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Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America - Barbara Ehrenreich My own personal relationship to "positive thinking" is hard to sum up for perfect strangers. I try to stay away from judging my own thoughts as "positive" or "negative" at all; I don't really like to use those words in general but I admit they can be a useful shorthand. All feelings on the spectrum have their place and useful/helpful experiences, ideas, etc can come out of what most people would call "negative" feelings like anger, despair, sorrow, etc. I don't ever berate myself for anything I think or feel (I do recognize that sometimes the way I behave & things I say are unhelpful and regrettable). That said, I have what most people would describe as a "cheery disposition"--I'm friendly, smile a lot, I find it exceptionally hard to hold grudges or even be in a funk for more than a couple of days. I guess that's my own personal "innate disposition" toward contentment/happiness, and I'm sure that being the only child of two adoring parents helped a great deal.

I've read two books by Barbara Ehrenreich before this and loved them both (Nickel and Dimed; For Her Own Good). I didn't really get into this book until around 75 pages in and I was afraid it would disappoint. She spent the first two chapters of the book discussing how breast cancer patients are chastised if they're not upbeat and pretty much bottom of the barrel self-help mumbo jumbo. It's not that I disagreed with what she was saying--I just really didn't see the need to read a 200 page book about how the claims that get-rich-quick books make are dubious. The way I've heard self-help books derided in common conversation, I figured most people were in agreement with Ehrenreich in the first place. And to me, it seemed a foregone conclusion that cancer patients had a right to anger and sorrow, and I was under the impression that medical professionals were educated to the effect that that was completely understandable, normal, and necessary.

The really excellent parts of the book, I thought, were near the end. Chapters 4, 5, and 7 were especially interesting to me--the business that "positive thinking" has become, the megachurch angle, and positive thinking and its ties to the financial collapse, respectively. They were fun to read, often funny, and more often providing insightful statistics, interview quotations, and commentary.

I guess where my reservations come in is that, like the purveyors of positive thinking that she reviles, Ehrenreich also makes claims that I wish had been made with more clarity or accuracy. For example, she writes about a speaking association conference she attended, catered to mostly life coaches and motivational speakers: "A plenary session in the main ballroom began with a ten-minute slide show of calendar-style photos--waterfalls, mountains, and wildflowers--accompanied by soothing music. [...] The irrational exuberance, such as it was, all came from the podium." Er...okay? I mean, mountains and wildflowers are some of my favorite things, and pictures of them accompanied by relaxing music doesn't sound "exuberant" to me at all, or "irrational"--especially if your job and livelihood depends on instilling that kind of emotion. One time she mentions the "Authentic Happiness Score" and I took the test myself, too. Though Ehrenreich got a higher score than I did, she calls her score "less than jubliant," but I disagree. I'm one of the most if not THE most jubliant person I know. I'm like one of the dancing-down-the-grocery-store aisles, laugh at random, skip around. To get a high score on that test you need to be totally unrealistic. Maybe that's her point, but she never states it clearly, and I feel that it would be more effective if she did.

The statement that irked me the most: "Whatever it was--scientific breakthrough or flamboyant bid for fudning and attention--positive psychology provided a solution to the mundane problems of the psychology profession. Effective antidepressants had become available at the end of the 1980s, and these could be prescribed by a primary care physician after a ten-minute diagnostic interview, so what was left for a psychologist to do?" I was upset when I read that. Yeah, what a great idea--let's give everyone powerful mind-altering drugs after they have a cursory chat with what is basically a stranger who gets paid by big pharma... (And I'm not saying at all that antidepressants aren't useful or are "bad" somehow--but I do think that just about every person on the planet could benefit from talk therapy or counseling at some point in their lives, seeing as how our society is pretty antagonistic to most individuals and personal relationships can be hard and a lot of people have rough patches or break downs without being clinically depressed and our society is sorely lacking in empathy...) I couldn't tell if she was actually advocating for that viewpoint or being sarcastic, and having that sort of confusion after reading 150 pages in the book, well... I was kind of angry. Again, I think clarity of accuracy would help clear things up in that regard.

All in all, I'm glad I read it and I would recommend it to just about anyone. After I finished this book, I really did spot a lot more "positive thinking" mumbo jumbo than I had before.