Two of Barbara Ehrenreich’s best-selling books are reality journalism, where she put herself in the situations she’s writing about. Thus, in 2001 she released Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America , a first-hand account of trying to live on the wages of low-paying jobs, such as waitress, hotel maid and Wal-Mart associate. She followed that with Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream , in which she examined what it takes to find a white-collar job at a time of downsizing and layoffs.
With that background, you wonder if and how she is going to get inside the topic of her latest book, Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America . Yet the first chapter is based on as much reality as anyone would want to face. It discusses, as she did in a 2001 article  in Harper’s Magazine, her diagnosis of breast cancer and her introduction to a culture which views cheerfulness and positive thinking as almost mandatory. It is a sobering introduction to the subject not only for the reader, but for her. As she puts it, one of the things that accompanied her cancer “was a very personal, agonizing encounter with an ideological force in American culture that I had not been aware of before — one that encourages us to deny reality, submit cheerfully to misfortune, and blame only ourselves for our fate.”
While the role of positive thinking in American culture isn’t a reality journalism topic, Ehrenreich also writes of how she encountered it in the business world. Thus, the various job coaches and the like she encountered in Bait and Switch were an additional introduction into the pervasiveness of the subject in modern America. That she found it both in her personal and professional life helps form the approach of Bright-sided.
Ehrenreich examines the history of “the mass delusion that is positive thinking” in the United States in a variety of personal, cultural and economic settings. While positive thinking has some roots in the so-called Protestant ethic — hard work will be rewarded — she explores how it developed in the 19th and 20th centuries. Thus, the “New Thought movement ” helped give rise to not only religious movements like Christian Science but curing ills like “neurasthenia,” a syndrome marked by fatigue, withdrawal and depression. By the 20th Century, many ideas sparked by the New Though movement found their way into such well-known works as Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People and Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking.
These concepts pervaded the country and Americans saw them as a way to success and happiness. Over the last 30 years or so, we’ve seen countless books and advisors urging positive thinking as a business motivator and self-help. Thus, we saw not only “positive psychology” and books like The Secret, but what came to be known as the “prosperity gospel,” in which our ability to prosper financially and emotionally hinges on our relationship with God. In fact, Ehrenreich notes, three of the four largest megachurches in the U.S. are based on the prosperity gospel.
Bright-sided is weaker in supporting its proposition that positive thinking has undermined America. The extensively footnoted and sourced book makes clear arguments that the real threat of positive thinking is that it tends to substitute illusion for reality. Perhaps her best example is the recent economic collapse. Brazenly optimistic “experts” were encouraging millions taught by business, church or otherwise of the need for positive thinking in an America in which former U.S. Treasure Secretary Robert Reich observed that “[o]ur willingness to go deep into debt and keep spending is intimately related to our optimism.”
Yet any such failing there, it is redeemed by Ehrenreich’s call for what she terms “post-positive thinking.” She urges that rather than focusing on positive thinking, which is inherently emotional, we must rely upon critical thinking. Seeing things “as they are,” she argues, is the only way to approach the real world — and both the danger and promise it offers.
Human intellectual progress, such as it has been, results from our long struggle to see things “as they are,” or in the most universally comprehensible way, and not as projections of our own emotions.
Barbara Ehrenreich, Bright-sided