Bright-Sided by Barbara Ehrenreich

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

The first time I encountered a vision board was in the late 1990’s when some friends of ours were trying to convince my spouse and me to sell Amway. We’d visit their apartment and see the magazine clippings of Mercedes sedans and diamond rings covering their refrigerator. This was shortly after one of them had quit grad school because he knew the only way he was going to reach his financial goals was to devote himself whole-heartedly to his Amway business. That MD-PhD he’d almost completed was a career dead end anyway.

The first friend who used the term “manifest” to describe what our Amway friends were doing with the fridge photos tried to convince me that I just had to buy a house in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2007. It was a no-brainer: every rich person she knew owned a house, and it was ridiculous not to get into the market. She had just done it, and in a few years, it would be totally worth the financial pinch. Then I told her my family’s monthly household income, and she didn’t mention home buying again.

The day I started reading this book, another friend told me about the positive thinking certification class she was taking. “You’d really like it, Charity,” she insisted, and I considered recommending this book to her along with Julie Norem’s The Positive Power Of Negative Thinking. Instead I just kept quiet.

I am in the choir to whom Ehrenreich is preaching with this book. That’s not to say I haven’t taken a sip of the positive thinking Kool-Aid myself at times. From the draw of a friend’s megachurch when I was eighteen to starting my very own Happiness Project a la Gretchen Rubin when I was thirty-three, I do sometimes buy into the idea that my cautious optimism/defensive pessimism is a character flaw. But mostly I’m happy to live outside of the positive thinking bubble.

Most of what Ehrenreich says was no surprise to me, but one idea that really got my attention was that positive thinking discourages empathy. Ehrenreich writes:

“The challenge of family life, or group life of any kind, is to keep gauging the moods of others, accommodating to their insights, and offering comfort when needed. But in the world of positive thinking other people are not there to be nurtured or to provide unwelcome reality checks. They are there only to nourish, praise, and affirm…There seems to be a massive empathy deficit, which people respond to by withdrawing their own. No one has the time or patience for anyone else’s problems.”(56)

If our primary goal is our own personal momentary happiness, what incentive is there to empathize and build relationships?

I admit, though, that even as I strongly endorse the idea of empathy and do my best to practice it myself every day, I continue to have a sense of scarcity around empathy. What if I put in the effort to empathize with others and then no one empathizes back?

I’ve sworn off self-help books, but if I found one that focused on addressing the empathy deficit, I would read it.

I do wonder: Is it better in other countries? Are there places I could live where positive thinking isn’t so ubiquitous?

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