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

by Barbara Ehrenreich

Hardcover: 368 pages
Publisher: Henry Holt and Company, Metropolitan Books, New York
Language: English
ISBN-13: 9780805087499

 
Abstract: A long overdue and well deserved "smack down" of the positive thinking and motivational mania that has swept over North America in the past few years. Barbara Ehrenreich argues that this positive craze has undermined much of what is good about America. She argues that reckless optimism allowed such tragic events such as 9/11, the 2003 Iraq War, Hurricane Katrina and the financial meltdown of 2008 to happen. Her book also outlines how the positive craze has worsened suffering for many cancer patients, weakened the decision making ability of business, turned some Churches into motivational seminars on making money, and moved parts of Psychology away from Science to "pop culture positivist thinking".
Key Takeaways:

  • Barbara Ehrenreich herself a cancer survivor, found many breast cancer "support" groups forced upon many ill people the need to be always positive. This creates an undue hardship on those suffering and denied them the opportunity to express their anger. She also dispenses with the notion that "positive thinking" helps those diagnosed with or even prevents cancer. Her book outlines that there is no scientific evidence to support this.

  • Much of today's positive and motivational movement comes from the development of Mary Baker Eddy and the "New Thought" movement in the 1860's. "New Thought" was largely a reactionary movement to the stern Calvinistic belief system that was pervasive in much of America in the 19th century. "New Thought" held the belief that one could transcend their own personal circumstances by positive thinking that would utilize the natural "laws of attraction" to bring external beneficial things like obtaining more money or overcoming an illness. Mary Baker Eddy apparently was able to utilize this "New Thought" to overcome a strange illness pervasive in the 1860's called "Neurasthenia" that had affected many middle class people at that time.

  • The positive thought movement brought an extreme "anti-rational" approach to business management which assisted in the 2008 financial meltdown in the credit markets. Managers empowered by the "can't fail' attitudes of their motivational mentors took unnecessary risks in the marketplaces even when good financial data advised otherwise.

  • During difficult down cycles in the economy, some companies used motivational speakers to help employees dealing with more work and fewer bodies to "suck up the pressure" making an already bad situation worse.

  • Parts of evangelical Christianity have also become deeply influenced by the positivist/motivational movement. Ministers such as Joel Osteen and Robert Schuller now preach a message of self fulfillment instead of self sacrifice. Ehrenreich points out the growing new class of corporate churches like to promote their positivist messages and music without that old nasty Christian messages of sin, hellfire and damnation.

  • Positive Psychology has become a growth industry with the promotion of positive self improvement for patients instead of traditional diagnosis and treatment. Positive Psychology largely asserts that one can change their mental condition and well being by a process of positive thinking. However, they see "happiness" as the ultimate outcome instead of material wealth advocated by pop motivational advocates.

  • Conclusion: Ehrenreich asserts in conclusion that while she is not advocating "negativism" and despair in all things (which she points out can be equally damaging), she feels that the development of critical thinking rather than positive thinking is essential. In short, to be skeptical and always ask good questions about what we are being told.

    Key questions answered in this book:
  • How did the environment culture of positive thinking contribute to the 2008 financial crisis, 9/11 and the 2003 Iraq War?
  • Why does positive thinking not always help cancer patients?
  • Why is positive thinking and the use of motivational speakers during difficult times bad for business?
  • How did Mary Baker Eddy and the "New Thought" movement contribute to the growth and development of the positive movement in America?
  • How has positive thinking negatively affected evangelical Christianity?
  • How has positive thinking negatively affected modern day Psychology?

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    Last Update August, 2010