Book Review: Bright-Sided

Book cover: Bright-sided by Barbara Ehrenreich

Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America by Barbara Ehrenreich was recommended by a fellow writer on who, like me, has chronic treatment-resistant depression.

The book looks at different ways that expectations of positive thinking with no room for anything else are actually harming our society.  The author doesn’t use the term toxic positivity, but she’s talking about the same kind of thing.

The first area of focus in the book is breast cancer, and reading it I couldn’t help but think Abigail of No Half Measures.  The author writes about how mainstream culture not only normalizes breast cancer but even tries to turn it into a positive thing.  She observes that “in the seamless world of breast cancer culture… cheerfulness is required, dissent a kind of treason.”  She also points out how problematic it is that within breast cancer culture, survival is treated as though it depends primarily on one’s attitude, adding that “the sugar-coating of cancer can exact a dreadful cost.”

Another chapter focuses on workplace culture, where “the penalty of non-conformity is going up, from the possibility of job loss and failure to social shunning and complete isolation.”

I had to laugh the author’s take on the popularity of ideas like the law of attraction within the coaching profession; she certainly doesn’t pull any punches.  “What attracts the coaching profession to these mystical powers?  Well, there’s not much else for them to impart to their coachees.”  And she’s certainly speaking my language when she picks apart the way quantum physics is co-opted into pseudoscience by “New Age thinkers and the philosophically opportunistic generally.”

The book covers the development of positive thought movement in the U.S., from Calvinism to New Thought to Norman Vincent Peale’s 1952 book The Power of Positive Thinking to positive psychology as developed by Martin Seligman.  While this was all relevant, I found it less interesting than other parts of the book.

Other topics covered including the push for positivity and optimism in the face of massive corporate downsizing, megachurches and “prosperity preachers”, and the baseless optimism that in part contributed to the collapse of the housing bubble in the U.S.

The author explains that positive and negative thinking aren’t the only options, and suggests a better alternative is “to try to get outside of ourselves and see things ‘as they are’, or as uncoloured as possible by our own feelings and fantasies, to understand that the world is full of both danger and opportunity.”

She adds that “critical thinking is inherently skeptical,” and “realism – to the point of defensive pessimism – is a prerequisite not only for human survival but for all animal species.”

I quite enjoyed this book, and I think the author just might be my long-lost soul sister.  There’s no need to try to sugar-coat the world; reality is far more interesting.


Bright-Sided is available on Amazon.

You can find my other book reviews here.

book cover: Making Sense of Psychiatric Diagnosis by Ashley L Peterson


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15 thoughts on “Book Review: Bright-Sided

  1. Paula Light says:

    I love that. Maybe I’ll add it to my wish list. It’s one of the things that depressed me further about giving up dating ~ trying to tell people that it depressed me. “Oh no!” they said. “Don’t give up! Think positive! The next guy could be the one!” I tried to explain that it was exactly that kind of thinking that was pulling me down into the spiral of depression. Every time I felt a bit of a connection, I tried to be upbeat, the thing crashed, and I felt even worse. I had to stop! Finally, I quit explaining.

  2. Meg says:

    This is fascinating. I thought I’d disagree with all her points (when I read about toxic positivity–let’s face it, I’m sort of an optimist…) but then everything she pointed out, I realized it’s all true! The breast cancer thing? Oh my freakin’ gosh, I’ve noticed it, but I’ve never put my finger on the dynamic she pointed out, but she’s right! It’s like breast cancer patients are expected to be all smiles and missing breasts and cancer meds, and it’s just…. AAAARGH. And with the treatment being centered on one’s attitude as per how effective it is… vomit. It reminds me of burn victims in the hospital who are gradually taken off pain meds and told, “It’s time for you to develop some mental meditational pain resistance,” which is absolute, 100% bullshit. A Buddhist monk might be able to pull that off, but no one else. Great blog post, and I’m very intrigued by this book!

  3. Luftmentsch says:

    I think there’s a cultural difference between the US and the UK, that the US is very positive and the UK is a lot more pessimistic.

    That said, I’m not sure we can see things “as they are” without any kind of filter.

    I just got back from a careers advice day and one of the speakers was talking about The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and I was quite interested and thinking I could apply this to other areas than just my job search, but at the back of my mind a voice is saying “OK, but what are you going to do when that doesn’t work like all the other positive thinking things that didn’t work?” and I don’t know if I’m being too positive at first or too negative afterwards. I suppose the reality is probably in between, that it might help a bit, but it probably won’t solve all my problems.

  4. kachaiweb says:

    Real peolpe are fun and interesting. I’m quite optimistic in nature, made me survive so it has a good thing to it but I can’t stand people who are optimistic for the sake of it. They make me look like a negative Nancy!

  5. says:

    I can agree to a certain degree. When I tried to take my life, ended up homeless, and feared for my life in a transitional housing program… All I had was my optimism to get me through things. I know it might sound hokey, but by reading “Positive” anything and/or everything, it was the only thing that was getting me through the hell I was living.
    I also follow Di, of “Pensitivity101”, just had breast cancer surgery for the second time. I applaud her efforts and realism. She is very optimistic. Instead of people going down like the Titanic, they maintain hope and try to keep their heads above water. This is something I don’t think is wrong.

  6. Hannah Celeste says:

    Very nice review! This book has been on my “to-read” list for a while. Your review makes want to prioritize it soon – I love authors that don’t pull any punches, especially when calling out BS.

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