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How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America

A-Bright-SidedBarbara Ehrenreich is the author of many works of social criticism, including Nickel and Dimed (2001) and Bait and Switch ( 3.5 of 5 Stars Nov/Dec 2005).

The Topic: When Barbara Ehrenreich was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2001, she anticipated many difficulties. However, she did not expect to be inundated with pink ribbons, teddy bears, and, above all, the philosophy that these symbols represented: relentless positive thinking at the expense of recognizing reality. Ehrenreich's rebellion against this phenomenon led her to investigate the obsession with positive attitudes in other parts of American life--up to and including the excesses that led to the Great Recession. Also on the block are prosperity minister Joel Osteen, Rhonda Byrne's best-selling The Secret, and a variety of psychologists and gurus who claim to have the key to contentment.
Metropolitan Books. 256 pages. $23. ISBN: 9780805087499

Miami Herald 4 of 5 Stars
"[S]hortly after diving into the icy plunge pool of Chapter One readers will find themselves asking: Can I really make it all the way through a screed that starts off with a roundhouse punch at the positive thinking of cancer patients? You can. And you should. ... Helping us face the truth is Ehrenreich at her best." Lisa Arthur

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"In a voice urgent and passionate, Ehrenreich offers us neither extreme but instead balance: joy, happiness, yes; sadness, anger, yes. ... Not an easy task but essential if we are to recover from what we hope is only temporary blindness." Jane Juska

Cleveland Plain Dealer 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Others have critiqued the positivity movement, but Ehrenreich does an impressive job of analyzing its broader social impact. Some of her arguments are glib and a few of her conclusions annoyingly quick, but she raises powerful questions." Kristin Ohlson

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Ehrenreich is the author of several excellent books about class--Nickel and Dimed is the best known. In this book she also reaches for a conspiratorial, top-down explanation. ... I was so warmed by encountering a fellow crank that I forgave the agenda." Hanna Rosin

Oregonian 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[Ehrenreich's refutation and character assassination, while entertaining, serve to show how positive thinking is as rickety a construct as the Wizard, merely masking insecurities about a world we can't really control. ... [Her] advice on where to go from here is a workable antidote to the pursuit of secret formulas that don't exist." Kassten Alonso

Christian Science Monitor 3 of 5 Stars
"[Ehrenreich is] also a skilled polemicist who knows how to build a compelling case by selectively sifting through the facts. ... But one wonders if her concerns aren't a bit overwrought." Gregory M. Lamb

Denver Post 2.5 of 5 Stars
"While Ehrenreich is entertaining and instructive as she has been in the past, Bright-Sided is probably her least persuasive book. ... Ehrenreich partially restores our enthusiasm for her tract by cogently explaining her source of satisfaction as a skeptic in a world seemingly dominated by blinkered optimists: She is determined to think positively about damping down the positive-thinking ideologues." Steve Weinberg

New York Times 2 of 5 Stars
"[Ehrenreich's] argument has the makings of a tight, incisive essay. ... But this short book is also padded with cheap shots, easy examples, research recycled from her earlier books and caustic reportorial stalking." Janet Maslin

Critical Summary

No critic completely dismissed Ehrenreich's critique of America's "happiness" culture. But reviewers' enthusiasm for her critique seemed to depend on their assessment of the book's moral urgency. Several critics felt that the message of Bright-Sided was essential to readers in the aftermath of last year's economic meltdown. But others felt that Ehrenreich's ideas, while relevant, had been better expressed by others. They also criticized the author for "cheap shots" and outdated research. For example, she criticizes the book Who Moved My Cheese?, which has long been superseded by other, even sillier titles. But many readers may react like Hanna Rosin, who wrote in the New York Times Book Review that even when she did not agree with Ehrenreich's arguments, she felt less guilty about not sharing in our smiley culture.