Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America by Barbara Ehrenreich

SchoolImprovement0910 SchoolImprovement0910 I had to start Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Bright-sided twice because at first, her negative attitude put me off. But then I realized, Duh!, that’s the crux of the book – her raging against what she calls the "cult of optimism." So, I decided to give her another chance, and I’m glad I did.

Ehrenreich is probably best know for her 2001 best seller about the working poor, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, which I found to be a startling eye-opener, and the 2005, very good, and yet less-well-received, Bait and Switch, which was about trying to find a white-collar job at mid-life. As a quick aside, I saw an interview with Ehrenreich in which she was asked, “You seemed to make much closer ties with your fellow workers in Nickel and Dimed than you did on the white-collar job hunt. What was different this time?.” Her response rang true, but really bothered me. She said, “There's a lot of camaraderie in the blue-collar world I entered in Nickel and Dimed. People help each other and look out for each other; they laugh together--often at the managers. The white-collar world doesn't encourage camaraderie, far from it. There it's all about competition and fear--of losing one's job, for one thing. Other people are seen as sources of contacts or tips, at best; as competitors or rivals, at worst. And among the unemployed add shame and a sense of personal failure, the constant message that it's all your own fault. All this discourages any solidarity with others or real openness.”Click on Read More...
 But back to Bright-sided. Being one of those “glass half-full” people, I didn’t really want to hear Ehrenreich’s message about the relentless pursuit of positiveness in … well, I don’t know if it’s prototypical of our culture, country or cosmos, but by the end of the book, I was convinced that it was pervasive, and not always a good thing. To make her point she expounds (hilariously, frighteningly and pitifully) on the “pink ribbon” culture of breast cancer, 911, the New Orleans’ levees, and our current financial crisis. It doesn’t take much of an imagination to see how one could equate those issues with over-positiveness, but she does it well and interestingly.  I also found her insights into healing through positive thoughts and prayer both revealing and surprising, but no “spoilers” here – you’ll have to read the book if you want to know what her research uncovered.

What spurred Ehrenreich to write the book was her own bout with breast cancer, during which she felt inhibited from expressing anger and sadness, when the prevailing  attitude seemed to be, as one survivor characterized her cancer, “A gift from God.” Ehrenreich didn’t feel that way at all and was pretty pissed about the whole thing, while simultaneously worrying that her negative attitude might impact her breast-cancer outcome.

If you read to escape, this isn’t your book, but if you are fascinated by the human condition, as I am, it’s a goodie!



  1. Thanks for another good review - haven't read it but liked "Nickel and Dimed" so will get this one also. Because of your recommendation! Maybe we do have the right to be sad, angry or negative sometimes, huh? Have just finished a book you will like - "Jenniemae and James." The "James" is James Newman, brilliant mathemetician, father of the word google, and friend of Einstein and opponent of nuclear weapons. But it's really not about any of these things - it's about his relationship (platonic) with his maid Jenniemae. Also loved your last lesson from your mom. Charlena

  2. Will get Jenniemae and James! Sounds good. JS just finished "All Over But The Shouting" and loved it. I've turned him into a book-aholic too!