Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America
By Barbara Ehrenreich
In football right-handed quarterbacks get blind-sided if their left tackle misses a block. The blind side is the subject of the book The Blind Side by Michael Lewis; it’s also partially the subject of the movie based on the book, the same movie for which Sandra Bullock won an Oscar.
The movie, I’m told, is a feel-good movie (as much of a football fan as I am, I’m not fond of football- or sports-based movies because they tend toward “feel-goodness”; the exceptions I can think of are North Dallas Forty and The Longest Yard).
Feel-good movies are perfect for America, I suppose, especially at a time of financial crisis that seems to be edging toward a new Great Depression. Flashy, feel-good Hollywood extravaganzas were immensely popular during the Depression, as were positive-thinking books like Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich! and Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People.
But perhaps feeling good is too much of a good thing. Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided covers the mostly American phenomenon of positive thinking and how such thinking has crippled critical thinking in America as badly as Lawrence Taylor’s infamous blind-side hit smashed Joe Theismann’s leg. Ehrenreich examines cross sections of American society and culture, including health care, religion, and business, and determines that overall the positive thinking movement is not only detrimental to society, but also delusional.
As she examines one American intellectual/cultural tradition (one that extends at least as far back as Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of New Thought and Christian Science), she follows another — digging at America’s Puritan past. In this case, Calvinism.
Calvinism was not an overtly positive religious movement.
“The Calvinism brought by white settlers to New England,” Ehrenreich writes, “could be described as a system of socially imposed depression. Its God was ‘utterly lawless,’ as literary scholar Ann Douglas has written, an all-powerful entity who ‘reveals his hatred of his creatures, not his love for them’ . . . . The task for the living was to constantly examine ‘the loathsome abominations that lie in his bosom,’ seeking to uproot the sinful thoughts that are a sure sign of damnation.”
Calvinism, Ehrenreich writes, required constant self-examination. Believers had to constantly check themselves for sin. Such constant sin checks led believers such as Eddy to suffer digestive ills, headaches, insomnia, and all manner of other physical, as well as psychological, ailments.
Eddy began to rethink her Calvinist upbringing, swinging it 180 degrees, developing what in the 19th century came to be known as New Thought. “In the New Thought vision,” Ehrenreich writes, “God was no longer hostile or or indifferent; he was a ubiquitous, all-powerful Spirit or Mind, and since ‘man’ was really Spirit too, man was coterminous with God.” The Bakerian universe was abundant, and anyone in touch with the spirit of God, could benefit from God or the universe’s wealth.
While Ehrenreich applauds, for the most part, the turn away from bleak Calvinism, she notes throughout the book how both secular and religious gurus of positive thinking have latched onto the abundance of God or the universe and posit the notion that anyone through positive thought and visualization can manifest anything their heart desires: cars, homes, more wealth than you can imagine, even if you can imagine quite a lot. Moreover, think positively enough and you can defeat all manner of illness, including cancer.
Ehrenreich’s earliest encounter with positive thinking came after she was diagnosed with and treated for breast cancer. The first chapter delves into her experience and her encounters with breast cancer culture, in which positive thinking “transform[s] breast cancer into a rite of passage — not an injustice or a tragedy to rail against but a normal marker in the life cycle, like menopause or grandmotherhood.” Positive thinking was so pervasive in this culture that when Ehrenreich expressed her anger on a support group Web site she was chided for having a bad attitude; she was chided for not trying hard enough to accept her disease as a life-transforming, almost uplifting experience comparable to an ecstatic religious conversion.
At the heart of positive thinking, whether it’s encountered in health care, business or religion, Ehrenreich argues, is Calvinism, especially its insistence on constantly checking oneself, which can lead to crushing anxiety, because if you fail to attract what you want, according to the gurus, it’s because you are failing yourself — you haven’t successfully checked your negative thoughts. And be warned: if you continue to be negative you risk further failure, and perhaps job loss or even ostracism, because positive thinking gurus advise dropping negative people.
“When the gurus advise dropping ‘negative’ people,” Ehrenreich writes, “they are also issuing a warning: smile and be agreeable, go with the flow — or prepare to be ostracized.”
Getting rid of negative people isn’t all the gurus advise, Ehrenreich writes. We should also cull reading newspapers and magazines from our lives because all news is negative and perpetuated by unenlightened people unaware of the positives in their lives.
It’s negativity, according to the gurus, that creates the atrocities in the world. Rhonda Byrne, author of The Secret, said, according to Ehrenreich, that such disasters as tsunamis “happen only to people who are ‘on the same frequency as the event’.”
Much of the language of positive thinking — secular and sacred — reads like religion; it’s a fundamentalist faith with no gray areas. You’re either with us or against us. Challenging its ideas makes you negative — thought control is a common term in positive thinking literature, and, as Ehrenreich notes, the term doesn’t take on the negative connotations as it does in Orwell’s novel 1984. Always look on the bright side of life, no matter the circumstances, it says. Smile. Do not worry. Pay no heed of fears. Do not mind the linebacker about to crush you.
“The effort of positive ‘thought control,'” Ehrenreich writes, “which is always presented as such a life preserver, has become a potentially deadly weight — obscuring judgment and shielding us from vital information. Sometimes we need to heed our fears and negative thoughts, and at all times we need to be alert to the world outside ourselves, even when that includes absorbing bad news and entertaining the views of ‘negative’ people. As we should have learned by now, it is dangerous not to.”