Bright-Sided How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America

Barbara Ehrenreich




Trade Paperback

256 Pages



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In Bright-sided, Barbara Ehrenreich reveals how the positive thinking movement, though seemingly harmless, has in fact deluded America and played a role in some of the most destructive events in recent U.S. history. Far from just a “healthy mindset,” bright-siding is an epidemic of self-deception that has spread to all circles of American life, from preachers who celebrate the power of prayer, to doctors who promote optimism’s healing abilities. It led officials to overlook clues of 9/11 and overestimate the strength of New Orleans’ levees, and enabled the business world to make egregiously unsafe loans that caused the worst financial crisis since World War II. Ehrenreich exposes the consequences of the belief that positive thinking is the key to achieving success and prosperity—a notion which, at its most dangerous, prevents people from even considering the negative outcomes of major events or their own actions.


Praise for Bright-Sided

"Barbara Ehrenreich wants to make clear that she is not a spoilsport. 'No one can call me a sourpuss,' she declared. 'I have a big foot in the joy camp.' She is the author of Dancing in the Streets, a history of 'collective joy,' she notes, and a lot of fun at parties. So her new book, Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, should not be mistaken for a curmudgeonly rant. It is serious social history. Many of the 17 books that Ms. Ehrenreich has written during the past three and half decades have taken her into alien worlds. In her fantastically successful 2001 book, Nickel and Dimed, for example, she details her experience of trying to get by on the salary of an unskilled, minimum-wage worker. By contrast, this newest volume is based on her stay in a world that she became intimately familiar with: the smiley-faced, pink-ribboned, positive-thinking culture that surrounds breast cancer patients . . . In Bright-sided, she traces the roots of the nation's blithe sunniness to a reaction against Calvinist gloom and the limits of medical science in the first half of the 19th century. Starting with Phineas Parkhurst Quimby, perhaps one of the first American New Age faith healers, she draws a line to Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science; the psychologist William James; Ralph Waldo Emerson; Norman Vincent Peale, who published The Power of Positive Thinking in 1952; and the toothy television minister Joel Osteen, who preaches the gospel of prosperity."—Patricia Cohen, The New York Times

"When I finished Barbara Ehrenreich's Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, I went in search of a stiff drink—or something that would allow me to escape, if only briefly, the feeling that I have been blind to the unyielding grip that positive thinking has on our culture. Very little I have read elsewhere has suggested that the current recession is good for us, but Ehrenreich implies that the implosion of our economy may bring us to our senses and that reason and common sense might have a chance to disempower the foolish, self-serving and dangerous promotion of positive thinking reaching into all areas of our lives: our health, jobs, science, religion, politics. She is relentless—and persuasive—in her determination to convince us of this. Her notes run to 15 pages of titles of papers, articles, books and television interviews she has researched to support her contention that the unwarranted optimism urged on us by church and corporations, by medical and psychological 'experts,' has distorted the reality of the disaster we now find ourselves facing . . . So what's with all this negativity Ehrenreich forces on us? Isn't positive thinking better than being a spoilsport? In a voice urgent and passionate, Ehrenreich offers us neither extreme but instead balance: joy, happiness, yes; sadness, anger, yes. She favors life with a clear head, eyes wide open."—Jane Juska, San Francisco Chronicle

"I have waited my whole life for someone to write a book like Bright-Sided . . . All the background noise of America—motivational speakers, positive prayer, the new Journal of Happiness Studies—these are not the markers of happy, well-adjusted psyches uncorrupted by irony, as I have always been led to believe. Instead, Ehrenreich argues convincingly that they are the symptoms of a noxious virus infecting all corners of American life that goes by the name 'positive thinking.'  What started as a 19th-century response to dour Calvinism has, over the years, turned equally oppressive, Ehrenreich writes. Stacks of best sellers equate corporate success with a positive attitude. Flimsy medical research claims that cheerfulness can improve the immune system. In a growing number of American churches, confessions of poverty or distress amount to heresy. America’s can-do optimism has hardened into a suffocating culture of positivity that bears little relation to genuine hope or happiness . . . Millions of Americans—not just C.E.O.’s and megapastors but middle-class and even poor people—feel truly empowered by the notion that through the strength of their own minds alone they can change their circumstances. This may be delusional and infuriating. But it is also a kind of radical self-reliance that is deeply and unchangeably American."—Hanna Rosin, The New York Times Book Review

“Insightful, smart, and witty . . . Ehrenreich makes important points about what happens to those who dare to warn of the worst.”—BusinessWeek

“A rousing endorsement of skepticism, realism, and critical thinking.”—San Francisco Bay Guardian

“Gleefully pops the positive-thinking bubble . . . Amazingly, she’ll make you laugh, albeit ruefully, as she presents how society’s relentless focus on being upbeat has eroded our ability to ask—and heed—the kind of uncomfortable questions that could have fended off economic disaster.”—

“A measured and informed attack on the ‘cult of positive thinking’ that first infected the United States and then spread to the rest of the world . . . The real value of Ehrenreich’s book is that it shows that the choice is not between being positive or negative. The issue, according to Ehrenreich, is whether we start with the facts or with our attitudes.”—Financial Times (UK)

“Barbara Ehrenreich’s study of American optimism at its most delusional is fascinating, often very funny, and wholly convincing . . . As a portrait of America’s desperate insistence on facile optimism, Bright-Sided is stunningly good . . . a highly entertaining, alarming read, and a ringing clarion call to America to brace up and remember Sod’s law.”—The Sunday Times (UK)

"In Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Notion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, Barbara Ehrenreich reprises her role as Dorothy swishing back the curtain on a great and powerful given: ‘Americans are a “positive” people.’ Sunny, self-confident optimism defines us as individuals and as a nation. Humbug. Ehrenreich wants us to pay close attention to the truth behind the hype—positive thinking is hurting America, from obliging one another to turn that frown upside-down, to 2008's financial meltdown . . . 'Flapdoodle,' crows Ehrenreich, and the fun begins. Like flying monkeys tearing apart the Scarecrow, she shreds theories based on quantum physics (neuronal impulses are far too large to be influenced by quantum effects), magnetism (the magnetic properties of thought are swamped by competing magnetisms—like the Earth's!), and magic (pay no attention to that man behind the curtain). Ehrenreich likewise thrashes from top to bottom ‘the motivators and gurus of positivity,’ from Rhonda Byrne, author of The Secret, to prosperity preachers like Joel Osteen. Osteen makes a juicy target, sidestepping as he does sin and salvation in favor of the 'prosperity gospel'—'You can have that new car or house or necklace, because God wants to "prosper you."' In spurning Osteen as a heretical fake, Ehrenreich fights dirty, mocking Osteen's height (he's shorter in person) and his mullet (it's longer). Ehrenreich claims she approached her initial meeting with Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology, ‘with trepidation,’ yet we almost expect her to say, 'Just one more thing . . .' à la Lt. Columbo, as she tries to pin down the exact measurements of Seligman's "equation" for happiness, a contrivance that makes him 'look like the Wizard of Oz.' The refutation and character assassination, while entertaining, serve to show how positive thinking is as rickety a construct as the Wizard, merely masking insecurities about a world we can't really control. So complete is Ehrenreich's argument that she plays her own devil's advocate: positive thinking requires self-deception, ‘a constant effort to repress or block out unpleasant possibilities and "negative" thoughts'—like those created by scathing social critiques . . . Those readers who've 'gone so far down this yellow brick road that “positive” seems to us the way you should be' may bite their nails over the demystification in Bright-Sided. Ehrenreich's advice on where to go from here is a workable antidote to the pursuit of secret formulas that don't exist."—Kassten Alonso, The Oregonian (Portland)

"Two-thirds of the way into the book, its theme shines through like sunlight in an old-time Baptist window, the kind they don't make anymore because nobody knows how and even if they did they wouldn't have the patience. It's much easier and faster these days simply to visualize it and wish for it according to the directives of the positive-thinking life coaches of the prosperity-gospel churches. And while you're about it, you might as well visualize a big house in the suburbs with an adjustable-rate mortgage or a diamond necklace instead, or any other nice piece of bling . . . In precisely crafted, hard-hitting language throughout, she explains how hordes of optimistic American consumers, under the spell of 'new age' authors and psychologists, television preachers and celebrities, visualized and wished (with a lot of help from credit cards) for so much stuff that now they are enmeshed in unwished-for bankruptcy in record numbers . . . This hard-boiled analysis of the national mass fantasy of wishful thinking contributed, says the author, to the economic collapse of 2008. It represents her hope for recovery from 'the mass delusion that is positive thinking.' Her personal vision, she says, is composed of better jobs and better health care for all, and a chance for everyone to contribute through clear thinking and hard work, not through the notion that we can 'levitate ourselves into that blessed condition by wishing it.'"—Tom Dodge, The Dallas Morning News

"Ehrenreich, author of the best-selling Nickel and Dimed, delivers her indictments of the happiness industry with both authority and wit. . . . Others have critiqued the positivity movement, but Ehrenreich does an impressive job of analyzing its broader social impact."—Kristin Ohlson, The Plain Dealer (Cleveland)

"Ehrenreich convinced me completely. . . I hesitate to say anything so positive as that this book will change the way you see absolutely everything; but it just might."—Nora Ephron, The Daily Beast

"We're always being told that looking on the bright side is good for us, but now we see that it's a great way to brush off poverty, disease, and unemployment, to rationalize an order where all the rewards go to those on top. The people who are sick or jobless—why, they just aren't thinking positively. They have no one to blame but themselves. Barbara Ehrenreich has put the menace of positive thinking under the microscope. Anyone who's ever been told to brighten up needs to read this book.”—Thomas Frank, author of The Wrecking Crew and What's the Matter with Kansas?

“Unless you keep on saying that you believe in fairies, Tinker Bell will check out, and what’s more, her sad demise will be your fault! Barbara Ehrenreich scores again for the independent-minded in resisting this drool and all those who wallow in it.”—Christopher Hitchens, author of God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything

“In this hard-hitting but honest appraisal, America’s cultural skeptic Barbara Ehrenreich turns her focus on the muddled American phenomenon of positive thinking. She exposes the pseudoscience and pseudointellectual foundation of the positive-thinking movement for what it is: a house of cards. This is a mind-opening read.”—Michael Shermer, author of Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time

“Once again, Barbara Ehrenreich has written an invaluable and timely book, offering a brilliant analysis of the causes and dimensions of our current cultural and economic crises. She shows how deeply positive thinking is embedded in our history and how crippling it is as a habit of mind.”—Thomas Bender, author of A Nation Among Nations: America’s Place in World History

“Oprah Winfrey, Deepak Chopra, Andrew Weil: please read this relentlessly sensible book. It’s never too late to begin thinking clearly.”—Frederick Crews, author of Follies of the Wise: Dissenting Essays

“Barbara Ehrenreich’s skeptical common sense is just what we need to penetrate the cloying fog that passes for happiness in America.”—Alan Wolfe, author of The Future of Liberalism

“In this hilarious and devastating critique, Barbara Ehrenreich applies some much needed negativity to the zillion-dollar business of positive thinking. This is truly a text for the times.”—Katha Pollitt, author of The Mind-Body Problem: Poems

"Positive thinking should never be the same after Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided . . . Ehrenreich is a sharp and reliable student of the divided middle class, as good as the American left can boast. In attacking the thick irrationality of our public lives, [this book] homes in on a particularly salient line of argument—that positive thinking is not only preposterous but pernicious."—John Summers, Bookforum

"Accomplished social critic Ehrenreich eviscerates the positive-thinking movement, which she blames for encouraging us to 'deny reality, submit cheerfully to misfortune, and blame only ourselves for our fate.' The author argues that the promotion of unwarranted optimism began in the early days of the American republic, was taken up by 19th-century philosophers and mystics—William James urged people to repeat to themselves 'Youth, health, vigor!' while dressing in the morning—and entered the American mainstream in the 20th century, when it became an integral part of consumer culture. Ehrenreich's quarrel is not with feeling upbeat but rather with the 'inescapable pseudoscientific flapdoodle' of life coaches and self-improvement products claiming that thinking positively will result in wealth, success and other joyful outcomes. Such magical thinking has become a means of social control in the workplace—where uncheerful employees are ostracized—and prevents action to achieve social change. With life coaches, business motivators and evangelical preachers promoting delusional expectations . . . positive thinking can claim partial credit for a major role in such recent disastrous events as the Iraq war and the financial meltdown. Ehrenreich's many interviews include meetings with psychologist Martin Seligman, whose 'positive psychology,' she finds, offers little credible evidence to make it any different from the wishing-will-make-it-so thinking of writers from Dale Carnegie (How to Win Friends & Influence People) to Rhonda Byrne (The Secret). The author's tough-minded and convincing broadside raises troubling questions about many aspects of contemporary American life, and she provides an antidote to the pervasive culture of cheerfulness—reality-based critical thinking that will encourage people to alter social arrangements in ways that improve their lives. Bright, incisive, provocative thinking from a top-notch nonfiction writer."—Kirkus Reviews

"Ehrenreich delivers a trenchant look into the burgeoning business of positive thinking. A bout with breast cancer puts the author face to face with this new breed of frenetic positive thinking promoted by everyone from scientists to gurus and activists. Chided for her anger and distress by doctors and fellow cancer patients and survivors, Ehrenreich explores the insistence upon optimism as a cultural and national trait, discovering its 'symbiotic relationship with American capitalism' and how poverty, obesity, unemployment and relationship problems are being marketed as obstacles that can be overcome with the right (read: positive) mindset. Building on Max Weber's insights into the relationship between Calvinism and capitalism, Ehrenreich sees the dark roots of positive thinking emerging from 19th-century religious movements. Mary Baker Eddy, William James and Norman Vincent Peale paved the path for today's secular $9.6 billion self-improvement industry and positive psychology institutes. The author concludes by suggesting that the bungled invasion of Iraq and current economic mess may be intricately tied to this 'reckless' national penchant for self-delusion and a lack of anxious vigilance, necessary to societal survival."—Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt


Americans are a "positive" people. This is our reputation as well as our self-image. We smile a lot and are oft en baffled when people from other cultures do not return the favor. In the well-worn stereotype, we are upbeat, cheerful, optimistic, and shallow, while foreigners are likely to be subtle, world-weary, and possibly decadent. American expatriate writers like Henry James and James Baldwin wrestled with and occasionally reinforced this stereotype, which I once encountered in the 1980s in the form of a remark by Soviet émigré poet Joseph Brodsky to the effect

Read the full excerpt



  • Bright-Sided by Barbara Ehrenreich--Audiobook Excerpt

    Listen to this audiobook excerpt and hear the introduction from Barbara Ehrenreich's Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America, a sharp-witted knockdown of America's love affair with positive thinking and an urgent call for a new commitment to realism.



  • Barbara Ehrenreich

  • Barbara Ehrenreich is the author of numerous books, including Dancing in the Streets and The New York Times bestsellers Nickel and Dimed and Bait and Switch. A frequent contributor to Harper’s and The Nation, she has also been a columnist at The New York Times and Time magazine.

  • Barbara Ehrenreich Sigrid Estrada
    Barbara Ehrenreich