Book Review: Bright-Sided

The problem with positive thinking

Ashley Peterson
Nov 20, 2019 · 3 min read

Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America by Barbara Ehrenreich was recommended by Pam Livingston, 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. 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.

Originally published at on November 21, 2019.

Ashley Peterson

Written by

Mental health blogger, nurse, living with depression. Author of Making Sense of Psychiatric Diagnosis and Psych Meds Made Simple.

R.E.A.D.I.N.G. W.A.R.

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