October 2009

The downside of positive thinking

By Barbara Ehrenreich
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What could possibly be wrong with being positive? A lot of things, says Barbara Ehrenreich, in her articulate and deftly argued new book, Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America.

Ehrenreich employs her usual mix of research, personal anecdote and incisive commentary to demolish the claims of positive thinking. Known popularly as the Law of Attraction, and promoted by books like The Secret and motivational speakers like Tony Robbins, positive thinking holds that our thoughts shape our reality, and optimism, confidence and affirmation are the route to health, wealth and happiness.

Tracing the roots of what she terms this “mass delusion” to Emerson, Christian Science and the 19th-century New Thought movement, Ehrenreich reveals how contemporary America’s focus on positive thinking has set us up for failure by obscuring our material realities, blinding us to risk and fomenting a self-blame which ignores the deleterious actions of others (like corporate raiders who sanction layoffs in search of increased profits).

According to Ehrenreich, positive thinking has permeated our society, taking over medicine, corporate America, religion and even academia, where the new—and unproven—field of positive psychology is putting a scholarly spin on self-help. Whether she is eviscerating the purported evidence that good attitude helps breast cancer patients survive (it doesn’t), or lampooning the empty claims of motivational speakers, Ehrenreich is clear-eyed and impervious to cant as she pursues her prey.

Like any polemic, Bright-Sided occasionally overreaches, especially when Ehrenreich blames the Iraq war and the current economic collapse on positive thinking run amok—such large-scale events never have a single cause. Overall, though, Ehrenreich offers a convincing critique and an alternative route to happiness that resonates in these difficult times.

Rebecca Steinitz is a writer in Arlington, Massachusetts.

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By Barbara Ehrenreich
ISBN 9780805087499

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