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Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America [Paperback]

Barbara Ehrenreich
3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
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Book Description

3 Aug 2010

A sharp-witted knockdown of America’s love affair with positive thinking and an urgent call for a new commitment to realism

Americans are a “positive” people—cheerful, optimistic, and upbeat: this is our reputation as well as our self-image. But more than a temperament, being positive, we are told, is the key to success and prosperity.

In this utterly original take on the American frame of mind, Barbara Ehrenreich traces the strange career of our sunny outlook from its origins as a marginal nineteenth-century healing technique to its enshrinement as a dominant, almost mandatory, cultural attitude. Evangelical mega-churches preach the good news that you only have to want something to get it, because God wants to “prosper” you. The medical profession prescribes positive thinking for its presumed health benefits. Academia has made room for new departments of “positive psychology” and the “science of happiness.” Nowhere, though, has bright-siding taken firmer root than within the business community, where, as Ehrenreich shows, the refusal even to consider negative outcomes—like mortgage defaults—contributed directly to the current economic crisis. 

With the mythbusting powers for which she is acclaimed, Ehrenreich exposes the downside of America’s penchant for positive thinking: On a personal level, it leads to self-blame and a morbid preoccupation with stamping out “negative” thoughts. On a national level, it’s brought us an era of irrational optimism resulting in disaster. This is Ehrenreich at her provocative best—poking holes in conventional wisdom and faux science, and ending with a call for existential clarity and courage.

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 235 pages
  • Publisher: Picador USA; 1 edition (3 Aug 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312658850
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312658854
  • Product Dimensions: 21.6 x 14 x 2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 517,570 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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About the Author

Barbara Ehrenreich is the bestselling author of sixteen previous books, including the bestsellers Nickel and Dimed and Bait and Switch. A frequent contributor to Harper’s and The Nation, she has also been a columnist at The New York Times and Time magazine.

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Reasons to be cheerful, but sceptical 16 Dec 2009
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Ever bought a self-help book that didn't deliver what it promised? Then Bright-sided is for you. This is a forensic diagnosis of why boundless positive thinking turns our minds to mush, deracinates managers, and helps make us willing believers in economic bubbles.

Ehrenreich has several distinct strands to her book. She kicks off with her experience at the age of about sixty when diagnosed with breast cancer. To her amazement she stumbled across on an entire industry in the US devoted to presenting the disease as little short of the best thing that could ever happen to a woman.

Other chapters analyse how the school of mindless optimism was born with Mary Baker Eddy, fed the subprime scandal and has come to infect mainstream corporate management thinking. Anyone who has sat through a toe-curling session by a motivational speaker at a company off-site will chuckle in recognition.

Ehrenreich has evidently survived her brush with cancer without resorting to a whacky, manic outlook. And her book is far from down at the mouth. It is a good read, sceptical but sane, probing yet witty. There are especially amusing interviews with "positive thinking" gurus at various stages of derangement.

One gap is that she does not discuss cognitive behaviour therapy. This is successful in treating depression by eliminating negative thoughts that tend to reinforce themselves - at least the National Health Service, which now stumps up for the treatment, believes so.

In short, this is a book for grown-ups baffled by the credulity of others, and perhaps their own. A life-changing book? No, but its explanation of how fads have entered the mainstream will certainly generate a wry smile.
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23 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Time to return to reality 11 Nov 2009
A brilliant examination and debunking of the positive thinking field over the past century - I always knew that the stuff peddled by the likes of Deepak Chopra, Tony Robbins, Napoleon Hill, Stephen Covey etc. was nonsense and now I know why. The author makes a pretty convincing case for the positive thinking field playing a key role in last year's financial catastrophe and by the end of the book it is clear that the delusion of positive thinking is dangerous - much better to be realistic and rational.
There are a few special mentions for a particular favourite of mine from the field of magical nonsense: Rhonda Byrne's "The Secret". Great stuff.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant critique of fashionable nonsense 4 Mar 2010
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
In this brilliant book, Barbara Ehrenreich shows how harmful the `positive thinking' movement is, how it means self-blame, victim-blaming and national denial, inviting disaster. She shows that it wrecks efforts for education, skills and reforms.

She cites a guru who said, "the mind is actually shaping the very thing that is being perceived." There is a long tradition in the USA of this kind of mind-over-matter idealism: it includes William James, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mary Baker Eddy (the founder of Christian Science), Norman Vincent Peale (The power of positive thinking), Dale Carnegie (How to make friends and influence people), Scott Peck (The road less travelled), Tom Peters (The pursuit of wow), Deepak Chopra (Quantum healing), Oprah Winfrey, and Rhonda Byrne (The Secret). Byrne evilly said that tsunamis only happen to people who are `on the same frequency as the event' - blaming people's personalities for their deaths.

In the field of health, `positive thinkers' tell us that being positive will help to cure cancer. But research has found no such link: see for example James Coyne et al, `Psychotherapy and survival in cancer: the conflict between hope and evidence', Psychological Bulletin, 2007, 133, 3, 367-94, and `Emotional well-being does not predict survival in head and neck cancer patients', Cancer, 2007, 110, 11, 2568-75. So, even if you believe, with Ann McNerney, that, "Cancer will lead you to God" (The gift of cancer: a call to awakening), `positive thinking' won't make you better.

The business world loves positive thinking. The US market for motivational products is worth $21 billion a year and companies use them against their workers. For instance, AT&T sent staff to a motivational event on the same day it announced 15,000 redundancies.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars My husband is enjoying this immensely 3 Jan 2010
I'm an American married to a Brit: I'm always complaining about the pessimism of the Brit. Now my husband's getting back at me:) Can highly recommend the book!
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Bring me Cordelia! 18 Mar 2012
By Mr. J. C. Clubb VINE VOICE
Format:Audio CD
Positive thinking has become so integrated into the value system of our modern culture, it might seem somewhat odd to find an argument against it. And yet that is exactly what Barbara Ehrenreich does. The release of this book, which was published as "Smile or Die" in the UK has corresponded with the publication of more bold books, willing to challenge the power of positive thinking. A little while back I read Steve Salerno's unrelenting attack on the self-help movement, "SHAM: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless" and since then we have had "The Art of Failure: The Anti-Self Help Book" by Neel Burton. Even the great psychologist Richard Wiseman has taken positive thinking to task and looked at the real science behind self-help in "59 Seconds", which came out the same year as "Bright-Sided". This book was not an overt criticism of the self-help movement but rather a genuine attempt to use case studies, raw data and proven psychological methods to help people improve their lives. However, in keeping to the science Wiseman highlighted just how much of the self-help movement was bogus and even damaging. His first chapter, "Happiness", began with a total debunking of positive thinking and revealed that far from being innocuous at worse, these techniques endorsed by the vast majority of the self-help movement could actually be harmful.

However, out of all these books Ehrenreich's "Bright-Sided" seems to be the most comprehensive and distilled in its deconstruction of the whole philosophy of positive thinking. She begins with her first clash with the cult of positive thinking after being diagnosed with breast cancer in around 2001.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars A book I needed to read and one you need to read
I am unfortunately well versed in self help. I am also a rare being these days being someone who is genuinely unprivileged yet not trapped in a ghetto. Read more
Published 15 months ago by Stuart king artist
3.0 out of 5 stars The downside of being upbeat
One in the eye for the happy-clappy brigade. But is it necessary to take them quite this seriously? Don't worry, Barbara, be happy.
Published on 16 May 2012 by Simon Bendle
5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent antidote to positivity claptrap
I found the book amusing, insightful and to have a excellent dry wit throughout. The reviewer criticizing the book as boring and long I think was looking for a different genre. Read more
Published on 13 Mar 2012 by Tim Jim D
1.0 out of 5 stars Tedious
Although the book gets off to an exciting start, it is after a time tedious and difficult to read. I agree with most of Barbara's criticism of the feel good feel healthy crowd,... Read more
Published on 12 Oct 2011 by Sheila B
2.0 out of 5 stars Bright Sided or Smile and Die
Very disappointing read. Although the title was interesting and the subject original, this book comes across as very badly researched and very one sided. Read more
Published on 11 Oct 2010 by annabel
1.0 out of 5 stars Interesting Title, Boring Read.
I have not read any other books written by Barbaea Ehrenreich, but surely they can not be as boring as this. Read more
Published on 13 Dec 2009 by Mr. William Oxley
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