Book 16 of 52: "Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America" by Barbara Ehrenreich

Hey, Barbara Ehrenreich!  I remember reading “Nickel and Dimed”, one of your previous novels, on how it was impossible to survive on minimum wage – and then immediately read another novel, by Adam Shephard, who proved you wrong.  But I’ll try not to let that bias my opinion of your newest book, Bright-Sided.

Actually, I felt that Bright-Sided was a good book, overall.  The book starts off with talking about Barbara’s realization that she had breast cancer – followed shortly after by her discovery that breast cancer support groups tend to be saccharine sweet with their positive attitude, seeing the disease as an opportunity, and insisting that everything is candy and roses (and coincidentally, lashing out against anyone who dares say otherwise).

After that first chapter, I started to feel that this book is an attack on optimism itself!  What a ridiculous idea!  But then I read more, and I started to see that, although it’s not clear at first, there are definite differences between optimism (I believe that things will work out okay) and positivism (I am convinced things will work out okay, and because I am convinced, they’re guaranteed to happen that way!).

Ehrenreich points to positivism as being responsible for, among other things, the recent recession and housing market crash.  Anyone who dared to consider negative things happening, an end to the bubble of rising house prices, was promptly ignored and shunted to the sidelines.  Similarly, more and more churches these days (especially megachurches) tend to preach a message of positivism, that as long as you believe, all good things will happen to you.

Ehrenreich even mentions The Secret, a breakout novel in 2006 that insisted that, just by visualizing good things happening, they would be guaranteed to happen!  While having a positive outlook on life is, I believe, a good thing, one should not ignore basic facts of life, like the fact that earning $20k a year does not let you buy a new Lexus.

In the end, I think Ehrenreich’s book needs only one addition: “Bright-Sided: How EXCESSIVE Positive Thinking is Undermining America.”  Positive thinking isn’t wrong.  Delusional, excessive positive thinking is.

And as for Ehrenreich’s initial opening chapter on breast cancer – the truth is that breast cancer is a nasty, painful, long disease, with mediocre survival rates, and there’s nothing that we can do to either prevent nor improve survival chances.  However, telling this to people doesn’t help them at all, and may hinder them by depressing them, possibly even to the point of suicide.

Positivism doesn’t help people recover faster from breast cancer, but at least it might keep them from committing suicide upon receiving their diagnosis.

Time to read: about 6 hours.

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