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Skepchick Book Club: Bright-sided

Welcome back to the Skepchick Book Club! This month, we read Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America by Barbara Ehrenreich. I was drawn to this book because I’m naturally cynical and I’ve heard “be positive!” more than enough to be annoyed at the culture of relentless positivity. And I was glad to find a kindred soul in Ehrenreich.

Ehrenreich starts talking about her cancer diagnosis and how she was inspired to write about the positivity she encountered in the cancer community. Not that there’s anything wrong with being positive–but there’s also nothing wrong with being angry about having cancer and feeling negative. Putting on a smile and bottling up your feelings won’t necessarily make you feel better. Instead, cancer patients are given “proof” that having a positive attitude is correlated with longer life and surviving cancer. So, as the first chapter says, one needs to “smile or die.” She also explores the Pink Ribbon campaign and the Susan G. Komen foundation, which was in the news just a few years ago for pulling (and then reinstating) funding to Planned Parenthood for cancer screenings. And Nancy Brinker, the CEO, has been criticized many times for leading what appears to be a lavish lifestyle, paid for by the charity.

Outside of cancer, there are entire industries devoted to promoting positivity. They can be divided into three basic categories: religion (prosperity doctrine), motivational speaking, and spirituality (or as one person calls it, “quantum flapdoodle”).

One of the goals of positivity is wealth, and if you’re being “negative” about not having enough money or assets in your life, then the implication is that it’s your fault because you have a bad attitude. Positive people are encouraged either to think good thoughts, pray, or visualize what they want in life (even going so far as to make magical vision boards to encourage more visualization).

The prosperity doctrine is what you’ll find in a lot of megachurches, and the pastor that Ehrenreich focuses on for this book is Joel Osteen. If you’re not familiar with the terms, the prosperity doctrine is the belief that one’s personal wealth is controlled by the Christian God and that prayers, positive thoughts, and donations to the church will all help one achieve wealth and success. Unfortunately, the prosperity doctrine was popular at the same time as the American subprime mortgage crisis, and pastors implied that God would help you to get a mortgage and for bankers to ignore your credit history. (Well, they weren’t really wrong about that except replace “God” with “limitless greed.”) Ehrenreich attends Osteen’s church coincidentally right after charges against Victoria Osteen were dropped in a suit where a flight attendant accused her of assault. (Which was God’s will, naturally.)

Anyway, whether you’re a natural-born curmudgeon like me or a positive person, this book has something for everyone. As Ehrenreich argues, “positive” does not necessarily mean “good,” even though sometimes we use the terms interchangeably. Because if positivity is good, then anything not-positive is seen as bad, which is unfair. Sometimes it’s good to be realistic. If you’re driving a car, you shouldn’t be too optimistic about how your fellow drivers are going to behave.


Next Book: The Emporor of All Maladies

The next time I’ll be posting is Sunday, July 19th, and we’ll be discussing The Emporor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee. Join us then, or if you’re in Boston, come to our live meeting on Saturday, July 18th (leave a comment if you want more details). See you then!


Mary Brock works as an Immunology scientist by day and takes care of a pink-loving princess child by night. She likes cloudy days, crafting, cooking, and Fall weather in New England.

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  1. This book was a breath of fresh air. I no longer feel bad about having the occasional negative thought. :) . I also feel that she gave me a sobering picture of just how pervasive (and dangerous!) the doctrine of positive thinking really is.

    1. I agree! I think it’s so patronizing when people reprimand others for not “being positive.” Probably because I’ve been on the receiving end of that a lot. I think being “negative” is more funny anyway.

  2. A great book. I loved the way Ehrenreich showed how relentless positivity segues into reckless denial, both in military/political and financial fields.

    I’d recommend Martin Gardner’s ‘The Healing Revelations of Mary Baker Eddy’ as a companion. Where Ehrenreich starts with cancer and pink ribbons in the 21st Century, Garner starts at the other end, with the roots of Christian Science and New Thought, and follows the trail forward through Dale Carnegie, Norman Vincent Peale, Werner Erhardt etc.

    1. Ehrenreich touched a bit on Christian Science, and I thought it was interesting how, at the time, the religion made a lot of sense as a response to both Calvinism and also shoddy medical standards of the time. Nowadays it’s hogwash of course, but context is everything.

  3. I wish I had paid more attention to book club this time around. I will read this. Meanwhile I am reading Richard Wiseman’s 59 Seconds because I was looking for a book to help me feel better but wasn’t promoted by Dr Oz or Oprah. It was reviewed on one of the skeptical boards.

    So far I like that the self-help is based on solid scientific research and not all this “positivity” bs that most books are. We are allowed to feel angry and negitive. Which is great for me as I’m a big negative grump.

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