Book Review: Bright Sided: Barbara Ehrenreich

Posted on December 6, 2010

Barbara Ehrenreich examines another dark side of the American experience: the conspiracy of optimism.

Ehrenreich is, at the same time, the best and the worst kind of journalist. On one hand, she always writes with an agenda. In this case, that the cult of optimism is, at best, a giant rip-off, and is, at worst, ruining this country. On the other hand, her work is deeply personal and very factual.

It all started when she got breast cancer. She was surrounded with well wishers that insisted that she should ‘be optimistic’ and that happiness meant that she would be well. Even more than that, she was disturbed by the fact that so many people insisted on the scientific basis that optimism meant a better chance of survival.

This is where Ehrenreich shines. She methodically picks apart the pseudoscience behind the ‘think yourself well’ notion. On top of that, she points out the inherent irony behind the industry: That the United States is prescribed 2/3 of the world’s anti-depressants. That in the past 5 years, our country’s income disparity has gotten more polar than any time since the Great Depression. That the only people who are thinking themselves to richness are the ones writing the books.

The chapter where she attacks the science is truly the best. There have only been 3 studies that showed a correlation between optimism and better health. Anybody who takes it a step further from that must remember the Pyrite rule: Correlation does not equal Causation. On top of that, all of the studies, after peer review, lost a great deal of their lustre. And, in one case, were contradicted several times.

She goes on to show how the cult of optimism lent its hand in the economic crash of 2008. In fact, some solid science since then supports the idea that negative people make less risky decisions.

All told, this is a giant callout to Joel Osteen, Oprah and their kind. Blind optimism is not only annoying but it is overwhelmingly ineffective. When you only expect good things to happen, you are not prepared for the inevitable bad things.

As usual, Ehrenreich presents all of this and it is a joy to read. I love her turns of phrase and I have been a huge fan since Nickled and Dimed. This book did not disappoint. It’s about time that someone put those smarmy chumps in their place, and Barbara Ehrenreick is just the gal to do it.

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