Bright-Sided | Barbara Ehrenreich

Summary of: Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America
By: Barbara Ehrenreich


In ‘Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America’, Barbara Ehrenreich brings our attention to the pervasiveness and negative consequences of the positive thinking mantra. Presenting diverse examples from healthcare, corporate environments, and self-help methodologies, she analyzes how the positive thinking culture has tended to ignore systemic problems in American society, leading to victim-blaming and an inability to quickly address real challenges. This summary will introduce you to Ehrenreich’s perspective on the roots, growth, and impact of the positive thinking movement, as well as its potentially troublesome consequences.

The Negativity of Positive Thinking

Americans have been conditioned to be positive thinkers, to believe that everything will eventually get better. However, this ideology has resulted in the US ranking only 23rd in happiness worldwide, high prescription rates for antidepressants, and poor academic performance among US children. The positivity industry, consisting of coaches, motivational speakers, and producers of books and DVDs, has taken advantage of this culture. While positivity can motivate, it also perpetuates systemic problems in society by blaming victims. The reluctance to look at the bigger picture can lead to disastrous consequences, as seen with Hurricane Katrina. Therefore, it’s crucial to balance positivity with a realistic perspective.

Fighting the Pink Ribbon Culture

Investigative journalist Barbara Ehrenreich shares her experience with breast cancer and the harmful culture of positive thinking that surrounds it. Despite her frustration and anger, she found no outlet for her emotions in websites, blogs, or support groups. Instead, she encountered a culture that embraces the idea of cancer as a “gift” and encourages patients to maintain a positive attitude. Experts and medical professionals promote the belief that an upbeat attitude helps patients heal, but research has not substantiated this claim. The culture of positive thinking can be harmful, as it leads patients to repress their natural responses and blame themselves for their cancer’s persistence. Ehrenreich’s story sheds light on the need to reject the pink ribbon culture and allow patients to express their anger, frustration, and outrage without shame.

Dark Side of Positivity

Self-help author Joe Vitale’s ‘inspired marketing’ and J.P. Maroney’s positive energy are said to be the key to success. Negativity and negative people must be avoided at all costs, and being positive is essential for health, prosperity, and success. However, this notion has evolved into a dark side, where individuals are penalized for anything negative. Positivity counselors discourage clients from watching the news and imply helplessness, ignoring the fact that people can act to fight societal issues. The pressure to always be positive can weigh heavily on individuals, leaving them with a heavy burden akin to a second disease.

The Fallacy of Positive Thinking

The concept of positive thinking attracting wealth, love, or career success is not new. However, it is a flawed notion rooted in metaphysical principles of magic rather than science. Bestsellers like The Secret have popularized this idea, but neither the theory of thought-vibrations nor the mind shaping the physical world survive scientific scrutiny. The economic meltdown should have put an end to the belief that poverty results from personal shortcoming. The fallacy of positive thinking is an illusion, and scientists have debunked such pseudoscience as quantum flapdoodle.

The Power of Positive Thinking

The United States’ early settlers practiced Calvinism, which condemned pleasure as a sin and often led to self-loathing. Mary Baker Eddy founded the Christian Science religion after seeking out Phineas Parkhurst Quimby, who drew on Emerson’s transcendentalism to envision God as a forgiving “Spirit” and to posit that “One Mind” connects all humanity. New Thought therapies were later used to treat patients, and Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking expanded upon those teachings, advocating for relentless self-monitoring and echoing aspects of Calvinism.

Power of Positive Thinking

The use of positive thinking in the workplace has been a growing trend since Peale’s time, especially in the motivation and sales industries. Positive thinking techniques are used to encourage workers to work harder and accept longer hours and less job security. Zig Ziglar is among the popular faith-based motivators who urge individuals to stop blaming systems and bosses but work harder and pray more. Even breast cancer patients are required to apologize for being unhappy. Team building has also become a focus to generate continued employee loyalty despite layoffs and cost-cutting. Survivors work harder and longer for less pay, with no job security.

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