Bright Sided (Thoughts On)

Just finished reading Bright Sided by Barbara Ehrenreich. It’s a book about the history of positive thinking in the United States, essentially, more or less starting with positioning “Positive Thought” movement as a reaction to Calvinism and going from there to its various resurrections in the 90s (think Tony Robbins) and most recently in the form of positive psychology (think Martin Seligman).

The material’s fairly light, of course, in the way that this popular science kind of books are – that is, it’s not an academic book. What’s in there, though, is really a pretty entertaining take on a deeply interesting subject. The chief enjoyment is in smirking along as Ehrenreich jabs away at the ideologies and justifications of the people who promote these kinds of attitudes to life. She’s really pretty fun.

On the other hand, I’m definitely someone who has a certain affinity with “positive thinking”, and so there were times when reading the book where I felt forced to question my own ideas. This was particularly true with the material on positive psychology. I’ve read a couple of Martin Seligman’s books on the subject and accepted the contents more or less completely without critical thought, though I kind of balked at the idea that you should have some form of “spirituality” as part of being happy.

Seeing the same ideas through more critical eyes was really intriguing and a bit shameful. The most alarming elements was the idea that much of positive psychology (and other versions of positive thinking) is leveraged specifically to keep people who aren’t having a good time of it in check. In other words, to attempt to force people not to complain about poor treatment, inequities, and so on. Beyond that, Ehrenreich rightly points out various issues in terms of this notion that we should simply accept the tenets of positive thinking because “positive means good” – where does science fit in with this notion of constant positivity, she asks, for example. Indeed.

In the end, it was a very positive read.

31 January 2012
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