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Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America First Edition Edition
"Children of Blood and Bone"
Tomi Adeyemi conjures a stunning world of dark magic and danger in her West African-inspired fantasy debut. Pre-order today
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"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
"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
"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
About the Author
Barbara Ehrenreich is the bestselling author of sixteen previous books, including Nickel and Dimed, Bait and Switch, Bright-sided, This Land Is Their Land, Dancing In The Streets and Blood Rites. A frequent contributor to Harper's and The Nation, she has also been a columnist at The New York Times and Time magazine. Visit Barbara Ehrenreich's website at www.BarbaraEhrenreich.com.
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Barbara Ehrenreich, is certainly no friend of soulless capitalism. After a personal confrontation with the breast cancer feel-good industry, during which she was encouraged to accept this often-times mortal, painful and disfiguring affliction as a "gift" (one which she accepted with her usual high dudgeon), she prudently decided to investigate the validity of the panacea claims on behalf of this thought package. Claims by advocates of positive thinking include remission of various diseases otherwise recalcitrant to known medical intervention (see Norman Cousins for a good example of that phenomenon) and the ability to attract inanimate objects (e.g. money, McMansions, etc.) to the true believer. Does it work, as advocates contend or is it magical thinking?
Given Ehrenreich's scientific background (undergraduate physics degree, PhD in molecular biology), she is well-equipped to evaluate the design, methods, results and conclusions in the published the manuscripts on which the science of "positive psychology" was founded. The results of her review? Ain't nothin' there, despite the scientific veneer! This is hardly a surprising result given the anti-empirical nature of the claims made on behalf of this approach. It takes a concerted act of faith to overlook the inconsistencies of some of the more egregious (but often espoused) tenants of the "discipline". A frequently cited example: Want something you can't afford? No problem! Just buy it and "God will provide"!
Is this reality-denying self-delusion exclusively the purvue of the stupid, befuddled or hopelessly delusional members of our society? While one might suspect a cynical and transparently fraudulent program to only be capable of separating a fool from his money, the problem, as Ehrenreich convincingly demonstrates, is the pervasiveness of this form of delusional thinking throughout all social stratas of contemporary America. Take, for example, Jack Welch the oft-lionized former CEO of General Electric Corp. He, amongst others, chose this intuitive approach to guide corporate decision making. Apparently, but far less surprisingly, he became much more pragmatic when it came to the bottom line, viz., his own salary and retirement compensation package (in the millions of dollars/year, use of a company airplane, free apartment, etc.) He also became strikingly more empirical when it came to pleasing shareholders. At GE under Welch, profits were maximized by ruthlessly decimating the ranks of lower-order lifeforms (aka employees). The positive thinking platitudes dispensed on behalf of Welch and his fellow captains of industry to the newly unemployed lumpen proletarian on his way out-the-door attempted to convince the dismayed worker that loss of income and insurance was yet another "blessing". Similar systems of positive thought control served to discipline the remaining, frightened workers. Amazingly...it worked! But so does religion, so this shouldn't come as too much of a surprise. Least this be construed as a defect unique to rapacious capitalists, Ehrenreich remarks on the Stalin's incorporation of this method to exercise totalitarian control.
The major deficiency of this book is the centrality Ehrenreich gives to the role of positive thinking in the current financial debacle. While self-delusion and "positive psychology" doubtlessly played a significant role, the primacy of cupidity, the secondary contribution of smug self-satisfaction and the tertiary element of misplaced faith in the arcane knowledge of highly educated technocrats also contributed on the industry side to the situation. She ignores the ideologically-tinged laissez-faire posture of the U.S. Government which encouraged and enabled the deadly trends. The dissenters, both in industry and government were ignored or fired as they did not share the relentlessly optimistic group-think.
All told, this is book represents refreshingly straightforward broadside against yet another manifestation of American anti-intellectualism. Unlike Osteen's books, however, it will not convert the masses. There is nothing to be gained from viewing the sorry reality of American life stripped of its prevalent myth and delusion. As the current catch phrase puts it, "We drank the Kool Aid". Ehrenreich might rephrase this as, "We accepted the Poisoned Teddy Bear with the Pink Ribbon".
What's wrong with being sad and depressed when sick and suffering; horrified by the bombing of innocents; furious with inequality, racism, misogyny, ageism; outraged by corporate malfeasance and immunity? A little pessimism and skepticism is damn useful.
I suspect I'm in the minority when I say I don't believe having a positive, cheerful outlook will cure cancer. In fact, I don't think cancer, or any other illness, gives a fart if I'm chipper, whereas if I take it seriously and realistically, rather than being determinedly, insistently, optimistic as to the outcome, then although I may be bloody miserable, at least I'll be doing whatever it takes to improve my health. Oprah would probably disagree. She, and so many others in the Positive Thinking camp, would probably tell me I had brought the damn disease on myself due to negative thinking and that my negative thinking would be the death of me, literally.
Similarly, I believe no amount of 'visualizing' will 'manifest' my material desires. In other words, I won't get a Pulitzer by visualizing myself accepting it. I think the book THE SECRET is a dangerous fraud, although not a new one. Its bulls*** has been around since before Norman Vincent Peale.
And so on.
So, imagine my joy in reading a book, a well-researched, thoughtful one at that, which not only agrees with me (don't we all love being agreed with!), but one that also provides a history of where this idiotic belief system came from in the first place. And where did it come from? Ehrenreich tells us it comes from "New Thought" the 19th c. reaction to the more dour and punitive practices of Calvinism, which over time mutated into something just as useless and damaging. I didn't know that, but it makes perfect sense. These things are never new, they just slink around for years, shapeshifting as they go.
When she turns her gaze to the medical community, Ehrenreich knows what's she's talking about, having experienced cancer herself, and damn near choked to death on all the pink ribboned positivity everyone insisted she have, and the marketing of products like pink teddy bears and pink lipstick and pink everything that, she believes, serve more to infantilize women than empower them. Wouldn't you, she asks, rather have a skeptical, even pessimistic doctor who was going to explore ever treatment possible, do every test possible, rather than the positive-thinker who says, "oh, it's probably just a shadow on the x-ray. Meditate a bit. That'll do the trick."
She looks at the motivational gurus hawking their dubious wares; the corporations bullying their employees into faux positivity, to the detriment of both the employees and the bottom line; and the quacks claiming cheerfulness can improve the immune system and, as I said above, cure disease (research on the subject is laughably feeble and discounted). She takes us inside the mega-churches of abundance -- Joel Ornsteen and the ilk -- and doesn't hesitate to show us the little man behind the bedazzled curtain. She points a damning finger at how such 'Christian' churches are entirely concerned with materialism, in utter contradiction to the teachings of Christ. It reads like some bizarre heretical cult.
One of the most important sections for me had to do with the economic consequences of positive thinking, and how it contributed to the collapse of the Ponzi scheme the mortgage industry had become and the resultant economic meltdown. An eye-opener and must read.
Reading this wonderful book reminded me -- I met a man some years ago, a plumber and victim of the economic catastrophe, whose house was in foreclosure. He told me he wasn't worried because he was putting out great energy into the world and would soon -- he had no doubt -- be raking in cash as a motivational speaker to corporate executives. I suggested no amount of positive thinking would pay his back mortgage, and shouldn't he start working as a plumber again, a field in which he could make pretty good money, and renegotiate with his bank? He wouldn't be dissuaded and insisted he was plugged into the abundance of the universe. Well, okay, then. Of course he lost his house and, I'm sad to say, disappeared on down the road where he was sure he would find his pot of gold waiting.
The positive thinking camp would say he simply wasn't visualizing properly, that some wee dark pocket of negativity was holding him back from his best life. Ehrenreich would suggest his problem was the unreality inherent in ruthless optimism, because it kept his delusions intact and chasing after a sparkly carrot that not only would he never catch, but doesn't exist.
To be clear, Ehrenreich isn't extolling depressive, morbid crankiness and pessimism, just a dose of reality. Such reality might just help you get out of town before the pitchfork-waving mob arrives and get into the cellar before the tornado blows your roof off.