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Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America

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ISBN13: 9780805087499
ISBN10: 0805087494
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Introduction

Americans are a "positive" people. This is our reputation as well as our self-image. We smile a lot and are oft en baffled when people from other cultures do not return the favor. In the well-worn stereotype, we are upbeat, cheerful, optimistic, and shallow, while foreigners are likely to be subtle, world-weary, and possibly decadent. American expatriate writers like Henry James and James Baldwin wrestled with and occasionally reinforced this stereotype, which I once encountered in the 1980s in the form of a remark by Soviet émigré poet Joseph Brodsky to the effect that the problem with Americans is that they have "never known suffering." (Apparently he didnt know who had invented the blues.) Whether we Americans see it as an embarrassment or a point of pride, being positivein affect, in mood, in outlookseems to be engrained in our national character.

Who would be churlish or disaffected enough to challenge these happy features of the American personality? Take the business of positive "affect," which refers to the mood we display to others through our smiles, our greetings, our professions of confidence and optimism. Scientists have found that the mere act of smiling can generate positive feelings within us, at least if the smile is not forced. In addition, good feelings, as expressed through our words and smiles, seem to be contagious: "Smile and the world smiles with you." Surely the world would be a better, happier place if we all greeted one another warmly and stopped to coax smiles from babiesif only through the well-known social psychological mechanism of "mood contagion." Recent studies show that happy feelings flit easily through social networks, so that one persons good fortune can brighten the day even for only distantly connected others.1

Furthermore, psychologists today agree that positive feelings like gratitude, contentment, and self-confidence can actually lengthen our lives and improve our health. Some of these claims are exaggerated, as we shall see, though positive feelings hardly need to be justified, like exercise or vitamin supplements, as part of a healthy lifestyle. People who report having positive feelings are more likely to participate in a rich social life, and vice versa, and social connectedness turns out to be an important defense against depression, which is a known risk factor for many physical illnesses. At the risk of redundancy or even tautology, we can say that on many levels, individual and social, it is good to be "positive," certainly better than being withdrawn, aggrieved, or chronically sad.

So I take it as a sign of progress that, in just the last decade or so, economists have begun to show an interest in using happiness rather than just the gross national product as a measure of an economys success. Happiness is, of course, a slippery thing to measure or define. Philosophers have debated what it is for centuries, and even if we were to define it simply as a greater frequency of positive feelings than negative ones, when we ask people if they are happy we are asking them to arrive at some sort of average over many moods and moments. Maybe I was upset earlier in the day but then was cheered up by a bit of good news, so what am I really? In one well-known psychological experiment, subjects were asked to answer a questionnaire on life satisfactionbut only after they had performed the apparently irrelevant task of photocopying a sheet of paper for the experimenter. For a randomly chosen half of the subjects, a dime had been left for them to find on the copy machine. As two economists summarize the results, "Reported satisfaction with life was raised substantially by the discovery of the coin on the copy machineclearly not an income effect."2

In addition to the problems of measurement, there are cultural differences in how happiness is regarded and whether it is even seen as a virtue. Some cultures, like our own, value the positive affect that seems to signal internal happiness; others are more impressed by seriousness, self-sacrifice, or a quiet willingness to cooperate. However hard to pin down, though, happiness is somehow a more pertinent metric for well-being, from a humanistic perspective, than the buzz of transactions that constitute the GDP.

Surprisingly, when psychologists undertake to measure the relative happiness of nations, they routinely find that Americans are not, even in prosperous times and despite our vaunted positivity, very happy at all. A recent meta-analysis of over a hundred studies of self-reported happiness worldwide found Americans ranking only twenty-third, surpassed by the Dutch, the Danes, the Malaysians, the Bahamians, the Austrians, and even the supposedly dour Finns.3 In another potential sign of relative distress, Americans account for two-thirds of the global market for antidepressants, which happen also to be the most commonly prescribed drugs in the United States. To my knowledge, no one knows how antidepressant use affects peoples responses to happiness surveys: do respondents report being happy because the drugs make them feel happy or do they report being unhappy because they know they are dependent on drugs to make them feel better? Without our heavy use of antidepressants, Americans would likely rank far lower in the happiness rankings than we currently do.

When economists attempt to rank nations more objectively in terms of "well-being," taking into account such factors as health, environmental sustainability, and the possibility of upward mobility, the United States does even more poorly than it does when only the subjective state of "happiness" is measured. The Happy Planet Index, to give just one example, locates us at 150th among the worlds nations.4

How can we be so surpassingly "positive" in self-image and stereotype without being the worlds happiest and best-off people? The answer, I think, is that positivity is not so much our condition or our mood as it is part of our ideologythe way we explain the world and think we ought to function within it. That ideology is "positive thinking," by which we usually mean two things. One is the generic content of positive thinkingthat is, the positive thought itselfwhich can be summarized as: Things are pretty good right now, at least if you are willing to see silver linings, make lemonade out of lemons, etc., and things are going to get a whole lot better. This is optimism, and it is not the same as hope. Hope is an emotion, a yearning, the experience of which is not entirely within our control. Optimism is a cognitive stance, a conscious expectation, which presumably anyone can develop through practice.

The second thing we mean by "positive thinking" is this practice, or discipline, of trying to think in a positive way. There is, we are told, a practical reason for undertaking this effort: positive thinking supposedly not only makes us feel optimistic but actually makes happy outcomes more likely. If you expect things to get better, they will. How can the mere process of thinking do this? In the rational explanation that many psychologists would offer today, optimism improves health, personal efficacy, confidence, and resilience, making it easier for us to accomplish our goals. A far less rational theory also runs rampant in American ideologythe idea that our thoughts can, in some mysterious way, directly affect the physical world. Negative thoughts somehow produce negative outcomes, while positive thoughts realize themselves in the form of health, prosperity, and success. For both rational and mystical reasons, then, the effort of positive thinking is said to be well worth our time and attention, whether this means reading the relevant books, attending seminars and speeches that offer the appropriate mental training,

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Lara Gardner, January 1, 2010 (view all comments by Lara Gardner)
An excellent examination of "positive-thinking" in this country. It shows how constant positive thinking teaches us to ignore reality and causes us to blame ourselves when things go wrong--things that are often caused by systemic problems in society--with the result that no one questions or tries to fix these ills. This is a great book and one that should be read by all.
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Product Details

ISBN:
9780805087499
Author:
Ehrenreich, Barbara
Publisher:
Metropolitan Books
Author:
Reading, Kate
Subject:
Anthropology - Cultural
Subject:
Success in business -- United States.
Subject:
Happiness - United States
Subject:
Sociology - General
Subject:
General
Subject:
Customs
Subject:
Traditions
Subject:
Customs & Traditions
Subject:
anthropology;cultural anthropology
Copyright:
Edition Description:
Trade Cloth
Publication Date:
20091031
Binding:
HARDCOVER
Grade Level:
General/trade
Language:
English
Illustrations:
6 CDs, 8 hours
Pages:
256
Dimensions:
8.26 x 5.5 x 0.67 in

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Related Subjects

Health and Self-Help » Psychology » General
History and Social Science » American Studies » 80s to Present
History and Social Science » American Studies » General
History and Social Science » American Studies » Popular Culture
History and Social Science » Anthropology » Cultural Anthropology
History and Social Science » Sociology » American Studies
History and Social Science » Sociology » General

Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America Used Hardcover
0 stars - 0 reviews
$8.95 In Stock
Product details 256 pages Metropolitan Books - English 9780805087499 Reviews:
"Publishers Weekly Review" by , "Ehrenreich (Nickel and Dimed) delivers a trenchant look into the burgeoning business of positive thinking. A bout with breast cancer puts the author face to face with this new breed of frenetic positive thinking promoted by everyone from scientists to gurus and activists. Chided for her anger and distress by doctors and fellow cancer patients and survivors, Ehrenreich explores the insistence upon optimism as a cultural and national trait, discovering its 'symbiotic relationship with American capitalism' and how poverty, obesity, unemployment and relationship problems are being marketed as obstacles that can be overcome with the right (read: positive) mindset. Building on Max Weber's insights into the relationship between Calvinism and capitalism, Ehrenreich sees the dark roots of positive thinking emerging from 19th-century religious movements. Mary Baker Eddy, William James and Norman Vincent Peale paved the path for today's secular $9.6 billion self-improvement industry and positive psychology institutes. The author concludes by suggesting that the bungled invasion of Iraq and current economic mess may be intricately tied to this 'reckless' national penchant for self-delusion and a lack of anxious vigilance, necessary to societal survival." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Review A Day" by , "'Flapdoodle', crows Ehrenreich, and the fun begins. Like flying monkeys tearing apart the Scarecrow, she shreds theories based on quantum physics (neuronal impulses are far too large to be influenced by quantum effects), magnetism (the magnetic properties of thought are swamped by competing magnetisms — like the Earth's!), and magic (pay no attention to that man behind the curtain)." (read the entire Oregonian review)
"Review" by , "[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."
"Review" by , "Bright, incisive, provocative thinking from a top-notch nonfiction writer."
"Review" by , "Wide-ranging and stinging look at the pervasiveness of positive thinking..." (starred review)
"Review" by , "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."
"Synopsis" by , With the mythbusting powers for which she is acclaimed, Ehrenreich exposes the downside of America's penchant for positive thinking. On a personal level, it leads to self-blame; on a national level, it's ushered in an era of irrational optimism resulting in disaster. This is Ehrenreich at her provocative best.
"Synopsis" by ,
A sharp-witted knockdown of Americas love affair with positive thinking and an urgent call for a new commitment to realism.
"Synopsis" by , A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER

Americans are a "positive" people — cheerful, optimistic, and upbeat: This is our reputation as well as our self-image. But more than a temperament, being positive is the key to getting success and prosperity. Or so we are told.

In this utterly original debunking, Barbara Ehrenreich confronts the false promises of positive thinking and shows its reach into every corner of American life, from Evangelical megachurches to the medical establishment, and, worst of all, to the business community, where the refusal to consider negative outcomes--like mortgage defaults--contributed directly to the current economic disaster. With the myth-busting powers for which she is acclaimed, Ehrenreich exposes the downside of positive thinking: personal self-blame and national denial. This is Ehrenreich at her provocative best--poking holes in conventional wisdom and faux science and ending with a call for existential clarity and courage.

"Synopsis" by , A sharp-witted knockdown of Americas love affair with positive thinking and an urgent call for a new commitment to realism

Americans are a “positive” people—cheerful, optimistic, and upbeat: this is our reputation as well as our self-image. But more than a temperament, being positive, we are told, is the key to success and prosperity.

In this utterly original take on the American frame of mind, Barbara Ehrenreich traces the strange career of our sunny outlook from its origins as a marginal nineteenth-century healing technique to its enshrinement as a dominant, almost mandatory, cultural attitude. Evangelical mega-churches preach the good news that you only have to want something to get it, because God wants to “prosper” you. The medical profession prescribes positive thinking for its presumed health benefits. Academia has made room for new departments of “positive psychology” and the “science of happiness.” Nowhere, though, has bright-siding taken firmer root than within the business community, where, as Ehrenreich shows, the refusal even to consider negative outcomes—like mortgage defaults—contributed directly to the current economic crisis. 

With the mythbusting powers for which she is acclaimed, Ehrenreich exposes the downside of Americas penchant for positive thinking: On a personal level, it leads to self-blame and a morbid preoccupation with stamping out “negative” thoughts. On a national level, its brought us an era of irrational optimism resulting in disaster. This is Ehrenreich at her provocative best—poking holes in conventional wisdom and faux science, and ending with a call for existential clarity and courage.

Barbara Ehrenreich is the author of numerous books, including Dancing in the Streets and The New York Times bestsellers Nickel and Dimed and Bait and Switch. A frequent contributor to Harpers and The Nation, she has also been a columnist at The New York Times and Time magazine.

In Bright-sided, Barbara Ehrenreich reveals how the positive thinking movement, though seemingly harmless, has in fact deluded America and played a role in some of the most destructive events in recent U.S. history. Far from just a “healthy mindset,” bright-siding is an epidemic of self-deception that has spread to all circles of American life, from preachers who celebrate the power of prayer, to doctors who promote optimisms healing abilities. It led officials to overlook clues of 9/11 and overestimate the strength of New Orleans levees, and enabled the business world to make egregiously unsafe loans that caused the worst financial crisis since World War II. Ehrenreich exposes the consequences of the belief that positive thinking is the key to achieving success and prosperity—a notion which, at its most dangerous, prevents people from even considering the negative outcomes of major events or their own actions. 

“In this hard-hitting but honest appraisal, Americas 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
“We're always beingtold 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?
 
“Unless you keep on saying that you believe in fairies, Tinker Bell will check out, and whats 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, Americas 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: Americas Place in World History

“Oprah Winfrey, Deepak Chopra, Andrew Weil: please read this relentlessly sensible book. Its never too late to begin thinking clearly.”—Frederick Crews, author of Follies of the Wise: Dissenting Essays

 
“Barbara Ehrenreichs 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
 
"Ehrenreich convinced me completely. . . I hesitate to say anything so positive as that this book will change the way you see absolutely everything; but it just might."—Nora Ephron, The Daily Beast

"Accomplished social critic Ehrenreich eviscerates the positive-thinking movement, which she blames for encouraging us to 'deny reality, submit cheerfully to misfortune, and blame only ourselves for our fate.' The author argues that the promotion of unwarranted optimism began in the early days of the American republic, was taken up by 19th-century philosophers and mystics—William James urged people to repeat to themselves 'Youth, health, vigor!' while dressing in the morning—and entered the American mainstream in the 20th century, when it became an integral part of consumer culture. Ehrenreich's quarrel is not with feeling upbeat but rather with the 'inescapable pseudoscientific flapdoodle' of life coaches and self-improvement products claiming that thinking positively will result in wealth, success and other joyful outcomes. Such magical thinking has become a means of social control in the workplace—where uncheerful employees are ostracized—and prevents action to achieve social change. With life coaches, business motivators and evangelical preachers promoting delusional expectations . . . positive thinking can claim partial credit for a major role in such recent disastrous events as the Iraq war and the financial meltdown. Ehrenreich's many interviews include meetings with psychologist Martin Seligman, whose 'positive psychology,' she finds, offers little credible evidence to make it any different from the wishing-will-make-it-so thinking of writers from Dale Carnegie (How to Win Friends & Influence People) to Rhonda Byrne (The Secret). The author's tough-minded and convincing broadside raises troubling questions about many aspects of contemporary American life, and she provides an antidote to the pervasive culture of cheerfulness—reality-based critical thinking that will encourage people to alter social arrangements in ways that improve their lives. Bright, incisive, provocative thinking from a top-notch nonfiction writer."—Kirkus Reviews

"Ehrenreich delivers a trenchant look into the burgeoning business of positive thinking. A bout with breast cancer puts the author face to face with this new breed of frenetic positive thinking promoted by everyone from scientists to gurus and activists. Chided for her anger and distress by doctors and fellow cancer patients and survivors, Ehrenreich explores the insistence upon optimism as a cultural and national trait, discovering its 'symbiotic relationship with American capitalism' and how poverty, obesity, unemployment and relationship problems are being marketed as obstacles that can be overcome with the right (read: positive) mindset. Building on Max Weber's insights into the relationship between Calvinism and capitalism, Ehrenreich sees the dark roots of positive thinking emerging from 19th-century religious movements. Mary Baker Eddy, William James and Norman Vincent Peale paved the path for today's secular $9.6 billion self-improvement industry and positive psychology institutes. The author concludes by suggesting that the bungled invasion of Iraq and current economic mess may be intricately tied to this 'reckless' national penchant for self-delusion and a lack of anxious vigilance, necessary to societal survival."—Publishers Weekly

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