Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America
by Barbara Ehrenreich
Reviewed by Kassten Alonso
In Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Notion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, Barbara Ehrenreich reprises her role as Dorothy swishing back the curtain on a great and powerful given: "Americans are a 'positive' people." Sunny, self-confident optimism defines us as individuals and as a nation. Humbug. Ehrenreich wants us to pay close attention to the truth behind the hype -- positive thinking is hurting America, from obliging one another to turn that frown upside-down, to 2008's financial meltdown.
Positive thinking as an ideology began in the 19th century. Christened New Thought, it was a backlash to the doctrine of Calvinism, with its emphasis on predestination and salvation through the grace of God alone, i.e., all work and no play. The Law of Attraction -- "You can have anything by focusing your mind on it" -- gave New Thought a mystical aroma that proponents of pop positivity have sought to rationalize.
"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).
Ehrenreich likewise thrashes from top to bottom "the motivators and gurus of positivity," from Rhonda Byrne, author of The Secret, to prosperity preachers like Joel Osteen. Osteen makes a juicy target, sidestepping as he does sin and salvation in favor of the "prosperity gospel" -- "You can have that new car or house or necklace, because God wants to 'prosper you.'" In spurning Osteen as a heretical fake, Ehrenreich fights dirty, mocking Osteen's height (he's shorter in person) and his mullet (it's longer).
Ehrenreich claims she approached her initial meeting with Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology, "with trepidation," yet we almost expect her to say, "Just one more thing...." a la Lt. Columbo, as she tries to pin down the exact measurements of Seligman's "equation" for happiness, a contrivance that makes him "look like the Wizard of Oz."
The refutation and character assassination, while entertaining, serve to show how positive thinking is as rickety a construct as the Wizard, merely masking insecurities about a world we can't really control. So complete is Ehrenreich's argument that she plays her own devil's advocate: positive thinking requires self-deception, "a constant effort to repress or block out unpleasant possibilities and 'negative' thoughts" -- like those created by scathing social critiques.
Bright-Sided isn't likely to trouble the sleep of Osteen; it may irritate Seligman. But what of "positive theology's" congregations? The adherents of motivational speakers? The worker bees keeping corporations alive while expecting any moment to get kicked out of the hive? Will they get the memo?
Those readers who've "gone so far down this yellow brick road that 'positive' seems to us the way you should be" may bite their nails over the demystification in Bright-Sided. Ehrenreich's advice on where to go from here is a workable antidote to the pursuit of secret formulas that don't exist.