Bright-Sided (2009), by Barbara Ehrenreich


Bright-Sided (as akin to blind-sided) has this subtitle: “How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America.” Ehrenreich is referring mostly to present America, though she venomously and satirically traces the malady in America back to the reaction against Calvinism and to the influence of Mary Baker Eddy and earlier in general history and, within our shores, gives due credit to just-yesterday’s pioneers Dale Carnegie and Norman Vincent Peale.

In this vital, instructive, warning (but finally too-correct) counteroffensive for the struggling citizen of today, Ehrenreich’s galleries of the current Positive Thinkers form just the right exhibit for a national presentation: Larry King, Oprah Winfrey, Dr. Phil, Rhonda Byrne (author of The Secret),  Deepak Chopra, Stephen Covey, Creflo Dollar, Peter Drucker, Ellen DeGeneris, Joel Osteen, Tom Peters, Tony Robbins, Robert Schuller, Martin Seligman, Joe “Mr. Fire” Vitale, Pastor Rick Warren, Andrew Weil, and Zig Ziglar to name but some of the first portraits displayed as you pass into the first gallery of her vast exhibition hall. Just beyond the entrance to the next gallery stands a sculpture of many figures huddled together: the American media, a crowd in plaster which extends down that second promenade with faces and names many of which you may not recognize; but it’s the overall scale that’s imposing here. Then, in the final wing of her exhibit hang portraits of CEOs of many of the more prominent American corporations sharing space with stars of many university psychology departments. The whole Positive Thinking Exhibit–all the galleries and wings–is now, of course, a show signifying a very large industry. This means there are many, many consumers. Ehrenreich hangs back in this latter dimension, though, shooting instead primarily at the above individuals and organizations she has exhibited in her galleries. But more below on her hesitation to villify the general dumbing down.

Here’s her breakdown of the two principal current varieties of Positive Thinking (AKA “unwarranted optimism” and which she might also have described as “insistent” and “punitive”):

(1) The nuttiest (“mystic”) version espouses “The Law of Attraction”: If you think positive thoughts, and work especially hard at doing so endlessly, banishing “negativity,” you’ll end up with a Rolls, several mansions and a billion or more dollars. Or something else you want similarly Gatsbyean and Sutpenean. Included here might be the cure for your cancer. Your very thoughts will attract the very things you want. It’s not Genesis, but it’s definitely the doctrine of Mind Over Matter. True, there’s yet but “anecdotal” evidence of such powers, but holy people such as Joel and Vickie Osteen and Pastor Warren can’t be wrong, can they? The magnum opus here is Rhonda Byrne’s 2006 book, The Secret. This “mystic” branch is a culture of millions of zealots looking starry-eyed at many of the above gurus together with additional gurus (it’s a growth industry). It’s an industry of CD’s, books, stuffed animals, sympathy cards, web sites, conventions, conferences, TV shows, radio shows and, well, anything that sells to the seemingly inexhaustible numbers of believers.

(2) The sinister (“pseudoscientific”) version, the second one, has been marked by an unsuccessful attempt to establish a science of positive thinking. Of course, the media, abhorring the null result, has long and consistently run stories that the science is in fact already well-established. Larry King and Oprah Winfrey are probably the most distinguished here, but some reporters you’ve never heard of have said it in The New York Times. All the while, in the university psychology departments where the financial wisdom of abandoning such “negativity” as research into neuroses and complexes and other forms of mental illness in favor of conclusively proving somehow–hell, anyway–that human health benefits from positive thinking, the search for scientific validation of Positive Thinking as a cure-all has gone on and on, faltering at last of late and then recently dealt a body blow by one Martin Seligman, probably the chief hopeful, when he told a national convention of the Type 2 positive thinkers that, well, maybe it’s OK if we just say that being a positive thinker may be merely a little better for your health. Stress “maybe” and “merely.” Ehrenreich was (as I recall) there for the confession–I’m happy she was for, after her hard and daring research, she deserved the delicious moment. Stunned, the crowd yielded not a single voice asking what exactly Benedict Arnold Seligman might have been trying to say. There was murmuring about salaries and so forth. Needless to say, Larry King, Joel Osteen et al. said that we’ll just have to try harder (and, no doubt, consoled themselves even as the “You’re On” signal was given that, Hey, no one watching will care about this science stuff anyway!).

Then comes another Very Big Point in the history of Positive Thinking. It’s the love affair between some parts of corporate America and both the Mystics and the Pseudo-scientists of Positive Thinking. I don’t think Ehrenreich does full justice here, but she goes far indeed. Essentially, as jobs went away and the manufacturing sector declined in favor of the financial sector, some CEOs found that if you, Jack or Jill Employee, lose your job, have to work harder for less, have to put up with petty dictators at middle echelons who aren’t disciplined from above, and so on–in other words, that you need (as Tom Peters said) “to embrace the chaos” as the workplace is changing for the worse–it’s good to have Zig Ziglar or Joe “Mr. Fire” Vitale come in and run a seminar telling you why all this is not only the best thing that has ever happened to you but something that you can thrive on, as long as you realize that whatever happens is entirely up to whether you think positively as opposed to negatively. Embrace the New You! Stop Whining! If you stop blaming circumstance and start understanding it’s all in your mind, all up to your positive attitude, then all will be well. The Law of Attraction. In short order you’ll have that Rolls and Lear and know Martha’s Vineyard like the back of your hand. This love affair remains luxurious and intense for the CEOs and the Positive-Thought Gurus.

Ehrenreich, after doing a terrific job of research, spying on, interviewing innocently, exposing and ridiculing these people, says the right stuff, the stuff you’d expect, the advice warranted. We need skepticism. We need critical habits of thought. We need at least a daily dollop of pessimism. We ourselves, together with the rest of the natural world, will create dire challenges which we must either meet or, conceivably, perish.

But I think she doesn’t sufficiently credit cunning and exploitative cynical insights about Homo sapiens by the hucksters of positive thought. They surely become themselves caught up in the nonsense but most probably seldom if ever to the point comedian Jonathan Winters used to say was the sign you’d lost touch entirely: when in reference to your comedy routines “you start believing your own stuff.” Down deep, they know what they’re doing. It’s an act.

The point she doesn’t directly confront–and she’s hardly alone here–is the Incorrect one: will we human beings, the audience for the hypesters, ever stop validating Barnum and Mencken? The observation that a sucker is born every minute? The business advice that you’ll never go broke underestimating the intelligence of your consumers? The old reliability of bread and circuses?


Though in her badly needed book she writes a fine version of today’s crisp popular style almost always demanded in the mass market realm, she does make me think of an old, enduring lesson difficult to dramatize “crisply”: The almost prehistoric myth of Grand Explanation and Unerring Predictability: we humans are ever trying to cling to Earth forever (even though inside none of us likely believes we really can), “winners” and “losers” alike. A lot of hypesters have and will always know this truth and use it. A form of opium, as has been said.

Bright-Sided, a brief and telling and surely far from optimistic read, is one of the handful of important books I’ve discovered in the past few years. Ehrenreich tells some Growing Bad News Over Here from a vantage point shared by a few other books and films, and thereby begins to create a clear perspective. These poor days that’s better than gold, far better.

Leave a Reply