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)

About Annaham

Annaham (they/them) is a feminist with several disabilities who occasionally updates their personal blog. They currently live in the San Francisco Bay Area with their partner, and an extremely spoiled Yorkie/Pom mix named Sushi. You can reach them by emailing hamdotblog AT gmail dot com.

8 thoughts on “Book Review: Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Has Undermined America by Barbara Ehrenreich

  1. Ah, I just heard about this book last night when another blog linked to a recent Ehrenreich essay (about the new mammogram guidelines). I instantly added it to my wishlist.

    As I may have mentioned here before (not that anyone remembers; I don’t comment all that often), I have a brain tumor. It’ll kill me eventually, but it’s pretty slow-growing, and I’ve got a host of other physical and mental “issues” that might kill me first…which I knew before I was diagnosed with the tumor. As a result I’m rather flippant about my prognosis and have no problem joking about it.

    Except that so often, people respond with “OMG!!! YOU HAVE TO THINK POSITIVE!!!!!!” and go on to imply that if I just “think positive,” it’ll keep me alive longer than the ~7-10 years I’ve got now. (Despite the fact that I often link people to a few studies that have shown cancer patients who are “positive” tend to do *worse* than those who are “negative” or neutral — if you keep denying that shit is going wrong, it’s hard to accept treatment or improve your quality of life for the time you do have!)

    Fuck that, dude. My negativity has served me just fine insofar. 😉 And anyway, isn’t laughter/joking a positive thing? It’s a way for me to acknowledge that this very messed up thing is also *very real*. When I stop talking/joking about it, it starts to feel like a dream (at least during the times I’m not actively in treatment).

    I will definitely get this book on my Kindle tonight. 🙂

  2. This strikes me as one of those ‘too much of a good thing’ situations. Thinking positive can be beneficial, but it’s not an end-all-be-all Likewise with dropping negative people–some people are truly toxic and serve only to drag you down, and they need to be cut off. It sounds like people have taken it from ‘think positive’ to ‘ignore anything negative’, and ignoring your problems doesn’t make them go away, no matter what the teacher said when kids were picking on you in middle school.

    (Actually, you could probably say the same thing with the whole self-esteem BS that’s going around)

  3. I kind of want to get this book for my family. I don’t need to hear it, I know it.

    (Plus I couldn’t finish her last book. For various reasons. That I don’t remember.)

    My therapist tells me I need to stop letting my imagination create “doomsday” scenarios. (“What will happen if you don’t do this assignment?” “I’ll end up living under a bridge.”)

    But she says my sense of humor is important to making it through – because I started picking the right bridge.

    I realize the importance of recognizing what is good in your life – puppies, pictures of Bollywood hotties, Bollywood movies, puppies, my books, the internet, puppies – but even the puppies won’t cure everything.

    Sometime recognizing the so-called “negative” – my mom told me I’m the only one in charge of “can’t” as if acknowledging limits is bad – is also important. I can’t do this, if I try all I’ll get is frustrated by my inability. Knowing limits – reality – is very important. How can you cope if you don’t know what you’re coping with?

  4. That’s a great point about setting limits, Kaitlyn. A lot of these “Just Think Positive!” types don’t get that people are allowed to (and in fact, NEED to) set limits. If I didn’t set limits for myself, I would push too hard (“you can do anything if you just try harder”) and work myself into a flare up, which would lay me up for a month. If I didn’t set limits for the way other people are allowed to interact with me (and even WHO can interact with me) my boss at my last job would probably have groped me regularly, I would engage in conversation with people who weren’t good for me, and I might even still be dating an abusive douchenozzle. I love knowing my limits and knowing that I’m allowed to set other people’s limits with regard to myself.

  5. I agree with Kaitlyn and Mcfly’s points about limits. The idea that we can do anything if we just set our minds to it can be helpful and inspiring to some but very damaging to others, especially when it’s imposed on them. I remember being told many, many times during the worst of my depression that if I just tried a little harder I would be fine. I wasn’t confident or strong enough to stand up for myself when faced with that.

    I’d really like to read this book; “Welcome to Cancerland” is a great essay.

  6. I am sooo tempted to ask for this book for Christmas from my Secret-obsessed mother. Or get it for her. That would probably just upset her, though.

  7. The thing about setting limits is that – this is hard for any parent, but for their parent of a disabled child it must be harder – we must set our own limits. (I don’t mean our own curfew, or whether or not we’ll smoke pot in the house. I mean our bodily limits.)

    And that requires trial and error – I don’t always know what I can do. And the way the pain goes up, down, away… I never know what I can do until I get up and move around. I used to walk everywhere, now I’m worried about walking to the store and being stuck by pain because “I don’t need my pain pills! I’m in charge!” (actually I try to take them with me all the time while at school, just to be safe – don’t want them stolen) Of course, when it gets that bad it takes about a million years for the pain meds to work, and only if I’m not doing something “wild and wacky” like walking.

    My mom is learning too, and it hurts to be a few baby steps ahead of her. “I don’t know you, but here are the things you must do.”

  8. Fantastic post! All I really can say to that is: I fucking hate positive thinking, and I hate how people frequently tell me to engage in it to make my severe, recurrent depression “better.”

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