Saturday, November 7, 2009

Book Review: Bright-Sided

Title Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America
Author Barbara Ehrenreich
Rating ****1/2
Tags happiness, optimism, positive thinking, reality 

If ever a book needed to be published, this one did. I may not agree with all of it, but I do with a lot of it, and think it could be an important first step on having a mature conversation about the dangers of positive thinking. That Ehrenreich can even publish such a thing will strike many as akin to heresy... what could possibly be wrong with positive thinking? Several things, it turns out. The largest is that it tends to blind the practitioner to reallity. The author points out that critical thinking is essential to survival, and critical thinking is inherently skeptical.

Ehrenreich starts out with the area where the dangers of positive thiinking first intruded into her life, her struggle with breast cancer. In the community of women dealing with breast cander, positive thinking is a required secondary disease. It makes it difficult for the women to expess their honest feelings of fear and anger, as that might lead to not beating the disease. And it leads to those who have the disease being blamed for it if they do not beat it... accusations that they didn't try hard enough, didn't get rid of negative thinking, etc.

From there Ehrenreich moves on to the use of positive thinking in business, where its rise happened at the same time as jobs were disappearing overseas and workers lost any sense their job was secure. Remaining workers embraced the positive thinking out of fear that not being sufficiently positive, no matter the circumstances, would lose them their jobs, and often they were correct. And a new breed of managers appeared, who payed less attention to the nuts and bolts of realistic management, and started relying on their intuition and "gut instincts". Being less realistic, they were willing to take more and more risks. For those at the top, the risks paid off until the recent economic collapse, and their experience became more and more isolated from the experiences of the worker, who was experiencing loss of high-paying jobs,loss of benefits, and rising levels of debt.

Ehrenreich also goes into the prosperity gospel preachers and the purveyors of positive psychology Each, she thinks, had a role to play leaidng up to the financial crisis that began in 2008.

In her last chapter, she discusses the topic from an international perspective, and points out that dictatorships of all idealogies have punished people for saying that all is not perfect with life under the dictatorship. So the flight from reality that is a danger of too much positive thinking is not limited to the US or to capitalism.

There are two other related downsides that the author sees with positive thinking. One is that it insists you see your life as good no matter what the circumstances, blinding one to reality. That makes it less likely that people will work to create real change, to address the real problems of poverty, injustice, war, etc. that exist. And by insisting that the person is to blame for a life that isn't happy, it breeds a lack of empathy and compassion.

Is it better to be happy than unhappy? Yes. But happiness comes from making real improvements, not by ignoring problems.

Publication Metropolitan Books (2009), Edition: 1, Hardcover, 256 pages
Publication date 2009
ISBN 0805087494 / 9780805087499

Posted via web from reannon's posterous

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