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Book Review: Bright-Sided, How The Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America by Barbara Ehrenreich

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I thoroughly enjoyed Ehrenreich's previous books Bait and Switch and Nickel and Dimed, and eagerly awaited Bright-Sided. As a motivational speaker, I was  intrigued by her take on the subject of positive thinking. Sure enough, I read her latest in one sitting; Ehrenreich's witty-gritty writing style pulls you through like a greased slide.

The book begins with a systematic dismantling of the notion that "Americans are a positive people". Then, addressing positive thinking, she goes on to make it clear that she isn't disputing the self-evident fact that positive people are more likely to make friends, form successful business relationships and brighten a room when they walk through the door.

She distinguishes the kind of positive thought that eases one's way through life from the pernicious belief that positive thought can (in some magical fashion) lead to a better outcome independent of any action. In some circles this mystical belief has become known as the law of attraction.

Ehrenreich explores the insidious rise of the magical variety of positive thinking in the areas of self-help, corporate motivation, prosperity teaching and academia. She argues that positive thinking has negative social consequences; drawing connections between positive thinking and major disasters such as the 911 attacks, Hurricane Katrina and the economic shambles of the last couple of years.

She also contends that the active promotion of positive thinking (by motivational speakers) leads to a state of "national denial," which promotes social inactivity and (ironically) creates a lack of motivation to right society's wrongs. In this way, positive thinking becomes a means of social control and exploitation.

Thirdly she argues that, when bad things happen to would-be positive thinkers, the outcome is all too easily one of self-blame: "I guess my thoughts weren't positive enough."

She also argues that positive thinking can invalidate entirely justified feelings of anger and frustration at circumstances that are beyond one's control; such as discovering you have breast cancer. Ehrenreich has experienced this particular emotional trauma first-hand and devotes an entire chapter to a moving, and sometimes bitter, description of her personal battle.

After excluding happy-go-lucky optimism, Ehrenreich focuses on the "magical" variety of positive thinking. However, she doesn't address a third way of looking at positive thinking. Namely that it's neither good nor bad, but simply the polar opposite of negative thinking. And that the ability to switch back-and-forth between these extreme views is a cognitive skill vital for decision making and problem solving.

This distinction is crucial because, if you strip out the mystical belief (law of attraction) from the cognitive skill (a flexible perspective), advocates for the law of attraction aren't as widespread as Ehrenreich claims. As a motivational speaker, if I utter the words "positive thinking" on stage it doesn't mean that I'm buying into or promoting the law of attraction.

In addition to using a narrow definition to paint broad strokes, Ehrenreich shores up her conspiracy theory by cherry-picking the easy targets; ignoring the majority who don't fit her narrative. For example, after attending a National Speakers Association annual convention, an event which attracts around 1600 speakers, Ehrenreich asserts that "no one displayed the slightest skepticism [to the new age ideas like the law of attraction]". As somebody who attended the event, that is simply not true. NSA's professional membership includes fighter pilots, doctors and lawyers, not just a bunch of "believe anything said with conviction" types.

In a similar way, she also bases much of her evidence for the ubiquity of the law of attraction using carefully selected quotes from online articles and blog posts. I'm guessing anyone could "support" just about any argument, including the opposing viewpoint on positive thinking, using culled quotes from the internet.

I realize we're all prone to twisting the facts to fit our preconceptions. It must be immensely difficult for someone with a cool idea for a book to approach their research from a totally unbiased point of view. That said, I found this blatant cherry-picking beneath a writer of Ehrenreich's caliber.

Ehrenreich's willingness to twist the facts to fit the momentum of the narrative extends beyond her views on motivational speakers. For example: Her encounter with Martin Seligman (a well respected psychologist and President of the American Psychology Association) reads more like a personality clash than a search for insight. Our introduction to this well respected scientist is as a "practically scowling," "short, solid, bullet-headed man" who "secured a bully pulpit [the APA presidency]".

Now, I'm all for painting a picture (which Ehrenreich does enviably well) but compare her description of Seligman with one of his detractors, Barbara Held: "A striking woman with long black hair and a quick sense of humor". Care to hazard a guess which academic is going to further Ehrenreich's argument?

It's clear that, despite attending the NSA convention, Ehrenreich doesn't understand the reality of the motivational industry. Conference organizers hire motivational speakers to energize their attendees prior to what is often several days of industry updates presented by in-house educators. It's not, as suggested by Ehrenreich, an exercise in "mind control" (a phrase she uses with unnerving frequency) but rather an attempt to start the meeting off with a bang.

The idea of corporations "making" their staff watch motivational speakers is, in the main, ridiculous. Honestly, it doesn't take too much coercion to "make" employees leave their cubicle, take a trip to a beautiful resort and listen to an entertaining motivational speaker; the opposite is a day at the office!

Ehrenreich's solution to, from her perspective, the undermining of America by positive thinking is to encourage critical thinking; to become more willing to see both sides of the coin. Ironically, this is something she fails to do within the covers of her own book. The book lacks any serious attempt to find the disconfirming evidence so crucial in a book of this type. For example, where is the chapter entitled "The positive side to positive thinking"?

Similarly, throughout the book, there is a conspicuous absence of the qualifier "some". Ehrenreich's central thesis is that relentless promotion of positive thinking has undermined America. A more balanced statement would be: Promotion of a wildly extreme form of positive thinking can, in conjunction with stupidity (and sometimes greed), have some negative social consequences.

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