Wednesday, September 16, 2015

'Bright-Sided' by Barbara Ehrenreich

Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined AmericaBright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America by Barbara Ehrenreich

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The thesis of Bright-Sided is the U.S. residents tend, as a people, to subscribe to an optimistic outlook on life that isn’t so much based in fact as it is in wishful thinking. Sometimes this wishful thinking is presented to us with the best of intentions. At other times, it’s presented to us as a cynical ploy to make a fast buck with a minimal output of effort, since one of the tenets of positive thinking is often, “If it’s not working for you, you must not be trying hard enough.”

Sometimes, corporations use this mindset to try to increase productivity as much as possible while laying out as few benefits as they can get away with. Haven’t gotten a raise in five years? You’re probably just not working hard enough! Envision success and use positivity to attract a raise to you! At worst, this can be used as an excuse to pay people poverty wages for working long, hard hours at unpalatable jobs.

The problem, as Ehrenreich explains, is that very little scientific evidence shows that positive people fare significantly better than their less-positive peers. At the same time, individuals can experience real-world consequences, including loss of their jobs, simply for being perceived as not having a positive attitude.

As Ehrenreich shows, however, the economic sphere is not the only one in which people can find themselves blamed and shamed for not being cheerful enough. Oddly, one of them is the cancer support group sphere, as Ehrenreich found out during her bout with breast cancer. Women suffering from the disease will sometimes repeat the mantra that positivity strengthens their immune system and thus helps them fight the disease. The problem is that physicians don’t think there is much of a link between the immune system and breast cancer. Think about what the immune system does – it fights foreign “invaders” in the body, namely bacteria and viruses. Cancer cells are the body’s own cells, not recognized by the immune system as “foreign.” Women who get sicker and blame themselves for being too negative are expending their precious energy over something irrelevant.

The chapter on the religious aspect of positive thinking is also very interesting. In this chapter, I learned about the New Thought movement of the 1800s and its founder, Phineas Parkhurst Quimby. If a 21st-century person believes human thought can affect atoms and molecules in the real world, that person can likely trace their thoughts back to Quimby. Followers of the so-called Prosperity Gospel as exemplified by Joel Osteen and Joyce Meyer, adherents of Oprah Winfrey, and readers of Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret may not seem to have much in common on the surface, but all can trace their philosophical roots back to New Thought. Quimby’s most direct influence may have been on Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science.


The origin of Quimby’s “heal thyself” philosophy? He had tuberculosis. He was born in 1808, and when he was a young man, doctors could do next to nothing for the bacterial infection. His doctors gave him a remedy that did little to abate his breathing problems, but did make his teeth start to fall out. Fed up with the institutional medicine of his day (with good reason), he decided to study hypnotism. He eventually came to believe that all diseases were caused by the way one thinks about one’s body.

The scientific evidence that beliefs affect the human body is scant to nonexistent, but Quimby and Baker Eddy weren’t really interested in scientific evidence. I read a little bit more about Mary Baker Eddy in Wikipedia, and it seems she had something of a kerfuffle with Mark Twain in the first decade of the 1900s. Twain wrote an article criticizing Christian Science, which Harper’s magazine refused to publish. Twain then accused the publication of bowing down to pressure from high-profile Christian Scientists and of not being objective. He later published – elsewhere, one presumes – a lengthy critical essay on the subject of Mary Baker Eddy herself.

Touched on in this chapter, and quite possibly worth addressing in greater detail elsewhere, are John Marks Templeton Sr. and Jr. The senior John M. Templeton created the Templeton Foundation, which supports a large variety of both religious and scientific research endeavors. It has been accused of supporting unscientific theories such as “intelligent design” creationism and other dubious sciences. Ehrenreich herself has publicly accused the Templeton Foundation of a conservative political bias, which the Foundation has answered by saying that it stays within the guidelines set forth by its founder, which are designed to be unbiased and apolitical.

Dr. John Marks Templeton Jr., popularly known as Jack Templeton, was well known for donating vast sums of his personal wealth to Republican political causes. He and his wife are estimated to have personally donated a million dollars to opposing same-sex marriage. Having died of a brain tumor in May of this year, he didn’t quite live long enough to see marriage equality become the law of the land on June 26th.

Economics, politics, religion, medicine…areas of life in which people need to be at their most clear-eyed. Optimism and a positive outlook can make life more bearable, especially when one is ill or under stress, but it’s also important to be armed with objective fact. This is the point Barbara Ehrenreich makes in Bright-Sided, and it’s a good one.

I purchased this title as a CD audiobook with my own funds from a library used media sale. I wasn't obligated in any way to review it. This review represents my own honest opinion.

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