Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Barbara Ehrenreich's Critique of Positive Thinking


Barbara Ehrenreich's Bright-Sided is a funny, fierce, and effective critique of positive thinking.

She takes it on in a number of contexts chapter by chapter: for example, in breast cancer treatment and the rhetoric that has grown up around it ("Smile or Die: The Bright Side of Cancer"), in business and the dissolution of business ("Motivating Business and the Business of Motivation"), and in an influential strand of evangelical Christianity ("God Wants You to Be Rich"). And she brings it all masterfully together in a final chapter that traces how positive thinking in all of these guises contributed to the current economic crisis.

A particularly crucial insight that emerges again and again is the way in which positive thinking while seeming to offer empowerment may actually block meaningful action. It seems to give people something to do, a way forward at moments of crisis when they feel altogether powerless⎯a woman facing down a terminal breast cancer diagnosis, or a worker newly down-sized from his or her job. But in fact its relentlessly inward focus, the personal "work" on attitude and outlook that it demands, inevitably ends with blaming the victim and letting the persons and institutions who are truly responsible off the hook. Concerted action for change is neatly diverted. Further, the delusions that positive thinking can foster at an individual and a broader level can be downright dangerous.

I didn't agree with Ehrenreich's analysis every step of the way but even then, indeed perhaps especially then, I found Bright-Sided to be a bracing read.

12 comments:

Rebecca Rosenblum said...

Thanks for the insight, Kate--now I'm definitely going to read this. *Nickeled and Dimed* was amazing, but I wasn't sure this would be as interesting, since it's less my field of fascination. But you make it sound worth the stretch.
RR

nathaliefoy said...

There is a great discussion of this book at the Guardian website. It's reviewed by Carol Cadwalladr. Prize-winning quotation: Ben Goldacre, the NHS doctor who does the Guardian's Bad Science column, on self-help books: "I would rather slam my cock in the door that read any more of these books."

Pam Walter said...

I'm wondering now about the difference between positive thinking and denial...where is the line separating the two? http://blog.sweetservices.com/sweetscandyblog/

Suko said...

Positive thinking is helpful, to a certain degree. If nothing else, it can lessen anxiety in the present moment. But when taken to an extreme, it can be harmful, such as believing that everything is good in equal measure when it really isn't.

Judy Dudley said...

Thanks for the review. I've read two of the author's other books and found that she is an interesting writer. I wasn't sure about this one. Maybe someday I'll give it a try.

Peter Buckley said...

Too much of a good thing perhaps? Nice review though for sure.

Cozy in Texas said...

I stopped by your blog today. Great review.
Ann
www.cozyintexas.blogspot.com
www.annsummerville.com

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Stefanie said...

I've been waiting for someone to read this. I am so glad it is as good as it sounded. Thanks Kate!

Media Books Man said...

Thanks for the review. I've read two of the author's other books and found that she is an interesting writer. I wasn't sure about this one. Maybe someday I'll give it a try.!

paalok said...

I would love to read this book. I think positive thinking often needs a reality check. It is too hyped.

This is Paromeeta/Palok from http://ourbookshelf-bookworms.blogspot.com/

Anne said...

Hilariously, I came across this book in a bookstore while looking for a copy of "The Secret". I was trying to find it for my mother, and I thought to myself, "Okay, if I just think REALLY HARD about finding The Secret, it will be on the next shelf I look on." Nope - Babs Ehrenreich's book instead! You win, Barbara! I read Nickeled and Dimed and generally felt like Ehrenreich oversimplifies things, but I'll give this book a read since it seems worthwhile.

http://thebooktrip.blogspot.com/