Book Review: Bright-Sided. How the relentless promotion of positive thinking has undermined America

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Barbara Ehrenreich examines dangerous flaws in America's thinking

Bright-Sided. How the relentless promotion of positive thinking has undermined America
by Barbara Ehrenreich
Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2009

The author of “Nickel and Dimed” and fifteen other socially conscious books dares to attack the preachers and hucksters of “feel good” America, and she does it successfully. For some, her steely iconoclasm might be hard to take at first. Almost gleefully, she reveals that preachers lie, God doesn’t necessarily want you to be wealthy, losing your job is not necessarily the best thing that every happened to you, and that pleasant thoughts will not cure cancer.

In other words, positive thinking as expounded by Norman Vincent Peale (Power of Positive Thinking), Mary Baker Eddy (Christian Science), televangelists, and the Human Resources expert in charge of layoffs is a crock. Further, all of them are essentially working for the bosses who owe their own happy thoughts to material comfort and to their confidence in their ability to pay somebody to manipulate the rest of us into a world of delusions.

The big lie of positive thinking is so pervasive that it would be difficult to read through Ehrenreich’s book without thinking of some of our own misconceptions. Do we sing with sincerity, “Dream, and it might come true...”, “Pretend you’re happy when you’re blue...”, and “Put on a happy face...”?

If we leave the TV on while reading, we’ll probably notice dozens of examples leaping right off Ehrenreich’s pages onto our television screen! All of the religion spokespersons, all of the commercials, most of the dramatic content, and much of the news promotes the same “don’t worry, be happy” misguidance.

Ehrenreich is right on, and the book has considerable value. But criticisms come to mind as well. For one thing, there’s the splatter of anti-communism that we have come to expect from every liberal writer as they scurry to separate themselves from the serious social critics. Ehrenreich says that optimism was forced on Soviet citizens with the full force of state power. It may be news to Ehrenreich, but socialists aren’t optimistic because we’re forced; we’re optimistic because we haven’t surrendered to alienation from humanity and because, no matter how long it may take, we are on the winning side of the class struggle.

A more damaging lack in Ehrenreich’s work against positive thinking is that it doesn’t go nearly far enough. Modern society is not merely seduced by the positive thinking preachers and gurus, the capitalist class actually drives us into a false philosophy much larger and stronger than that – idealism as opposed to scientific materialism. Lenin made it a simple dichotomy: “One expression of the genius of Marx and Engels was that they despised pedantic playing with new words, erudite terms, and simple 'isms', and said simply and plainly: there is a materialist line and an idealist line in philosophy, and between them there are various shades of agnosticism.”  (Materialism and Empiro-criticism, Chapter Three: The Theory Of Knowledge of Dialectical Materialism and of Empirio-Criticism.)

A materialist is concerned with real world facts and real world consequences, while an idealist tends to make up the facts in accordance with emotions. Idealists make easy victims for positive thinking hucksters and the bosses who guide them. For more on scientific materialism versus dangerous idealism, see the Little School of Marxism.



--Jim Lane, 10/24/10

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  • Wow, thank you so much for pointing me to this book - a book which I personally believe helps to explain why indiscriminate and undeserved optimism further enables the problems in our society.

    I'm told I need to think more positive when I express a more realistic view but when I held the same view when living in Canada, a country that has embraced socialism, I came off as a lot more positive. I didn't have to worry about what would happen if I lost my job and health insurance, subsequently getting into an accident or seriously ill. So this book looks like it'll be a breath of fresh air.

    The "Don't worry, feel happy" movement keeps our nation from extinguishing the stigma with communism and socialism, making progress towards fixing our nation and cheapens genuine happiness and positivity.

    Posted by Jessica Sideways, 11/01/2010 10:03pm (7 years ago)

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