Bright-Sided

Barbara Ehrenreich opens Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America with the tale of her own treatment for breast cancer and the pressure put upon those with breast cancer to maintain a relentlessly cheerful and positive outlook — lest they weaken their immune system with negative thoughts. Although that sounds hyperbolic, Ehrenreich has stories of women lectured in hospitals, scolded in support groups, and — in one case — even called out by Deepak Chopra for what most people would consider an absolutely normal response to a life-threatening illness.

From there, Ehrenreich traces the history of the Positive Thinking movement as a response to Calvinism and the birth of Christian Science, then examines Positive Thinking’s role in business, religion (as the “prosperity gospel”), modern psychiatric research, and — finally — its role in the sub-prime mortgage meltdown.

Of course, positive thinking works — to a certain extent. Ehrenreich credits Christian Science with frequently effective treatment of nineteenth-century invalidism, for example. And it’s easy to mistake her argument as opposing incidental optimism or a generally positive outlook. She says in the introduction:

At the risk of redundancy or even tautology, we can say that on many levels, individual and social, it is good to be “positive,” certainly better than being withdrawn, aggrieved, or chronically sad. [p. 2]

What is at stake in her argument is the culture of the relentlessly positive — that simply through visualizing health, success, and positive energy, everything will work out for the best. That has a dark side. Not only does it blame the afflicted while patting the comfortable on the back; it prohibits the critical thinking and analysis needed to avoid disaster and chart a course to success.