Monday, May 17, 2010

Bright-sided: How the relentless promotion of positive thinking has undermined America

Book Club... And Then Some!

Bright-sided: How the relentless promotion of positive thinking has undermined America
by Barbara Ehrenreich

 Book Review by Richard L. Weaver II, Ph.D.

In this 235-page book with 16 pages of notes, Ehrenreich, author of 16 previous books and a previous columnist at The New York Times and Time magazine, offers a rich and compelling read about the false promises of positive thinking.  

First, those reading this review must know that I am completely biased in Ehrenreich’s favor—even though I am guilty of what she is accusing others of doing.  Before supporting my bias, I have to admit that I have been lecturing to thousands of students a loud, clear, and upbeat message about how positive thinking (along with valuable communication skills, of course) is a well-paved, proven road to success.  Also, anyone who reads my blog will know that many of my Thursday essays (and books of essays—see especially, You Rules—Caution: Contents Leads to a Better Life!) support a strong belief in positive thinking.  

You might wonder, then, why I would be biased in Ehrenreich’s favor, because, she thinks it has undermined America.  But, if you read her book you will understand my bias.  I delighted, for example, in the debunking she gave to Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Robert Schuller, and, especially, Joel Osteen and his wife Victoria.  The story she tells of visiting one of Osteen’s services is truly interesting—even delightful.  

Also, she writes about the etymology of positive psychology because of the publication and popularity of Martin Seligman’s books (especially, for example, Learned Optimisim)—something I had only heard about previously and knew little about.)  The unfolding of the Seligman story held my interest, and the details of her interview with Seligman was sheer delight, as was the connection of Seligman’s Positive Psychology Center with Sir John Templeton (p. 166). 

If you would take the time to examine our culture as closely as Ehrenreich has, you would quickly come to the same conclusion she has, that we have produced a huge supply of successful religious and secular charlatans who, under the guise of instruction, simply want to separate you from your money.  There is a great Woody Allen line from the movie, “Hannah and Her Sisters,” which says, “If Jesus came back and saw what they were doing in His name, He’d never stop throwing up.”  

In this book, Ehrenreich traces the origins of the “cult of optimism” from its origins in 19th century America through to the prevalence of the “gospel of prosperity,” “positive psychology,” and the “science of happiness” in academia and literature.  We are amidst a society of “irrational exuberance,” and it is precisely for this reason that Ehrenreich’s book is a must read.  

This book is not a downer at all.  The question she raises, “Why are we so relentlessly positive?”—even when positivity is unwarranted—is a legitimate one.  The bottom line for readers is worthwhile and should stop many dead-in-their-tracks: Are we not too accepting?  Are we not critical enough?  

Ehrenreich's scholarship is impressive, the stories are fascinating, and the book is badly needed, but it will be valuable only if it truly changes attitudes and shapes minds.


Get this book at How the relentless promotion of positive thinking has undermined America


  1. I have seen where Joel Osteen is considered one of the most influential people in America. I also saw that Barbara Ehrenreich thinks he singlehandedly caused the economic meltdown. With that kind of influence, it might be in all our best interest to pay attention to Osteen.

  2. "Pay attention to Osteen" should probably read: "Be wary of Osteen"! If he had anything at all to do with "the economic meltdown," it makes Ehrenreich's book and insights even more important and more significant. I think her book is truly a must read for all citizens.


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