Barbara Ehrenreich is a New York journalist, the author of sixteen books and a trenchant critic of modern American society. A marketing guy at Henry Holt asked if I would review her latest book, Bright Sided. I said ‘yes’ and the book duly arrived on the doorstep. Now I make it a policy to at least try to read whatever Providence sends across my path. It’s my way to learn something.

Ehrenreich’s book is a terrific eye opener. Her thesis is summed up in the sub-title of the book: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America. In eight punchy chapters of 226 pages, Ehrenreich dissects and dismantles and de constructs the false religion of positive thinking in America. Her quest to digest was kicked off by her own struggle with breast cancer. She’s a smart and tough lady and she wasn’t taken in by the scads of sentimental positive thinking based therapies. She admitted that they might make cancer sufferers feel better and might help them make sense of their disease, but she doubted that the positive thinking cured the cancer. Statistics support her view.
She then goes on to explore the roots of American positive thinking. She opines that it is the grinning idiot child of Calvinistic theology. The theory goes like this: strict Calvinism teaches a doctrine called total depravity: “You’re sinful scum and there’s nothing you can do about it.” It also teaches a kind of Christian fatalism. “Either you’re predestined to salvation or you’re not. If you are you’re going to heaven. If not you’re going to hell and there’s nothing you can do about it.” Now, I realize that Calvinists will howl that this is not really what they believe, but the fact is, that’s what lots of people taught by them think it is all about, and Ehrenreich sees a backlash in the development of Christian Science by Mary Baker Eddy–which taught that all is good, God is good, and suffering is just a figment of the imagination and if you think better you’ll get better.
This quaint philosophy of a well meaning New England lady has now gone on steroids. Big time. It is the backbone not only of business motivational courses, but business consultancy. Positive thinking gurus make millions teaching people to think positively and ‘envision’ the success they want. Fame, fortune, beauty, pleasure–all of it will come to you if you just wish for it. The results for American business have been disastrous. She chronicles the fall of Lehman Brothers and says the whole financial crash was the triumph of naive optimism over sharp realism.
I enjoyed the chapter ‘God Wants You to be Rich’ in which Ehrenreich takes down the megachurches with their success and prosperity gospel. She correctly charts their consumer driven programs, the shallow heresy of their preaching, the cult like status of their pressure tactics, their dumbing down of the historic gospel and their sickening excesses of expenditure and glamor. What always tickles me about these uber Protestants is that they are the ones blaming the Pope for being rich and living in a palace. He doesn’t, but even if he did it would be one with taste. You don’t find any popes nowadays with a fleet of Cadillacs with mink upholstery or an antique marble toilet that costs $35,000.00.
She goes on to analyze the ‘Psychology of Happiness’ people–showing them to be opportunistic entrepreneurs rather than serious scientists. It seems everyone has jumped on the happiness bandwagon, and then Ehrenreich reports studies that show us that despite our desperate desire for happiness and our relentless smiling Americans are, on the whole, less happy, less fulfilled and less content than most other nationalities.
Ehrenreich is careful to give credit to positive thinking generally. She admits that it is better to think positive, better not to be a grouch, better to encourage others, better to be optimistic. She realizes that people with a good outlook live longer, happier and more contented lives. They help people more. They have better family lives and love lives. However, she doesn’t really have any answer for the real problem at the root of it all: suffering.
The reason positive thinking has become such a potent false religion for Protestants (and not a few Catholics too) is that their own religion had no idea what to do with human suffering. The typical Calvinistic response is, “Well, if you are ill you probably deserve it, and if not you, then you’re suffering the result of your ancestors’ sins.” Bad luck.
What is missing from Ehrenreich’s book is any mention at all of the largest and biggest Christian religious grouping: the Catholic Church. If she had troubled herself with the Catholic theology of suffering she would have found that there already exists a cogent, compassionate, intelligent and historic approach to the problem of human suffering and the challenge of human happiness. It’s simple: if you want to be happy try to be a saint. This will cause you suffering because being a saint is no easy business. When you suffer see that you are suffering with Christ. In this way you make sense of your suffering and see that it is used for an eternal purpose. This will give you depth and compassion as a person. It might not make you ‘happy’ but it will make you joyful.
It’s not real difficult to understand. It’s a tough, but ultimately astringent take on the whole subject, and it has the advantage that you don’t have to put up with grinning preachers with big hair (of both sexes)
Finally, that brings me to another problem with the book: Ehrenreich doesn’t spend enough time contrasting optimism with hope. It gets a little mention, but she skims over it. Now that would have made a terrific final chapter! The book presents the problem, but doesn’t offer a solution. Being grumpy isn’t a solution. The solution is hope. Hope is a graced virtue, and it is to optimism what steak is to frosted flakes.
Ehrenreich has written a great book. It was an absorbing read. It was researched extensively and thoroughly. It has a punchy, worldly wise style. The only problem is that it sort of fizzles out. It’s a book that points out the emperor’s nakedness, but doesn’t offer any clothes. It rightly de-fuses wild optimism, but it offers no hope.