Monday, 26 September 2011


I make it a policy not to read books with a colon in the middle of the title. The colon is a sure sign of a certain kind of heavily edited, heavily marketed non-fiction that makes me want to hurl. I particularly can't bear the idea of the earnest publishing meeting where they tinkered with the title to get it 'right.'

That said, for some reason I decided to read BRIGHT SIDED: HOW THE RELENTLESS PROMOTION OF POSITIVE THINKING HAS UNDERMINED AMERICA. A terrible title, but a rather good book.

The author is diagnosed with breast cancer, and immediately begins to feel that she is drowning in a sea of pink sugar. She is confounded by the relentless positivity that surrounds cancer, leaving no room for the obvious emotions: anger and grief. The idea that a positive mindset is a central part of conquering cancer is endless repeated, and Ehreneich, who in her youth acquired a Phd in cell biology, looks into this claim, and finds the science behind it very weak. The mere fact that it's all nonsense does not deter the cancer industry one bit however, and so Ehrenreich begins an examination into the whole idea of positive thinking.

She studies its roots in nineteenth century religion, right up to its current status as a quasi-religious movement led by preachers called 'motivational speakers.' The fact that the universe is incomprehensible and probably meaningless is no obstacle to these 'motivational speakers,' whose message is that you can have anything you want if you just want it badly enough. This sounds like a hopeful message, but its dark underside is of course that if you don't have what you want (if you lose your job, for example) it is entirely your own fault.

This idea obviously works very well for corporations. Unhappy employees do not need better working conditions, raises, or health insurance: they just need a better attitude! Thus a large percentage of the 'positivity industry' is funded by businesses, who buy the books and CDs for their unfortunate employees.

Perhaps the most interesting part of this book was the link Ehrenreich posits between 'positive thinking' and that pretty negative event, the global recession. I was surprised to learn that apparently, in the last decade or so, the majority of important CEOs made use of coaches, almost all of whom push the message of positive thinking: that is, imagining the best outcome, excluding negative people, manifesting success through the power of your thinking, and so forth. She includes many anecdotes of 'negative people,' that we might also call 'realists'- fired Cassandras - who tried to tell CEOs that their mortgages where dodgy, their credit default swaps dangerous, their real estate bubble about to burst. They did not fit into the triumphant visions of men making $60million a year, and so were ignored, with disastrous results.

BRIGHT SIDED is an interesting book about how psychology can effect the real world, though not perhaps exactly in the way positive thinkers imagine.

Depressing Trivia! Rhonda Byrne, who wrote the positive thinking Bible THE SECRET, apparently said that the tsunami of 2006 could only happen to people 'who are on the same frequency as the event.' I'd like to put her on the same frequency as a fat slap.


  1. Whooooaaaaaaa she said that?!?!?! I'd like to put her on the same frequency as that fat slap as well. Wow. I'm... Wow. That's very upsetting.

    Phew. Trying to move on, glad to hear this book went well. I do enjoy subtitles on my books but only when they are more scholarly and nerdy and information filled and less popular ;) This does sound quite interesting though!

  2. I know! I couldn't believe it! I suppose she has to try and make her theory coherent, but it certainly makes her sound like a really unpleasant woman.