Book Review: Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Has Undermined America by Barbara Ehrenreich
A word of caution: This review is going to be quite short, as I have been struggling with “getting words out” for the past few days. Regardless, I think this is an important book, and might be of interest to my fellow FWD-ers (bloggers and commenters!).
I touched upon the whole positive thinking movement (and why it offends me) at this very blog a while back; I’ve long had problems with the “Just think POSITIVE!” suggestion and attendant movement, and one piece that really got to the root of things, at least for me, was Ehrenreich’s 2001 essay, “Welcome to Cancerland,” which is about how positive thinking–bejewelled and be-ribboned with a heaping helping of traditional femininity and stereotypes about women, and particularly women who have survived breast cancer–has, for lack of a better word, swallowed the breast cancer “awareness” movement. [The essay is available at her website.] A revised version of the essay appears as the opening chapter to Bright-Sided, and Ehrenreich adds just enough salient facts to make reading the newer version worthwhile and not at all confusing to non-sciencey types like myself. (Ehrenreich has a PhD in Cell Biology.)
That said, the remainder of Bright-Sided proved to be a fast, engaging read. In fact, I wish it had been longer, and one chapter that could have used an expansion was the closing chapter on positive thinking’s effect on the recent U.S. economic crash. The book is also extremely U.S.-centric, but since positive thinking is one of those things that seems to have really taken flight in the North American consciousness, this is not particularly surprising. Unfortunately, with the exception of the breast cancer chapter, Ehrenreich does not specifically cover disability and/or chronic illness issues as they relate to the positive thinking movement. However, her book as a whole may have been designed to be rather “general” since the positive thinking movement impacts many people (for better or worse), not just those with disabilities. This generality is both a strength and a weakness, and I think Ehrenreich’s writing saves her points from being too non-specific.
I will leave you with a quote that stuck with me, from the book’s second chapter:
But in the world of positive thinking other people are not there to be nurtured or to provide unwelcome reality checks. They are only to nourish, praise and affirm. Harsh as this dictum sounds, many ordinary people adopt it as their creed, displaying wall plaques or bumper stickers showing the word “Whining” with a cancel sign through it. There seems to be a massive empathy deficit, which people respond to by withdrawing their own. No one has the time or patience for anyone else’s problems…When the gurus advise dropping “negative” people, they are also issuing a warning: smile and be agreeable, go with the flow–or prepare to be ostracized. (56-57)