. If science is something you can accept or reject on the basis of personal tastes, then what kind of reality did she and I share? If it "worked for me" to say that the sun rises in the west, would she be willing to go along with that, accepting it as my particular take on things?
This alienation from reality is traced throughout Bright-Sided. Science, the ultimate reality, is just one of the many things discarded if it brings you down. Anything that affects your attitude in a negative way is suspect in these circles. Yet at the same time, the individual shoulders enormous responsibility not just for his or her own mood, but for all outcomes in life, which get traced back ... to mood, in a sickening sort of blame-the-victim mentality. You're good enough, you're smart enough, and gosh darn it ... if facts make you depressed, dump them! Especially, sadly, news and social issues that make you feel powerless.
This retreat from the real drama of tragedy of human events is suggestive of a deep helplessness at the core of positive thinking. Why not follow the news? Because, as my informant at the NSA meeting told me, "You can't do anything about it." Braley similarly dismisses reports of disasters: "That's negative news that can cause you emotional sadness, but that you can't do anything about." The possibilities of contributing to relief funds, joining an antiwar movement, or lobbying for more humane government policies are not even considered. But at the very least there seems to be an acknowledgment here that no amount of attitude adjustment can make good news out of headlines beginning with "Civilian casualties mount ..." or "Famine spreads ..."
Nowhere is this requirement to take responsibility for personal happiness more pervasive than in the current corporate world. Ehrenreich describes quite accurately the glorification of CEOs like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Lee Iacocca, comparing them to the megapastors at the megachurches. Part of what comes with this worshipful territory is the tendency to credit business leaders with all kinds of wisdom outside their realm of expertise, and unsurprisingly, a lot of what today's corporate leaders preach is to suck it up, it's a tough work environment, we all must look to our own bootstraps now. What an amazing gift the power of positive thinking has been to today's employer, who in turn, has gifted it to employees!
Think of it as a massive experiment in mind control. "Reality sucks," a computer scientist with a master's degree who can find only short-term, benefit-free contract jobs told me. But you can't change reality; at least not in any easy and obvious way. You could join a social movement working to create an adequate safety net or to bring about more humane corporate policies, but those efforts might take a lifetime. For now, you can only change your perception of reality, from negative and bitter to positive and accepting. This was the corporate world's great gift to its laid-off employees and the overworked survivors--positive thinking.
Bright-Sided is gem--bitter, real and true. It cuts through the bullshit and shakes you up, gives permission to call crappy situations crappy, bad workplaces bad, and selfish societies selfish. In this world, you can't hope to change a thing if you don't acknowledge the reality of any of it, and Ehrenreich's book is like a waterfall of truth in a desert of falsity and commercialized fronts. It's got quite a few turns of brilliant, sparkling writing in it as well, but most importantly, it faces head on the dark undercurrent of fear that runs right beneath the surface of American life, now more than ever. Unacknowledged, those fears of failure, of not making it, of not surviving in this brave new shocked-by-doctrine world, are going to cripple us all and separate us. Brought into the light though, as these fears are in this book, they are not so scary after all, when all of us look at them and all of us vow to solve problems together.
Yeah, right there. That last sentence, right there. That's the irony of Bright-Sided. You can actually make things better, more (dare I say it?) positive, if you admit the awful is pretty damn awful.
And then get to work to change the system.

Editor's note: This review was originally published at the Daily Kos, which notes that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified." The original page can be found here. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right. 

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