On a recent fall day in Texas, a large crowd gathered for the well-known Get Motivated! business seminar. Before the keynote speaker emerged, 11,000 attendees danced to "Surfin' USA" while swatting beach balls around the auditorium. When the music subsided, former President George W. Bush emerged to give one of his first speeches since leaving office. Among other feel-good themes, the President-turned-motivational speaker encouraged faith, optimism, and principled living.
Why would Bush make his most prominent post-presidency appearance at such a hokey venue? For Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America (Metropolitan), his decision made perfect sense. In its many forms, the positive thinking movement—everything from "possibility thinking" to The Secret, Your Best Life Now, and the Chicken Soup for the Soul series—has reached complete saturation within American culture. It has also crept into American Christianity, and that, says the author, is nothing to feel good about.
Ehrenreich first noticed positive thinking's pervasiveness when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Immersed in a world of pink ribbons, cancer walks, and motivational stories from survivors, she quickly found there was no place for her outrage at the disease. Anger or melancholy, it was insinuated, only aided the cancer. As in all forms of positive thinking, the key was to ignore the negative emotions and realities and focus instead on your desired outcomes—health and wealth being the usual. After this encounter, Ehrenreich set out to discover how positive thinking became such an accepted and disseminated American narrative.
Bright-Sided traces the lineage of today's ...