by Barbara Ehrenreich
New York, Metropolitan Books, 2009
Week 14 Non-Fiction
On the days that I was reading Barbara Ehrenreich’s book, Bright Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, a cabinet fell on my daughter’s head while she was at work, the water heater rusted out, spewing water all over our basement floor, and my daughter’s car died. According to the positive thinking gurus Ehrenreich discusses in her book, I just haven’t been visioning happiness well enough, and I need to expel negative thoughts from my mind.
Ehrenreich was exposed to the foibles of positive thinking in 2000 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and it got her researching the history of positive thinking and exploring the culture that has been built around it. While she was feeling very angry about her diagnosis, she was being told that those angry feelings were undermining her healing. She was assured that once this was behind her, her life was going to be so much more meaningful and that she would be glad that she had lived through the experience of cancer. She set out to gain an understanding of what made people think that way.
I had my own exposure to positive thinking in the 1970s when my husband Lee and I had a moderately successful Amway business. In the course of those years, we practiced all the positive thinking techniques she discusses in her chapter on “motivating business and the business of motivation.” We envisioned where we wanted our business to be; we practiced our affirmations; we went to business pep rallies and conventions; we inspired our business colleagues and ourselves. We tried to “think and grow rich.”
Ehrenreich discusses the effect of positive thinking on business, psychology, health, and religion. But she is relentless as she considers what all that positive thinking did as the economy failed in 2008. In fact, she believes that the bright-sided thinking may have caused the real estate bubble as well as the failure to understand what was happening when it burst.
What our country needs, Ehrenreich suggests, is a big dose of realism, “relentless hard-nosed empiricism.” She says that we expect our doctors to be realists, as well as our airline pilots and educators. We don’t expect them to be filled with optimistic affirmations; we expect them to do their jobs. She suggests that an economic recovery is going to happen, not because we “vision it” or “will” it to be, but because we buckle down, face the reality, and do the work that has to be done.
The book is another in Ehrenreich’s studies of American culture. Several years ago, I read Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, and it was an amazing eye-opener on the people around me who were not making a living wage. Others of her books are This Land is Their Land: Reports from a Divided Nation and Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy.
I found this an interesting read, especially the part about the mega churches and the preaching about prosperity that goes on in these congregations. Yet, I am not sure that I buy it all. I have always noticed that my attitude affects everything that happens around me, that I am more comfortable with myself when I am happy, and I think that I remain physically healthy because I plan to be healthy. However, I certainly don’t think that the water heater broke because I was thinking negative thoughts yesterday, or that the cupboard fell on my daughter’s head because she wasn’t envisioning greatness. Besides, there is a wonderful saying that encompasses all that isn’t positive thinking—Shit happens!
Here is a great interview on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show:
Here is a review in the Washington Post: