Book Review: Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America
By Shelby Brokaw
Throughout my entire life, I have had people tell me that I do not smile enough, so you can imagine my excitement when I finally read a book telling me to smile less. Well, perhaps more accurately, it told me to think a little more before I smile. Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America claims that optimism can actually have negative impacts.
Ironic, I know. The book details how the elusive thinking behind optimism can cloud our judgment and how this clouded judgment is harming America. Although Bright-Sided ought to be read with an ounce of scrutiny, I highly suggest it as a thought-provoking book.
It is very clear that one of Ehrenreich’s goals is mass circulation. Bright-Sided addresses the entire US population, not a specific generation, social class, religion, or other social group. This is evident from the very moment the book is under your nose.
The subtitle on the cover labels positive thinking as an American problem. Once you open up the book and explore inside (which I highly recommend you do), you will find that Ehrenreich includes a chapter on The Dark Roots of American Optimism, integrating optimism into the development of America’s culture. The very first page of the introduction begins, “Americans are a ‘positive’ people. This is our reputation as well as our self-image.”
Although it may seem at first as if Ehrenreich is over-generalizing the American population, she has a good reason to do so. By bringing all of America into the conversation, Ehrenreich ensures that she has a far-reaching impact. She ensures that the issue of optimism is debated among the diverse community that is the American population. This is even more evident when you analyze what issues Ehrenreich has decided to cover in her book.
She includes a chapter on breast cancer, one on religion, another on the business world, and yet another on the economy. Because of this, Ehrenreich’s book attracts everyone from breast cancer victims to motivational speakers. It may hold interest for a laid off worker but is also relevant to anyone of the Christian faith. By making her book apply to so many people, she made it more likely that conversation surrounding positive thinking and its disadvantages would begin to take place.
Ehrenreich has been known to take a very liberal stance on social issues. According to the autobiography on her own website, www.barbaraehrenreich.com, she began her involvement with activism after receiving her PhD and joining a poverty eradication non-profit in New York City. From there, Ehrenreich became active in the women’s health movement, writing for esteemed publications such as Ms. magazine. She has written books and articles on poverty, peace, healthcare, women’s rights, and political oppression.
Her list of liberal stances is long enough to make any conservative bolt out of the library door after coming across one of her books in the stacks. If you are a conservative, however, I suggest that you give Bright-Sided a chance. Although she is very liberal minded, Ehrenreich presents intriguing reasons why conservatives should shun positive thinking as well. For example, Ehrenreich’s primary argument against optimism in the face of breast cancer is scientific, not social.
She indicates that since cancer cannot be cured by the immune system, claims that cancer can be solved by optimism are false. She also attacks the scientific theory behind positive psychology. Florence King, who wrote a review of Bright-Sided for the March 2010 issue of the online and print publication The American Conservative, called Ehrenreich “the conservative’s favorite liberal author.”
One of the most controversial issues that Ehrenreich tackles in Bright-Sided is what she calls the “pink ribbon culture” surrounding breast cancer. She does so in the very first chapter, Smile or Die: The Bright Side of Cancer. Ehrenreich gives an account of her own experience with breast cancer and hints at the fact that it was the inspiration for Bright-Sided. Her argument is that optimism has taken over breast cancer and tried to transform it into something glamorous, but this has been detrimental to its victims who end up blaming themselves for lack of recovery.
Ehrenreich’s criticism of the pink ribbon culture has incited much debate among breast cancer victims and the general population. For many, this is a view of breast cancer that they had not considered previously. At first glance, many have called it offensive. Others have given it due evaluation and accepted it. Either way, it is an issue that affects many Americans and ought to be considered.
As a strong-willed activist, Ehrenreich presents most of her writing in a very persuasive tone. When she takes a stance, she gives very little slack to the other side and pushes her view to the limit. Many of the issues she writes about in her other books appear again in Bright-Sided, so Ehrenreich clearly has a great interest in the topics she analyzes.
In a book review by Jeffrey Cass, published in the April 2010 issue of The Journal of Popular Culture, Ehrenreich is praised for “her involvement with her subject.” Cass claims that, “Ehrenreich enters the dialogue on America’s obsession with positive thinking through a highly emotional lens—her own breast cancer…” By taking on an aggressive tone about a topic she is emotionally involved in, Ehrenreich automatically incites debate. She challenges other viewpoints that disagree with her. Whether you disagree or agree with her point of view, she leaves you riled up and ready to challenge either her or the status quo. She makes sure she is hard to ignore.
Although the discussion that Ehrenreich begins is a riveting one, it should by no means be the last word on positive thinking. In order to support many of her claims, Ehrenreich ignored data that contradicted her. In the introduction, she indicates that the United States ranks 150th on the Happy Planet Index. She attempts to use this statistic to show that Americans are not as happy as they seem, but according to www.happyplanetindex.org, the official website for the Happy Planet Index, this measurement “reveals the ecological efficiency with which human well-being is delivered.”
There is no doubt that Ehrenreich could have found a more applicable measurement of happiness. She also exaggerates some of her claims. In the last chapter, she indicates that wealth is the greatest determinant for happiness when the study she cites, conducted by an analytical social psychologist at the University of Leicester and published in Science Daily, actually shows that health has a greater correlation. Additionally, some of her sources are unqualified, such as blogs and popular news sources.
Finally, Ehrenreich takes a slanted view towards a few of her sources. While describing the father of the positive thinking movement, Martin Seligman, she deeply criticizes how he handled her interview, even though it was irrelevant to the purpose of the book. These sourcing issues have resulted in a number of criticisms. Despite reviewers’ disapproval, though, many can’t help but agree with the general message of the book. This indicates that it may have been written, yet again, as a conversation starter rather than a final word on the subject.
Clearly, Bright-Sided is not perfect. Regardless of its imperfections, though, I still herald it as an effective piece of literature. It fulfilled the purpose it was written to achieve. Ehrenreich was successful in at least one aspect of writing Bright-Sided: she incited discussion. I challenge you to join it.