Thursday, September 16, 2010


Recently a friend told me that I was "too negative." I had been trying to make her aware of the difficulties of getting a book published. At the time, the illnesses of several old friends and the death of a family member were taking a toll on me.

I brooded about her comment. I hadn't intended to be a wet blanket. One of my mother's favourite sayings sprang to mind: "Laugh and the world laughs with you. Weep and you weep alone." On the other hand, my mother also quoted, "Blessed are they that mourn for they shall be comforted."

While musing about my friend's remark, a recent book by Barbara Ehrenreich came into my hands. "Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America", is published by Picador, a branch of Henry Holt and Company, New York. I have been impressed by Ehrenreich's articles in "Harper's Magazine" and found "Bright-Sided" fascinating.

In "Bright-Sided", Ehrenreich tackes the pervasive positive thinking movement. She is all in favour of happiness, noting studies that show that the most routine obstacle to happiness is poverty. Rich countries and rich people are happier than poor ones.

She concedes that people who project an air of optimism have a better chance of attracting friends and thereby avoiding depression. But positive thinking has become a practice or a discipline. The idea that we must work on ourthoughts and moods, blocking out unpleasant possibilities and negative thoughts, is prevalent in the United States and here in Canada as well. The social requirement to put on a happy face means that we must often suppress our genuine feelings.

"Positive thinking has made itself useful as an apology for the crueller aspects of the market economy," she writes. To paraphrase, it promotes a blame-the-victim mentality, the idea that workers who are laid off and people whose businesses fail are to blame for what has happened to them because they didn't have the right attitude of optimism and weren't motivated to try hard enough.

Chapter Seven of her book is entitled "How positive thinking destroyed the economy." She writes: "The near unanimous optimism of the experts certainly contributed to the reckless build-up of bad debt and dodgy loans, but so did the wildly upbeat outlook of many ordinary Americans."

Realism and "anxious vigilance" are vital to our survival as a species, Ehrenreich contends. In her view, the route to happiness lies not in looking inward and monitoring our moods in order to be more upbeat, but to work with others on practical actions in the world to "get food to the hungry" and the like.
This brief review hasn't done justice to "Bright-Sided". Do read it for yourself.

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