On Bright-Sided

When I picked Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided up from the library, I was almost embarrassed to be seen with the book, even going so far as hiding the cover under those of the other books in my stack. The promotion of positivity is so pervasive in our society that I felt self-conscious checking out a book whose title suggested that positivity’s track record wasn’t so pristine. While it may seem counter-intuitive to practice anything other than positive thinking, Ehrenreich’s book questions the origins and virtue of blind optimism in a handful of the major industries, social groups, and academic fields in which positivity has gained wide traction. Ehrenreich’s argument is far from flawless and I’m not planning on embracing outright pessimism anytime soon, but Bright-Sided employs the type of critical thinking that is vital to improving America.

Starting with breast cancer support networks, then moving on to the origins of positivity and the industries of motivational speaking, corporate positivity in concordane with major layoffs, mega-churches, positive psychology, and finance, Ehrenreich tours the American optimism landscape in a handful of its myriad forms. While I appreciated each of Ehrenreich’s chapters for their own merits, her argument that these instances of blind optimism were undermining America, as suggested by the book’s subtitle, was not as well developed as expected. It was certainly interesting to take a glimpse into the bland, God-less, positivity-driven megachurch, televangelist, prosperity preacher culture, where religious teachings take a back seat to self-help sermons and weak anecdotes as evidence of the power of positive thinking. I’ve long held issue with the breast cancer survivor culture – in particular the “pink-washing” of products whose proceeds are purportedly directed to breast cancer research efforts in spite of the fact that many of these products (ie. water bottles, cosmetics, other plastics) contain cancer-causing agents themselves. I was delighted that Ehrenreich referenced Breast Cancer Action, a nonprofit challenging the dominant discourse on breast cancer in favor of one focused on prevention efforts and environmental changes to reduce exposure to carcinogens, although her main beef with the breast cancer culture is how blindly optimistic both patients and survivors are. It was mind boggling to recognize how the stories of those who have succumbed to the cancer are hidden behind the stories of survivors who consider themselves lucky to have been diagnosed with cancer for changing their lives in positive ways. Further, it was enlightening to have the holes in research supporting positive psychology revealed, as so often scientific findings are highly exaggerated by and for the media, while the null results and those that disprove desired hypotheses are buried.

But these disparate pieces failed to coalesce into a sound argument as to why having a positive outlook is comprising our entire nation. She did conclude with a chapter on the connection between positivity and the financial crisis, drawing a bit on the arguments set up in her chapters on prosperity preachers and corporations. I appreciated the way in which she tied issues of inequality and social justice in to this and the final section of her book. Despite the fact that upward mobility is more common in plenty of other nations, the fable of picking oneself up by his or her bootstraps is so pervasive in the US as to make Americans more tolerant of inequality and less cautious with our investments. Self-delusion was a large force behind the financial crisis, Ehrenreich argues, on the part of individuals, buying on credit they could never possibly repay and purchasing houses with adjustable mortgage rates that eventually forced them onto the streets, as well as bankers and executives, making unwise lending decisions, holding unbelievably high expectations, and failing to confront reality. The dissenters on Wall Street were routinely derided for their negativity and pessimism, so at odds with the new corporate culture. It is this portion of the book where Ehrenreich’s argument as to how positivity has undermined a nation becomes most solidified, though still not fully formed. And it segued quite well into her conclusion, in which she ultimately calls for realism, defensive pessimism, an acceptance of our vulnerability, and ultimately action to remove the threats to circumstantial happiness wherever we can.

As someone who partakes in meditation, I firmly believe in the immense power of our minds. Ehrenreich’s framing of positivity in the terms of “laws of attraction,” whereby you can exercise control over your world through your thoughts such that the things you want will come to you, did give me some pause. Her contention aims at the power of the mind in a more tangible sense; simply thinking hard about what you want will not make it appear for you as so many of the positivists referenced in this book profess. It is undeniable to me, however, that we exercise more than a modicum of control over our worlds with our minds – it’s why my wallpaper cellphone reads “Change your thoughts and you change your world,” a potent reminder of the way in which the things I dwell upon in my head shape my daily life experience. I do not disagree with Ehrenreich’s refusal to accept the law of attraction premise; it would be foolish to believe that we can get the things we want without working for them. But there is a fine line here that Ehrenreich fails to establish between the imprudence of meditating on prosperity in the hopes that it will effortlessly reveal itself and the faculty practicing meditation provides us in creating and controlling our experiences of the world.

While I’m not a highly cynical person, I also don’t adhere to the other extreme of naive optimism. From my middle road stance, I cannot see any fault in putting a positive face on in the glare of this at times harsh world. Even if positivity does not necessarily cause or correlate with improved outcomes in indicators such as life expectancy and financial success, it does undeniably contribute to happiness, which is enough of an indicator for me to give a positive attitude a shot. Blind optimism is certainly problematic when it undermines the work ethic that Americans have prided themselves on for so long. When we rely on prayer and visualization exercises, rather than practice, effort, risk-taking, and a little industry to get what we want, positivity breeds a dangerous laziness, a naiveté which easily transforms into an unsurpassable obstacle, even an abyss of bottomless debt. Bright-Sided is important for its very stance on the American mentality of positivity, its practice of constructive criticism, its call for widespread realism, and its exploration of certain worlds where people are taken advantage of and even placed in danger by the promotion of positive thinking. But that doesn’t mean we can’t attempt to exercise control over our own thoughts and minds toward the brighter side of life for our own personal wellbeing and improved life experience, even if we do so with a grain of skeptical salt. If nothing else, Ehrenreich’s book provides us with a healthy dosing of reality so as to prevent our positivity from reaching dangerous extremes while motivating us to take action towards improving controllable circumstances in order to make happiness more readily available to everyone.

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