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Book: Bright-Sided: How The Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America

January 2, 2011

Oh, I really enjoyed this book. (and I finished it New Year’s Eve so it falls into the 2010 bookcount!)

I wish I had some little sticky flags while I was reading this book because there were *so* many points I wanted to remember. I’ll do my best here, but really, if you are as sick of all the talk of “manifesting your desires” and the neverending push for self-improvement as I am, then you will find this book satisfying and enlightening.

Way back in the day, positive thinking didn’t even exist. I know, right? There was a time when this unrelenting smiley-face insistence on thinking positively and “changing your attitude” didn’t even exist here in America. Hard to believe. However, in the mid-1800s, there was a strong backlash against the harsh Calvinist traditions of constantly examining oneself for sin. It was believed that the rigors of such a hardline religion were causing people to become ill. In response, a woman named Mary Baker Eddy and a man named Phineas Quimby started a movement against Calvinism. Eventually this new way of thinking became the religions called New Thought and Christian Science. Essentially, instead of viewing the world as being ruled by an angry God, followers of New Thought viewed the world as full of abundance, or Supply. Overly simplified: God exists to give you what you want. God WANTS you to have what you want. Just ask, and you shall receive.

So that’s the start of this whole mess we find ourselves in today, where massive corporate downsizing is euphemistically cloaked as “change,” and people bought houses that were way more expensive than they could afford with horrible loans because “it’s all going to work out.” The author, Barbara Ehrenheich, shares her experience with the rah-rah world of support for victims of breast cancer. She talks about some horrific experiences on internet “support” boards where, if she dared to complain about her frustration with the disease, with her fear, or the fact that cancer treatments suck, she was immediately attacked as being “negative” and “needing (counseling) help” and “complaining won’t make you any better.” It turns out, neither will thinking positively. While thinking positively and having a good attitude might help you feel better in the short term, it won’t heal you.

Oh, so many interesting factoids in this book. The entire modern industry of motivational speakers and gurus have roots to New Thought. Entire churches are now preaching “prosperity gospel” (which totally sickens me). Stripped of any sort of Christian iconography or meaning, these megachurches preach that God wants you to be wealthy, wants you to have it all. All you have to do is ask (or, in some cases, demand) that God give this to you, and He will.

Unless, of course, you have the dreaded Negative Thoughts happening, in which case only ruin will come to you. It’s your damn fault if you are hit by a tornado, get cancer, are downsized, have a horrific accident or can’t afford the McMansion you’ve always wanted. You just don’t want it enough. You aren’t asking in the right way. You are putting out negative energy and therefore all you will get in return is negativity.

Ugh. I hate all of this so much. I’m a fairly optimistic person by nature, but more than that I’m realistic. I mean, if no one had any dreams, no one would get anywhere, right? But seriously, there is something wrong with a culture that refuses to look at the facts and instead focuses on somehow magically “manifesting” their every hearts’ desire. What really bothers me about this “prosperity thinking” is how inherently selfish it is. It’s all about what YOU want. And if someone in your life is having a hard time, is complaining, is depressed, maybe has some negative thinking happening — well, cut them out of your life. Goodbye, friend with no job! You’re a bummer. You’re outta here. Chronically ill buddy, I’m afraid you’ve attracted some pretty horrible shit your way. Have fun working that out on your own; I don’t need your negativity.

It’s disgusting, selfish, short-sighted and the lack of empathy is shocking.

Anyway. I think that a healthy balance between thinking good thoughts that help you feel good and get you motivated to work hard and get to where you want to go in life, and a big ol’ dose of reality, is ideal. But entire churches devoted to brainwashing people into thinking that God wants you to have a Lexus — that’s just horrible. And how this plague of positive thinking has wormed its way into the corporate world is really shocking.

While not particularly balanced (she makes very little mention of the positive effects of positive thinking, and one has to believe that there has to be SOME positive effects or it wouldn’t persist, although let’s get real, no one has ever found a Mercedes in their driveway after asking God to bless them with a luxury vehicle), this was SO INTERESTING and totally reinforced my feeling that relentless self-improvement is an exercise in misery and discontent, and we’d be better off joining the local environmental club and lobbying for green power than just repeating the mantra, “Global warming does not exist. Global warming does not exist.”

Ironically, I didn’t find this book a bummer at *all.* I loved her points, I was shocked at a lot of what I read, and ultimately I was left feeling like I am totally OK with who I am and what I have right at this very moment. Which isn’t to say that I’m not going to look myself in the mirror some mornings and say, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!” Everybody needs a boost now and again. But I’ll still make the effort to smile at someone else who looks like they could use a friend that day.

22 Comments leave one →
  1. Mom permalink
    January 2, 2011 8:05 am


  2. January 2, 2011 8:14 am

    The paragraph before your “ugh” – I KNOW! I hate that as well – and that’s why I loathe Paulo Coelho’s self-help masquerading as fiction, for example. I adored Ehrenheich’s dancing in the streets and have been meaning to read more by her ever since. I think this will be next.

    • January 2, 2011 4:46 pm

      You totally should — I thought it was great.

      • January 3, 2011 2:33 am

        I have no idea why I didn’t capitalize the book’s title in my previous comment. That is all πŸ˜› #OCD

  3. January 2, 2011 8:45 am

    ooh this sounds so good. im definitely adding this one to the list. ive always been accused of being too negative, but really im just realistic. i hope for the best but expect the worst. this attitude has served me well and when i abandon that way of thinking is when i get the most frustrated and disappointed. and to go along with nymeths comment, um, Thank You! When i was going through some tough times, a lot of well meaning bloggy friends suggested i read certain paulo coelho books. i read one and tried to read a few others but was mostly like, “what the hell is this?”

    • January 2, 2011 4:47 pm

      You NEED to read this one, it practically has your name on it! I haven’t even heard of paulo coelho — I think I will skip it altogether!

  4. January 2, 2011 8:48 am

    also, im glad this didnt fall into the category of “unpleasantly aggressive non fiction books.” when i saw the title i got worried for you.

  5. January 2, 2011 10:47 am

    I’ve been wondering about this book for ages and I am glad to hear it is so good! I’m sure my library has it. The whole positive thinking thing when it comes to cancer and chronic illness really drives me mad.

    • January 2, 2011 4:48 pm

      Totally — I thought of you and Bookman when reading this. It’s really destructive to insinuate that someone can just “think themselves well” and that if they don’t, then it’s their fault. Horrible.

  6. Lara Starr permalink
    January 2, 2011 10:05 pm

    Great review! If I read/hear “living life to the fullest,” “being my best self” or “making every moment count” one more time I’m going to gouge my eyes out with knitting needles. And don’t get me started on “living in the moment.” I find that kind of thinking exhausting, and fake. We can’t appreciate the good, transformative, important and authentically amazing moments if they ALL ARE ALL THE TIME.

    Life is short, but days are loooong, with millions of moments, and some of them I fill with ordinary, distracted, cranky, mean, unkind, impatient, ungrateful, indulgent thoughts and actions. You know what that makes me? Human.

  7. January 3, 2011 2:57 am

    I’m not a negative thinker or a positive thinker — just a realist. That can be a bummer for some folks, but at least I’m never disappointed when reality hits! It sounds like a lot of our fellow Americans could use a copy of this book. Hello?!!

  8. January 4, 2011 4:57 am

    And, so… I guess you aren’t a big fan of THE SECRET, right?

    • January 4, 2011 11:26 am

      I read it, I liked it at first, and then it seemed like totally bulls**t and that is my continuing opinion. πŸ™‚ Although I do visualize open parking spaces… (because of my lack of faith, this only works occasionally..)

  9. January 7, 2011 1:17 pm

    Ok, I like the concept but had a really bad experience with the author’s Nickel and Dimed (probably because I was one of those low-income people she was pretending to be while keeping her insurance and having money to turn back to…just a thought.) I’m not certain if I can get past that to read this, but I may give it a shot despite having sworn to despise her books FOREVAH!!! In any case, I find the history of the “positive thinking” industry to be curious. I read a book recently that connected commercialism and consumerism in the diet industry to religious institutions in America (and why haven’t I reviewed it yet? I’ve been recommending it all over the place) that tied into this – the idea that Jesus is a rich white handsome man whom women must be beautiful and slim for – and consumerism and the Lexis worked in there too, somewhere. Hm. Yeah, I may have to reconsider my ban on all things Ehrenreich.

  10. January 7, 2011 1:19 pm

    Oh – Funny – the UK title is “Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking has Ruined America and the World.”

    • January 8, 2011 10:30 am

      I love it.

    • January 8, 2011 10:31 am

      I didn’t think her book was particularly well-balanced, but I did enjoy learning the crazy history of this nation- (and world-) wide brainwashing. You might like it, it was certainly interesting!!

  11. Kathy permalink
    January 28, 2011 5:23 pm

    Dear Daphne, I would have to take exception to the joining together, in essence, of Phineas Quimby and Mary Baker Eddy. Their individual ideas about cure and healing were not even close to being the same. Eddy attributed all power to God and got her ideas from the Bible and Christ Jesus.

    Christian Scientists do not believe in “positive thinking” as a cure for anything, and certainly do not believe that “God is here to give us what we want.” Achieving an understanding of the power, presence, and love of God is what enables the teachings of Christian Science to be proved practical. It is not prayer for things but prayer for a better understanding of God’s allness, abundant good, and love for His creation that brings about healing.

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