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Bright-Sided, Barbara Ehrenreich

2011/04/09

In this book, the acclaimed author of “Nickled and Dimed” tackles another American idiosyncrasy: the “relentless promotion of positive thinking.” In her introduction, Ehrenreich expounds upon the idea that Americans tend to think of themselves and their country as the best and greatest, and “in the well-worn stereotype [Americans] are upbeat, cheerful, optimistic, and shallow, while foreigners are likely to be subtle, world-weary, and possibly decadent” (1), and questions why, despite this, Americans rank so low on worldwide happiness scales.

The author begins by looking at extreme examples of positive thinking in the face of serious illness, such as cancer, and how patients are berated for sometimes feeling depressed or angry about their disease. As she examined numerous sites for those afflicted with breast cancer, she found that “the appropriate attitude is upbeat and eagerly acquisitive” (22), and that this is not wholly manufactured for the purpose of selling pink merchandise, but rather that even patients themselves chided her for a “bad attitude.” Ehrenreich continued by examining the history of positive thinking, researching some early motivational writers, such as Mary Baker Eddy and Phineas Parkhurst Quimby, as well as contemporary speakers such as Joel Osteen, megachurch pastor, and Martin Seligman, advocate for positive psychology. Finally, she looks at the role of positive thinking in the economic downturn, and its repercussions on America.

Ehrenreich notes that “realism — to the point of defensive pessimism — is a prerequisite not only for human survival but for all animal species… the rationale of the positive thinkers has been that the world is not, or at least no longer is, the dangerous place we imagined it to be” (200). She argues that realism and happiness may exist side-by-side, and that focusing too much on thinking positively has clouded our judgment and kept us from seeing the world as it truly is, and suggests that only when taken with a dose of realism can we truly be happy.

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