Non-Fiction: “Bright-Sided” by Barbara Ehrenreich

Okay, I am done (for the time being) with non-fiction. I can’t believe it took me over two weeks to read this book. I mean, it’s only 200 freaking pages! I should have finished it in five days! Two weeks? The hell?

Okay yes, I was kind of opening up my store, and maybe I had a lot of things going on plus sleep, but still. It’s kind of disgusting.

This was the last of the books I borrowed from the library that I’m going to read. When I picked up Moneyball and Bad Science, I also had, like, four other titles to read. Then I realized that there’s no way I’m going to have time to read four books in three weeks. I always do that — go to the library to pick up the one book I reserved, and end up with seven others to take home. Who does that?

So anyway. Barbara Ehrenreich also wrote a book that’s on my To Read List For Life: Nickel and Dimed, which is supposed to be about her attempting to live on minimum wage. Well, Nickel and Dimed wasn’t there, but I remembered Bright-Sided got some good reviews, so I said “what the hell” and added it to my pile.

Flash-forward six weeks later (yes, I had to renew it once), and I’m … not unimpressed, but more “why did I spend so long on that?” Because while I liked the premise — the subtitle is “How the relentless promotion of positive thinking has undermined America” — I don’t think the execution was what I expected, and my opinion of the book suffered for it.

And look, I totally own that. It’s nothing against Ms. Ehrenreich, but I think I reached burnout on non-fiction about sixty pages in, but I wanted to see where the undermining came from so I kept reading, and it didn’t show up (in my opinion) until the last fifty pages. Her interest with the idea of positive thinking begins when she’s diagnosed with breast cancer, and she finds frillions of support groups online who proclaim that thinking positively about beating cancer will help fight the illness. Ms. Ehrenreich — who, similarly to myself and Chuck Klosterman, thinks the same things as me about the same things — wants to know where the scientific data backing up that statement is. That leads her on journey through American history, wherein she discusses America’s background with Calvinism as a force to be reckoned with.

Here’s an interesting thought from the early pages that struck me:

By the twentieth century, though, [positive thinking] had gone mainstream, gaining purchase within such powerful belief systems as nationalism and also doing its best to make itself dispensable to capitalism. We don’t usually talk about American nationalism, but it is a mar of how deep it runs that we apply the word “nationalism” to Serbs, Russians, and others, while believing ourselves to possess a uniquely superior version called “patriotism.” [6]

She proceeds through corporate America, and how people who are constantly optimistic are rewarded versus people who may do the same amount of work but with more snark and skepticism. In addition, there’s a bit on the coaching and positive psychology industries that have popped up in recent years and how corporations are relying on them to shape the workforce.

But the chapter that I was waiting for and that I truly enjoyed reading was the last one: “How Positive Thinking Destroyed the Economy.” I’m not going to quote everything that I liked — and I had plenty of dogears in those fifteen pages — but suffice it to say that the people on Wall Street are idiots that believed in their own bullshit Ponzi scheme and then were shocked when the Ponzi scheme didn’t work. (Has there ever been a Ponzi scheme that worked? Has there ever been a scheme that wasn’t tinged in shadiness?)

However — before all y’all get up on your soapboxes and start Occupying places again — Ms. Ehrenreich ends with an epilogue that, boiled down to its barest essentials, pleads with Americans to follow the only good piece of advice that Ronald Reagan ever uttered: “Trust, but verify.” In a way, Ms. Ehrenreich’s message is similar to that of Dr. Goldacre from Bad Science: you need to know the information before you go off doing something about it. And also — and most importantly — if you want to create change that is positive, you’re going to need to put some action behind your thinking about it. Because sitting in a park with signs about being the 99% and yelling at people walking by in suits is all well and good, I suppose (if you’re a fucking hipster), nothing’s going to happen unless you get up off your ass and actually work to change what you’re seeing. Because guys, the status will remain quo until we make it not quo.

Grade for Bright-Sided: 2 stars

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