A Nation’s Sunny, Delusional Disposition

Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America by Barbara Ehrenreich

If you think it, it will happen.  This is the mantra characterizing positive thinking, the subject of Barbara Ehrenreich’s new book.  This notion sounded silly and delusional to me at first, but via Ehrenreich’s throrough research, one can see the numerous ways in which it pervades contemporary American society.

The first chapter of the book, and the most enjoyable for me, argues that the outbreak of positive thinking in the realm of breast cancer treatment and awareness is not only delusional, but undermining to those who suffer from the disease.  Ehrenreich demonstrates the vicious cycle at play: “if you think it, it will happen” is introduced into the treatment plan, the patient “visualizes” recovery, the patient utilizes pink ribbons, bears, etc. to enforce that positive mindset, the patient represses the natural emotions of anger and resentment.  If the patient is lucky enough to recover and enter remission, visualization worked and the cancer is seen as an “opportunity”–or worse yet, a “gift”–to become a more positive person.  If the patient is unlucky and the cancer worsens, the patient has no one to blame but herself.  There are pitfalls of delusion, power and blame in both scenarios, albeit the former easier to digest.

Ehrenreich’s argument does not end here.  Throughout the book she demonstrates the folly of positive thinking throughout society.  Possibly the most recognizable example is the world of business.  Positive thinking is employed for the benefit the bottom line for those at the top: serving to quiet the downsized and teach them to see their firings as opportunities and to acting as a motivator for the survivors, essentially tricking them into working longer hours under greater stress without complaint.

The peril of positive thinking is found abundantly throughout the field of evangelism.  “God wants you to be rich” is the slogan of numerous megachurch leaders, preaching materialism and condemning responsibility through their positive, albeit godless, sermons.

Almost unbelievably, the delusion of positive thinking has flourished in academia as of late.  Via “positive psychology” degrees cultivated by former American Psychological Association president Martin Seligman academia has reaped the financial benefits of the positive thinking craze.  Future life coaches flocked to Harvard’s first “Happiness 101” class in droves, certifying it the most attended course in the school’s history.

Finally, Bright-Sided makes its most relevant point.  The rampant proliferation of positive thinking throughout the American psyche is perhaps the driving force behind the current financial crisis.  Condemnation of a critical voice in today’s society combined with the croneyism that has evolved from an estonishing 300:1 ratio in salary between CEOs and common workers has understandably bankrupted the nation’s financial infrastructure.  The latest craze in hiring non-field CEOs coincides with the positive thinking theory, leading the observer to believe that hunches and intuition have been the primary decision makers in America’s top companies.  Altogether it is no surprise that the leaders at the top didn’t see it coming.

While the argument in this book is inherently negative, the tone is not.  Ehrenreich is matter-of-fact, but clearly a smart researcher who believes in her cause.  She ends the book positively, urging the reader to think critically and innovatively, and to have enough clarity to see events as they truly are, not through a veil of forced optimism.

While I enjoyed reading this book, and plowed through it somewhat quickly, parts of it for me were a bit dry.  While informative, the chapters on magical thinking and the dark roots of American Optimism felt a little too quote-heavy to be pleasurable.  Though these historical chapters constitute only a small portion of the book, they do not gloss over the facts, which I am glad of.  Due to the tone of the book (funny, but smug at times) I would pass this book along to others who think like her.  This isn’t a book to change a megachurgoer, CEO or conservative deregulator’s mind, but to offer insight for those who are prepared think critically.

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