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Book Review:

Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America

By Barbara Ehrenreich

There is a conspiracy to make us feel happy. The bastards! Cancer isn't a gift, job loss isn't an opportunity, and God doesn't want you to be rich, according to Barbara Ehrenreich. Ehrenreich tells us the glass isn't half full or half empty, it's broken and shattered on the floor.

The cult of positive thinking keeps people inwardly focused, battling their own negative thought demons, while externally reducing them to stupidity and self-centeredness, according to Ehrenreich. Meanwhile the pursuit of optimism keeps people from realizing they're being squeezed, downsized, laid off, unable to find work, unable to afford health insurance, and, generally, being financially reduced to rubble. There is a dark side to positive thinking. Who knew?

Who Moved My Cheese? isn't just a cute story about a couple of mice who move on searching for new cheese, it's "downsizing propaganda." Ehrenreich succinctly summarizes the book: "When you lose your job, shut up and scamper along to the next one."

Ehrenreich takes her most aggressive aim at those pushing the "law of attraction" or the belief that somehow magically good things come to people who dream about good things magically coming to them. She lets most of the promoters of this ideology hang themselves with their own words, meticulously selecting a few choice quotes and assertions that make them look the most ridiculous.

This ideology, if it can be called that, is promoted in the book The Secret by Rhonda Byrne. Ehrenreich writes, "Byrne…asserts that food does not make you fat—only the thought that food could make you fat actually results in weight gain." As I read this, I thought about another book I was reading at the time, the thoroughly-researched The End of Overeating by David Kessler, M.D., who relates research that when fed high-fat, high-sugar, high-salt foods in variety, animals tend to overeat and gain weight. I pictured a lab mouse asking another mouse: "Do my thighs look fat? Eating all this food must make my thighs look fat." "Stop the negative thinking. Next, you'll be thinking we'll be placed in a cancer research study instead of obesity research! Think corn chips! Think corn chips!"

Ehrenreich devotes a chapter to exposing the so-called Prosperity Gospel, titled, "God Wants You To Be Rich." The more you contribute to the Mega-Church, the more God will bestow his financial blessings on you, or so the storyline goes, according to the Mega-Church. Drawing on the "law of attraction," this gospel asserts that God will help you in other ways too. Ehrenreich writes, "…He [Joel Osteen] suggests the technique will also work 'in a crowded restaurant': 'You can say, "Father, I thank you that I have favor with this hostess, and she's going to seat me soon."'" With all the suffering in the world and people starving, is it really possible some people believe God cares about how fast they'll be seated at a restaurant?

Ehrenreich explains, "…Churches have increasingly sacrificed doctrinal tradition to embrace growth…." These "pastorpreneurs" consider leading a church akin to being a CEO at a corporation and do market research to determine what people want from their churches. People don't want to be bothered with lectures about sin, burning in Hell, and the need to help the poor and fight injustice. Instead, they want an entertainment experience and to believe God will help them achieve their dreams. The pastopreneurs, for their part, are happy to see themselves as CEOs who are financially bestowed by God, himself, for selling these people what they want. The gospel is that greed is good. Because these people are under the optimistic belief they'll be very rich one day, the have-nots (or have-a-littles) tolerate inequality and policies designed to help the rich. Quoting Kundera, Ehrenreich agrees, "Optimism is the opium of the people."

Ironically, according to Ehrenreich, the positive thinking movement originated rebelling against a capricious Calvinist God who wanted you to be remorseful, work hard, and then burn in Hell. Back when most people believed in God, this fear of eternal damnation made people sick. Literally. They were stressed out by it. Life was nasty, brutish, and short, only to be followed by eternal suffering. With this in mind, it's hard to feel hostility to the little, yellow, smiley faces of positive thinking. A new thought movement emerged telling people not to worry, God was actually benevolent and wanted them to be happy. From the 1860's this new thought movement would morph into the earliest books promoting positive thinking, including Napoleon Hill's Think And Grow Rich in 1930.

Ehrenreich concludes by telling readers they should work to be critical thinkers rather than positive thinkers and they should adopt a defensive pessimism and seek to see the world as it is—bad news, troubling events, and all. Then, work to improve your own life and the lives of others and enjoy your life, when and if you can.

Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America
Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America

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