Bright-Sided: Barbara Ehrenreich

The subtitle for Bright-Sided is “How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America” and Ehrenreich builds a solid case to support this idea. Like her previous books, Nickel and Dimed and Bait and Switch, her writing is compelling and effortless, carefully and confidently guiding the reader to all the important points in her argument.

The book starts off on a personal note as Ehrenreich tells us about her breast cancer and how it brought her face-to-face in a rather alarming way with the cult of positive thinking. The first encounter comes before “the mother of all mammograms” in a changing room filled with pink ribbons, poems and a list of the “Top Ten Things Only Women Understand”. She tells us, “I didn’t mind dying, but the idea that I should do so while clutching a teddy and with a sweet little smile on my face—well, no amount of philosophy had prepared me for that.” She then gives an overview of current and past cancer treatment and the growth of positive thinking in the world of cancer. In her search for information and options, she grows more and more isolated, noticing that no one is asking hard questions, like why breast cancer is so common in industrialized societies or why the death rate had changed so little over the past eighty years or so, and instead, that the women were instead going so far as to embrace their cancer as a gift. When she dares to express anger at the frustrations of treatment and battles with insurance companies, the others in the forum are quick to call her out for her “bad attitude”.

Ehrenreich devotes the rest of the book to tracing out the origins of this kind of anti-bad attitude in America, the irrationality and downright danger of it, and the extent to which it permeates all aspects of American culture. And she uses science! Real science, the critical thinking kind, not just the mindless quote-the-press-release that seems to pass for science journalism all too often these days. When people tell her that positive thinking is good for your health, she wonders if it really is. And then she tries to find out! With science! She notes in the chapter “Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness”:

In contrast to the flimsy research linking attitude to cancer survival, there are scores of studies showing that happy or optimistic people are likely to be healthier than those who are sour-tempered and pessimistic. Most of these studies, however, only establish correlations and tell us nothing about causality: Are people healthy because they’re happy or happy because they’re healthy?

When I read that, I really wanted to find the woman and high-five her. “Correlation does not equal causation” is almost my mantra. Basically, Ehrenreich talks to people in various fields, and actually questions if what they say is true, then looks for the evidence to back up their claims. It is such a simple process and yet so often neglected.

She turns the same critical eye to business and religion, and ends up showing the reader just how much the modern versions of these have in common. The American megachurches earn and spend millions of dollars each year, and their pastors are on the level of a corporation’s CEO in terms of the size of the organizations they lead. And the same unrelenting optimism permeates both, leading to a wishy-washy concept of “God” as something along the lines of a fairy godmother who only wants to give you everything you ever wanted, and an absurd blindness to the housing bubble that eventually lead to the financial meltdown a few years ago.

Ehrenreich is methodical and thorough, all the while keeping her prose lively and engaging. She has a gift for cramming a book full of meticulously researched facts and making it read like a fast-paced adventure of sorts. And she really knows how to end a chapter, summing up the ideas in the chapter and pointing firmly towards the next one with sentences like: “Positive theology ratifies and completes a world without beauty, transcendence or mercy.”

But she is not one to smash with no solutions. The last chapter is devoted to recovering from positive thinking and realizing that a realistic view of the world is important and useful. She notes that even the most positive of positive thinkers retains some traces of negative thinking, or “defensive pessimism”. After all, we assume airline pilots are prepared for an engine failure, that the driver of the car ahead of us might brake suddenly or that a child might choke on tiny plastic parts: “Visualize fratricidal stranglings and electric outlets stabbed with forks: this is how we have reproduced our genomes.”

I also appreciate how she takes the time to note just how debilitating positive thinking is to the working class in particular. It seems to be another way to deny that class exists at all, and insist that if you’re poor, if you’re not living the “American dream”, you must be at fault, rather than the system you were born into. Obviously, the choices an individual makes affects where that individual ends up, but the fact is that Americans are less likely than more socialized and class-conscious nations, like Canada or Norway, to move up from the social class they were born into, despite being told from birth that anyone can do it, anyone can be rich, as long as you have enough get-up-and-go. Well, no. In a society that systematically rewards the rich and punishes the poor, it doesn’t matter how much get-up-and-go you have, if you were born at the bottom of the ladder, you’re probably going to stay there, no matter how many times you read The Secret and visualize yourself covered in diamonds.

I’m on the pessimistic side of things most of the time (although I prefer to think of myself as a realist). I’m a complainer. I complain about things. But I also feel like I’m generally a happy person. Bright-Sided affirms that the two are not mutually exclusive. In fact, without us complainers keeping the positive thinking in check, problems get overlooked and situations get much worse. Because no one wants to look the ugly straight in the eye. But you know, someone has to. As Ehrenreich says in her dedication, “To complainers everywhere: Turn up the volume!” Look forward to more grumping from me in the future!

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