Cover image for Bright-sided how the relentless promotion of positive thinking has undermined America
Title:
Bright-sided how the relentless promotion of positive thinking has undermined America
ISBN:
9781410424709
Publication Information:
Waterville, Me. : Thorndike Press, 2010.
Physical Description:
367 p. (large print) ; 23 cm.
Contents:
Smile or die : the bright side of cancer -- The years of magical thinking -- The dark roots of American optimism -- Motivating business and the business of motivation -- God wants you to be rich -- Positive psychology : the science of happiness -- How positive thinking destroyed the economy -- Postscript on post-positive thinking.
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Summary:
A sharp-witted knockdown of America's love affair with positive thinking and an urgent call for a new commitment to realism, existential clarity and courage.
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Summary

Summary

Americans are a positive people -- cheerful, optimistic, and upbeat. This is our reputation as well as our self-image. In this utterly original take on the American frame of mind, Barbara Ehrenreich traces the strange career of our sunny outlook from its origins as a marginal nineteenth-century healing technique to its enshrinement as a dominant, almost mandatory, cultural attitude, and exposes the downside of irrational optimism.


Author Notes

Barbara Ehrenreich is the author of "Blood Rites"; "The Worst Years of Our Lives"; "Fear of Falling", which was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award, & eight other books. A frequent contributor to Time, Harper's, Esquire, The New Republic, Mirabella, The Nation, The New York Magazine, she lives near Key West, Florida.

(Publisher Fact Sheets) Political activist and writer Barbara Ehrenreich was born in Butte, Montana on August 26, 1941. She studied physics at Reed College and graduated in 1963. She received a Ph.D. in Cell Biology from Rockefeller University in 1968. Rather than pursuing a career in science, however, she decided to focus on social change.

Ehrenreich has written columns and contributed articles to publications including Time Magazine, The Progressive, The New York Times, Mother Jones, The Atlantic Monthly, Ms, The New Republic, Harper's Magazine, and The Nation. She taught essay writing at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley in 1998 and 2000.

Ehrenreich has written many books, with 2001's Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America and 2005's Bait and Switch, The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream both becoming New York Times bestsellers. Nickel and Dimed examines working-class poverty, while Bait and Switch discusses white-collar unemployment. Her next bestseller was in 2014 with Living With a Wild God: A Nonbeliever's Search for the Truth about Everything.

In 1998 Ehrenreich was named Humanist of the Year by the American Humanist Association, and she received the Nation Institute/Puffin Foundation Prize for Creative Citizenship in 2004.

(Bowker Author Biography)


Reviews 5

Publisher's Weekly Review

Ehrenreich (Nickel and Dimed) delivers a trenchant look into the burgeoning business of positive thinking. A bout with breast cancer puts the author face to face with this new breed of frenetic positive thinking promoted by everyone from scientists to gurus and activists. Chided for her anger and distress by doctors and fellow cancer patients and survivors, Ehrenreich explores the insistence upon optimism as a cultural and national trait, discovering its "symbiotic relationship with American capitalism" and how poverty, obesity, unemployment and relationship problems are being marketed as obstacles that can be overcome with the right (read: positive) mindset. Building on Max Weber's insights into the relationship between Calvinism and capitalism, Ehrenreich sees the dark roots of positive thinking emerging from 19th-century religious movements. Mary Baker Eddy, William James and Norman Vincent Peale paved the path for today's secular $9.6 billion self-improvement industry and positive psychology institutes. The author concludes by suggesting that the bungled invasion of Iraq and current economic mess may be intricately tied to this "reckless" national penchant for self-delusion and a lack of anxious vigilance, necessary to societal survival. (Oct.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved


Booklist Review

*Starred Review* Best-selling author Ehrenreich believes Americans have succumbed to the cult of cheerfulness to the point where we have left ourselves vulnerable to chicanery on nearly every front, from rosy military and economic forecasts to overblown promises grounded in religious faith. Ehrenreich examines the prevalence of positive thinking in American culture and its not-so-positive implications. How did the nation go from the stark limits of Calvinism to the broad horizons offered by Oprah Winfrey and Joel Osteen? Ehrenreich examines the historic roots and figures behind positive thinking, among them, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Norman Vincent Peale, and Dale Carnegie. She traces those pioneers straight to today's mega-church preachers and televangelists, including Robert Schuller and Rick Warren. Corporations and the government have also succumbed to positive thinking with disastrous results, according to Ehrenreich, as she argues that the Bush administration pushed rosy predictions regarding the war in Iraq and the financial sector blinded itself to the reality of home and stock values. Psychology has also helped fuel a cottage industry life coaches and motivational speakers who strongly imply that any shortcoming is the result of failing to think positively. Ehrenreich highlights the dark side of American optimism: a willful suspension of reality. And the pressure on those who think less than positively is enormous, Ehrenreich asserts, citing her own experience with breast cancer and being repelled by the sugar-coating of the disease. In this wide-ranging and stinging look at the pervasiveness of positive thinking, Ehrenreich warns against a reckless optimism that causes individuals and nations not to plan for inevitable downturns and disasters.--Bush, Vanessa Copyright 2009 Booklist


New York Review of Books Review

I MUST confess, I have waited my whole life for someone to write a book like "Bright-Sided." When I was a young child, my family moved to the United States from Israel, where churlishness is a point of pride. As I walked around wearing what I considered a neutral expression, strangers would often shout, "What's the matter, honey? Smile!" as if visible cheerfulness were some kind of requirement for citizenship. Now, in Barbara Ehrenreich's deeply satisfying book, I finally have a moral defense for my apparent scowl. All the background noise of America - motivational speakers, positive prayer, the new Journal of Happiness Studies - these are not the markers of happy, well-adjusted psyches uncorrupted by irony, as I have always been led to believe. Instead, Ehrenreich argues convincingly that they are the symptoms of a noxious virus infecting all corners of American life that goes by the name "positive thinking." What started as a 19th-century response to dour Calvinism has, over the years, turned equally oppressive, Ehrenreich writes. Stacks of best sellers equate corporate success with a positive attitude. Flimsy medical research claims that cheerfulness can improve the immune system. In a growing number of American churches, confessions of poverty or distress amount to heresy. America's can-do optimism has hardened into a suffocating culture of positivity that bears little relation to genuine hope or happiness. Ehrenreich is the author of several excellent books about class - "Nickel and Dimed" is the best known. In this book she also reaches for a conspiratorial, top-down explanation. "Positive thinking," she maintains, is just another way for the conservative, corporate culture to wring the most out of its workers. I don't exactly buy this part of her argument, but the book doesn't suffer much for the overreaching. I was so warmed by encountering a fellow crank that I forgave the agenda. Ehrenreich's inspiration for "Bright-Sided" came from her year of dealing with breast cancer. From her first waiting room experience in 2000 she was choking on pink ribbons and other "bits of cuteness and sentimentality" - teddy bears, goofy top-10 lists, cheesy poetry accented with pink roses. The sticky cheerfulness extended to support groups, where expressions of dread or outrage were treated as emotional blocks. "The appropriate attitude," she quickly realized, was "upbeat and even eagerly acquisitive." The word "victim" was taboo. Lance Armstrong was quoted as saying that "cancer was the best thing that ever happened to me," while another survivor described the disease as "your connection to the divine." As a test, Ehrenreich herself posted a message on a cancer support site under the title "Angry," complaining about the effects of chemotherapy, "recalcitrant insurance companies" and "sappy pink ribbons." "Suzy" wrote in to take issue with her "bad attitude" and warned that "it's not going to help you in the least." "Kitty" urged her to "run, not walk, to some counseling." The experience led her to seek out other arenas in American life where an insistence on positive thinking had taken its toll. One of the more interesting chapters concerns American business culture. Since the publication of Dale Carnegie's "How to Win Friends and Influence People" in 1936, motivational speaking has become so ubiquitous that we've forgotten a world without it. In seminars, employees are led in mass chants that would make Chairman Mao proud: "I feel healthy, I feel happy, I feel terrific! " Corporate managers transformed from coolheaded professionals into mystical gurus and quasi celebrities "enamored of intuition, snap judgments and hunches." Corporate America began to look like one giant ashram, with "vision quests," "tribal storytelling" and "deep listening" all now common staples of corporate retreats. This mystical positivity seeped into the American megachurches, as celebrity pastors became motivational speakers in robes. In one of the great untold stories of American religion, the proto-Calvinist Christian right - with its emphasis on sin and self-discipline - has lately been replaced by a stitched-together faith known as "prosperity gospel," which holds that God wants believers to be rich. In my favorite scene of the book, Ehrenreich pays a visit to Joel and Victoria Osteen's Lakewood Church in Houston, now the nation's largest church. She arrives a week after a court has dismissed charges against Victoria, accused of assaulting a flight attendant who failed to deal promptly with a stain on her first-class airplane seat on the way to Vail. One would think, Ehrenreich suggests, that the largely working-class, multiracial crowd might sympathize with the working stiff on the plane who happened to be African-American. But no, Joel is shown dabbing his eyes on the video screen, and Victoria crows about the "banner of victory over my head" as the crowd cheers. "Where is the Christianity in all of this?" Ehrenreich asks. "Where is the demand for humility and sacrificial love for others? Where in particular is the Jesus who said, 'If a man sue you at law and take your coat, let him have your cloak also?'" Ehrenreich is right, of course, in her theological critique. But she misses a chance to dig deeper. I have spent some time in prosperity churches, and as Milmon F. Harrison points out in "Righteous Riches," his study of one such church, this brand of faith cannot be explained away as manipulation by greedy, thieving preachers. Millions of Americans - not just C.E.O.'s and megapastors but middle-class and even poor people - feel truly empowered by the notion that through the strength of their own minds alone they can change their circumstances. This may be delusional and infuriating. But it is also a kind of radical selfreliance that is deeply and unchangeably American. Hanna Rosin is a co-editor of Slate's women's Web site, DoubleX, and a contributing editor at The Atlantic.


Kirkus Review

Accomplished social critic Ehrenreich (This Land Is Their Land: Reports from a Divided Nation, 2008, etc) eviscerates the positive-thinking movement, which she blames for encouraging us to "deny reality, submit cheerfully to misfortune, and blame only ourselves for our fate." The author argues that the promotion of unwarranted optimism began in the early days of the American republic, was taken up by 19th-century philosophers and mysticsWilliam James urged people to repeat to themselves "Youth, health, vigor!" while dressing in the morningand entered the American mainstream in the 20th century, when it became an integral part of consumer culture. Ehrenreich's quarrel is not with feeling upbeat but rather with the "inescapable pseudoscientific flapdoodle" of life coaches and self-improvement products claiming that thinking positively will result in wealth, success and other joyful outcomes. Such magical thinking has become a means of social control in the workplacewhere uncheerful employees are ostracizedand prevents action to achieve social change. With life coaches, business motivators and evangelical preachers promoting delusional expectations"God has a plan" for those who have lost jobs and homes in the current economic crisis, says Christian preacher Joel Osteenpositive thinking can claim partial credit for a major role in such recent disastrous events as the Iraq war and the financial meltdown. Ehrenreich's many interviews include meetings with psychologist Martin Seligman, whose "positive psychology," she finds, offers little credible evidence to make it any different from the wishing-will-make-it-so thinking of writers from Dale Carnegie (How to Win Friends Influence People) to Rhonda Byrne (The Secret). The author's tough-minded and convincing broadside raises troubling questions about many aspects of contemporary American life, and she provides an antidote to the pervasive culture of cheerfulnessreality-based critical thinking that will encourage people to alter social arrangements in ways that improve their lives. Bright, incisive, provocative thinking from a top-notch nonfiction writer. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.


Library Journal Review

According to Ehrenreich (Nickel and Dimed), all forms of "positive thinking" are equal. Women with breast cancer who remain hopeful that their treatments will succeed are no different from manipulative motivational speakers. While Ehrenreich accurately points out that unjustifiable optimism can lead us into trouble (e.g., the recent financial crisis), her book is unbalanced and unfocused. Ehrenreich argues that Americans may do well to be more realistic, even skeptical, but she fails to develop a nuanced argument for a more thoughtful engagement with our world, if this is her goal (it is not easy to tell). Verdict Ehrenreich's latest is an angry, uneven narrative. Still, devoted fans will be looking for this one.-Elizabeth L. Winter, Georgia Inst. of Technology, Atlanta (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.


Excerpts

Excerpts

Introduction Americans are a "positive" people. This is our reputation as well as our self-image. We smile a lot and are oft en baffled when people from other cultures do not return the favor. In the well-worn stereotype, we are upbeat, cheerful, optimistic, and shallow, while foreigners are likely to be subtle, world-weary, and possibly decadent. American expatriate writers like Henry James and James Baldwin wrestled with and occasionally reinforced this stereotype, which I once encountered in the 1980s in the form of a remark by Soviet émigré poet Joseph Brodsky to the effect that the problem with Americans is that they have "never known suffering." (Apparently he didn't know who had invented the blues.) Whether we Americans see it as an embarrassment or a point of pride, being positive--in affect, in mood, in outlook--seems to be engrained in our national character. Who would be churlish or disaffected enough to challenge these happy features of the American personality? Take the business of positive "affect," which refers to the mood we display to others through our smiles, our greetings, our professions of confidence and optimism. Scientists have found that the mere act of smiling can generate positive feelings within us, at least if the smile is not forced. In addition, good feelings, as expressed through our words and smiles, seem to be contagious: "Smile and the world smiles with you." Surely the world would be a better, happier place if we all greeted one another warmly and stopped to coax smiles from babies--if only through the well-known social psychological mechanism of "mood contagion." Recent studies show that happy feelings flit easily through social networks, so that one person's good fortune can brighten the day even for only distantly connected others.1 Furthermore, psychologists today agree that positive feelings like gratitude, contentment, and self-confidence can actually lengthen our lives and improve our health. Some of these claims are exaggerated, as we shall see, though positive feelings hardly need to be justified, like exercise or vitamin supplements, as part of a healthy lifestyle. People who report having positive feelings are more likely to participate in a rich social life, and vice versa, and social connectedness turns out to be an important defense against depression, which is a known risk factor for many physical illnesses. At the risk of redundancy or even tautology, we can say that on many levels, individual and social, it is good to be "positive," certainly better than being withdrawn, aggrieved, or chronically sad. So I take it as a sign of progress that, in just the last decade or so, economists have begun to show an interest in using happiness rather than just the gross national product as a measure of an economy's success. Happiness is, of course, a slippery thing to measure or define. Philosophers have debated what it is for centuries, and even if we were to define it simply as a greater frequency of positive feelings than negative ones, when we ask people if they are happy we are asking them to arrive at some sort of average over many moods and moments. Maybe I was upset earlier in the day but then was cheered up by a bit of good news, so what am I really? In one well-known psychological experiment, subjects were asked to answer a questionnaire on life satisfaction--but only after they had performed the apparently irrelevant task of photocopying a sheet of paper for the experimenter. For a randomly chosen half of the subjects, a dime had been left for them to find on the copy machine. As two economists summarize the results, "Reported satisfaction with life was raised substantially by the discovery of the coin on the copy machine--clearly not an income effect."2 In addition to the problems of measurement, there are cultural differences in how happiness is regarded and whether it is even seen as a virtue. Some cultures, like our own, value the positive affect that seems to signal internal happiness; others are more impressed by seriousness, self-sacrifice, or a quiet willingness to cooperate. However hard to pin down, though, happiness is somehow a more pertinent metric for well-being, from a humanistic perspective, than the buzz of transactions that constitute the GDP. Surprisingly, when psychologists undertake to measure the relative happiness of nations, they routinely find that Americans are not, even in prosperous times and despite our vaunted positivity, very happy at all. A recent meta-analysis of over a hundred studies of self-reported happiness worldwide found Americans ranking only twenty-third, surpassed by the Dutch, the Danes, the Malaysians, the Bahamians, the Austrians, and even the supposedly dour Finns.3 In another potential sign of relative distress, Americans account for two-thirds of the global market for antidepressants, which happen also to be the most commonly prescribed drugs in the United States. To my knowledge, no one knows how antidepressant use affects people's responses to happiness surveys: do respondents report being happy because the drugs make them feel happy or do they report being unhappy because they know they are dependent on drugs to make them feel better? Without our heavy use of antidepressants, Americans would likely rank far lower in the happiness rankings than we currently do. When economists attempt to rank nations more objectively in terms of "well-being," taking into account such factors as health, environmental sustainability, and the possibility of upward mobility, the United States does even more poorly than it does when only the subjective state of "happiness" is measured. The Happy Planet Index, to give just one example, locates us at 150th among the world's nations.4 How can we be so surpassingly "positive" in self-image and stereotype without being the world's happiest and best-off people? The answer, I think, is that positivity is not so much our condition or our mood as it is part of our ideology--the way we explain the world and think we ought to function within it. That ideology is "positive thinking," by which we usually mean two things. One is the generic content of positive thinking--that is, the positive thought itself--which can be summarized as: Things are pretty good right now, at least if you are willing to see silver linings, make lemonade out of lemons, etc., and things are going to get a whole lot better. This is optimism, and it is not the same as hope. Hope is an emotion, a yearning, the experience of which is not entirely within our control. Optimism is a cognitive stance, a conscious expectation, which presumably anyone can develop through practice. The second thing we mean by "positive thinking" is this practice, or discipline, of trying to think in a positive way. There is, we are told, a practical reason for undertaking this effort: positive thinking supposedly not only makes us feel optimistic but actually makes happy outcomes more likely. If you expect things to get better, they will. How can the mere process of thinking do this? In the rational explanation that many psychologists would offer today, optimism improves health, personal efficacy, confidence, and resilience, making it easier for us to accomplish our goals. A far less rational theory also runs rampant in American ideology--the idea that our thoughts can, in some mysterious way, directly affect the physical world. Negative thoughts somehow produce negative outcomes, while positive thoughts realize themselves in the form of health, prosperity, and success. For both rational and mystical reasons, then, the effort of positive thinking is said to be well worth our time and attention, whether this means reading the relevant books, attending seminars and speeches that offer the appropriate mental training, or just doing the solitary work of concentration on desired outcomes--a better job, an attractive mate, world peace. There is an anxiety, as you can see, right here in the heart of American positive thinking. If the generic "positive thought" is correct and things are really getting better, if the arc of the universe tends toward happiness and abundance, then why bother with the mental effort of positive thinking? Obviously, because we do not fully believe that things will get better on their own. The practice of positive thinking is an effort to pump up this belief in the face of much contradictory evidence. Those who set themselves up as instructors in the discipline of positive thinking-- coaches, preachers, and gurus of various sorts--have described this effort with terms like "self-hypnosis," "mind control," and "thought control." In other words, it requires deliberate self-deception, including a constant effort to repress or block out unpleasant possibilities and "negative" thoughts. The truly self-confident, or those who have in some way made their peace with the world and their destiny within it, do not need to expend effort censoring or otherwise controlling their thoughts. Positive thinking may be a quintessentially American activity, associated in our minds with both individual and national success, but it is driven by a terrible insecurity. Americans did not start out as positive thinkers-- at least the promotion of unwarranted optimism and methods to achieve it did not really find articulation and organized form until several de cades after the founding of the republic. In the Declaration of Independence, the founding fathers pledged to one another "our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor." They knew that they had no certainty of winning a war for independence and that they were taking a mortal risk. Just the act of signing the declaration made them all traitors to the crown, and treason was a crime punishable by execution. Many of them did go on to lose their lives, loved ones, and fortunes in the war. The point is, they fought anyway. There is a vast difference between positive thinking and existential courage. Systematic positive thinking began, in the nineteenth century, among a diverse and fascinating collection of philosophers, mystics, lay healers, and middle-class women. By the twentieth century, though, it had gone mainstream, gaining purchase within such powerful belief systems as nationalism and also doing its best to make itself indispensable to capitalism. We don't usually talk about American nationalism, but it is a mark 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." A central tenet of American nationalism has been the belief that the United States is "the greatest nation on earth"--more dynamic, democratic, and prosperous than any other nation, as well as technologically superior. Major religious leaders, especially on the Christian right, buttress this conceit with the notion that Americans are God's chosen people and that America is the designated leader of the world--an idea that seemed to find vivid reinforcement in the fall of Communism and our emergence as the world's "lone superpower." That acute British observer Godfrey Hodgson has written that the American sense of exceptionalism, which once was "idealistic and generous, if somewhat solipsistic," has become "harder, more hubristic." Paul Krugman responded to the prevailing smugness in a 1998 essay entitled "American the Boastful," warning that "if pride goeth before a fall, the United States has one heck of a come-uppance in store."5 But of course it takes the effort of positive thinking to imagine that America is the "best" or the "greatest." Militarily, yes, we are the mightiest nation on earth. But on many other fronts, the American score is dismal, and was dismal even before the economic downturn that began in 2007. Our children routinely turn out to be more ignorant of basic subjects like math and geography than their counterparts in other industrialized nations. They are also more likely to die in infancy or grow up in poverty. Almost everyone acknowledges that our health care system is "broken" and our physical infrastructure crumbling. We have lost so much of our edge in science and technology that American companies have even begun to outsource their research and development efforts. Worse, some of the measures by which we do lead the world should inspire embarrassment rather than pride: We have the highest percentage of our population incarcerated, and the greatest level of inequality in wealth and income. We are plagued by gun violence and racked by personal debt. While positive thinking has reinforced and found reinforcement in American national pride, it has also entered into a kind of symbiotic relationship with American capitalism. There is no natural, innate affinity between capitalism and positive thinking. In fact, one of the classics of sociology, Max Weber's Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism , makes a still impressive case for capitalism's roots in the grim and punitive outlook of Calvinist Protestantism, which required people to defer gratification and resist all pleasurable temptations in favor of hard work and the accumulation of wealth. But if early capitalism was inhospitable to positive thinking, "late" capitalism, or consumer capitalism, is far more congenial, depending as it does on the individual's hunger for more and the firm's imperative of growth. The consumer culture encourages individuals to want more--cars, larger homes, television sets, cell phones, gadgets of all kinds--and positive thinking is ready at hand to tell them they deserve more and can have it if they really want it and are willing to make the effort to get it. Meanwhile, in a competitive business world, the companies that manufacture these goods and provide the paychecks that purchase them have no alternative but to grow. If you don't steadily increase market share and profits, you risk being driven out of business or swallowed by a larger enterprise. Perpetual growth, whether of a particular company or an entire economy, is of course an absurdity, but positive thinking makes it seem possible, if not ordained. In addition, positive thinking has made itself useful as an apology for the crueler aspects of the market economy. If optimism is the key to material success, and if you can achieve an optimistic outlook through the discipline of positive thinking, then there is no excuse for failure. The flip side of positivity is thus a harsh insistence on personal responsibility: if your business fails or your job is eliminated, it must because you didn't try hard enough, didn't believe firmly enough in the inevitability of your success. As the economy has brought more layoffs and financial turbulence to the middle class, the promoters of positive thinking have increasingly emphasized this negative judgment: to be disappointed, resentful, or downcast is to be a "victim" and a "whiner." But positive thinking is not only a water carrier for the business world, excusing its excesses and masking its follies. The promotion of positive thinking has become a minor industry in its own right, producing an endless flow of books, DVDs, and other products; providing employment for tens of thousands of "life coaches," "executive coaches," and motivational speakers, as well as for the growing cadre of professional psychologists who seek to train them. No doubt the growing financial insecurity of the middle class contributes to the demand for these products and services, but I hesitate to attribute the commercial success of positive thinking to any particular economic trend or twist of the business cycle. America has historically offered space for all sorts of sects, cults, faith healers, and purveyors of snake oil, and those that are profitable, like positive thinking, tend to flourish. At the turn of the twenty-first century, American optimism seemed to reach a manic crescendo. In his final State of Union address in 2000, Bill Clinton struck a triumphal note, proclaiming that "never before has our nation enjoyed, at once, so much prosperity and social progress with so little internal crisis and so few external threats." But compared with his successor, Clinton seemed almost morose. George W. Bush had been a cheerleader in prep school, and cheerleading-- a distinctly American innovation-- could be considered the athletically inclined ancestor of so much of the coaching and "motivating" that has gone into the propagation of positive thinking. He took the presidency as an opportunity to continue in that line of work, defining his job as that of inspiring confidence, dispelling doubts, and pumping up the national spirit of self-congratulation. If he repeatedly laid claim to a single adjective, it was "optimistic." On the occasion of his sixtieth birthday, he told reporters he was "optimistic" about a variety of foreign policy challenges, offering as an overview, "I'm optimistic that all problems will be solved." Nor did he brook any doubts or hesitations among his close advisers. According to Bob Woodward, Condoleezza Rice failed to express some of her worries because, she said, "the president almost demanded optimism. He didn't like pessimism, hand-wringing or doubt." 6 Then things began to go wrong, which is not in itself unusual but was a possibility excluded by America's official belief that things are good and getting better. There was the dot-com bust that began a few months after Clinton's declaration of unprecedented prosperity in his final State of the Union address, then the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001. Furthermore, things began to go wrong in a way that suggested that positive thinking might not guarantee success after all, that it might in fact dim our ability to fend off real threats. In her remarkable book, Never Saw It Coming: Cultural Challenges to Envisioning the Worst, sociologist Karen Cerulo recounts a number of ways that the habit of positive thinking, or what she calls optimistic bias, undermined preparedness and invited disaster. She quotes Newsweek reporters Michael Hirsch and Michael Isikoff, for example, in their conclusion that "a whole summer of missed clues, taken together, seemed to presage the terrible September of 2001."7 There had already been a terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in 1993; there were ample warnings, in the summer of 2001, about a possible attack by airplane, and flight schools reported suspicious students like the one who wanted to learn how to "fl y a plane but didn't care about landing and takeoff ." The fact that no one--the FBI, the INS, Bush, or Rice--heeded these disturbing cues was later attributed to a "failure of imagination." But actually there was plenty of imagination at work--imagining an invulnerable nation and an ever-booming economy--there was simply no ability or inclination to imagine the worst. A similar reckless optimism pervaded the American invasion of Iraq. Warnings about possible Iraqi resistance were swept aside by leaders who promised a "cakewalk" and envisioned cheering locals greeting our troops with flowers. Likewise, Hurricane Katrina was not exactly an unanticipated disaster. In 2002, the New Orleans Times- Picayune ran a Pulitzer Prize-winning series warning that the city's levees could not protect it against the storm surge brought on by a category 4 or 5 hurricane. In 2001, Scientific American had issued a similar warning about the city's vulnerability.8 Even when the hurricane struck and levees broke, no alarm bells went off in Washington, and when a New Orleans FEMA official sent a panicky e-mail to FEMA director Michael Brown, alerting him to the rising number of deaths and a shortage of food in the drowning city, he was told that Brown would need an hour to eat his dinner in a Baton Rouge restaurant.9 Criminal negligence or another "failure of imagination"? The truth is that Americans had been working hard for decades to school themselves in the techniques of positive thinking, and these included the reflexive capacity for dismissing disturbing news. The biggest "come-uppance," to use Krugman's term, has so far been the financial meltdown of 2007 and the ensuing economic crisis. By the late first decade of the twenty-first century, as we shall see in the chapters that follow, positive thinking had become ubiquitous and virtually unchallenged in American culture. It was promoted on some of the most widely watched talk shows, like Larry King Live and the Oprah Winfrey Show ; it was the stuff of runaway best sellers like the 2006 book The Secret ; it had been adopted as the theology of America's most successful evangelical preachers; it found a place in medicine as a potential adjuvant to the treatment of almost any disease. It had even penetrated the academy in the form of the new discipline of "positive psychology," offering courses teaching students to pump up their optimism and nurture their positive feelings. And its reach was growing global, first in the Anglophone countries and soon in the rising economies of China, South Korea, and India. But nowhere did it find a warmer welcome than in American business, which is, of course, also global business. To the extent that positive thinking had become a business itself, business was its principal client, eagerly consuming the good news that all things are possible through an effort of mind. This was a useful message for employees, who by the turn of the twenty-first century were being required to work longer hours for fewer benefits and diminishing job security. But it was also a liberating ideology for top-level executives. What was the point in agonizing over balance sheets and tedious analyses of risks--and why bother worrying about dizzying levels of debt and exposure to potential defaults--when all good things come to those who are optimistic enough to expect them? I do not write this in a spirit of sourness or personal disappointment of any kind, nor do I have any romantic attachment to suffering as a source of insight or virtue. On the contrary, I would like to see more smiles, more laughter, more hugs, more happiness and, better yet, joy. In my own vision of utopia, there is not only more comfort, and security for everyone-- better jobs, health care, and so forth--there are also more parties, festivities, and opportunities for dancing in the streets. Once our basic material needs are met--in my utopia, anyway--life becomes a perpetual celebration in which everyone has a talent to contribute. But we cannot levitate ourselves into that blessed condition by wishing it. We need to brace ourselves for a struggle against terrifying obstacles, both of our own making and imposed by the natural world. And the first step is to recover from the mass delusion that is positive thinking. Excerpted from Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America by Barbara Ehrenreich All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.