Book Review: Bright-Sided by Barbara Ehrenreich

Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America
Barbara Ehrenreich

I stumbled across a review of this somewhere in the piles of journals I read and it caught my attention enough to place a hold on it. It’s taken a while to get through it, but certainly it’s an interesting read.

Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed, starts with her focus on how “positive attitudes” have been pressed on cancer patients like herself. Finding herself severely criticized when she wasn’t relentlessly cheerful about getting and surviving breast cancer, she took a look around to see how else upbeat enthusiasm had become the norm in society.

She continues on, wading through motivational speakers, how “positive” has permeated the corporate world, become a multi-billion dollar business, taken over in mega-churches, and how a belief in ever positive, ever rising economy also saw us into a humongous recession.

It’s a lot to go through in just over two hundred pages and a whole lot of end notes.

The book struck a serious chord, one that was almost slightly alarming as I read it: “be happy” is everywhere. I’ve mentioned before and I’ve run across many other bloggers who are absolutely afraid to mention sorrow, grief, frustration, anger, or irritation on their blogs–lest it be perceived as a weakness. We’re downright fearful that being honest, realistic, and occasionally unhappy will ruin our careers, shame us in front of peers and readers, and make our site counts plummet. I was shaken out of the text a couple of times with how often I feel like I’ve had the idea of a positive outlook drummed into me. Not that Ehrenreich is promoting endless misery or perpetual cynicism, but instead not applying an overlay of perky cheerleader all the time.*

Ehrenreich ends with a short chapter on “post-positive thinking.” I wish she’d spent a little more time there because her points, while not especially radical, are thoughtful. She points out that we look for students who are not “happy thinkers” but “critical thinkers” and physicians who hope and certainly strive for the best outcome but are realistic enough to help you plan for the worst.

I found the book incredibly refreshing. I spent years on the subway, staring at the ads for the various motivational speakers and internally wondering why it was that if all the attendees/readers were following their rules and guides why they weren’t all rich and leaving me for dust. I saw the piles of “business motivation” books my then boyfriend was reading and recoiled from them, though personally at the time I just saw them as annoying fads more than anything. This is one of the first suggestions I’ve seen that perhaps being a giggly cheerleader isn’t the only answer.

I probably don’t have the best reputation for being cheerful, there’s a bit too much sarcasm that sneaks in to allow me to make anyone’s list of “perky” people. And I enjoy being cheerful and happy; but it was nice to read a book where one didn’t feel horrible for acknowledging and possessing other emotions as well.

Highly recommended read.

*Eerily, as I was writing this, I remembered a guy I met while traveling in Greece. He worked on a cruise ship and I never once saw the guy look anything but “super-happy” (jazz hands) for three days. At the end of the cruise I asked how he managed to maintain it and got some vague answer about love of his job. I wandered off, wondering if he was heavily medicated.