Barb Caffrey's Blog

Writing the Elfyverse . . . and beyond

Tonight’s SBR review: Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Bright-Sided”

with 4 comments

Folks, you need to read Barbara Ehrenreich’s BRIGHT-SIDED.  You need to read it right now, then come back and talk with me — because this is the most honest take on what Ehrenreich calls “the cult of positive thinking” I’ve ever seen.

Here’s my review, which I finished about fifteen minutes ago at SBR:

I hope to have more thoughts about this astonishingly relevant book tomorrow, but for now, all I can say is, “Brava, Ms. Ehrenreich!”

Written by Barb Caffrey

August 20, 2011 at 11:12 pm

Posted in Book reviews

4 Responses

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  1. I can see her point. However, it is entirely possible to go to far the other way, and insist that a person “express her anger” when she isn’t angry. I’ve had a counselor try to do that to me. It didn’t work out too well.


    August 23, 2011 at 10:41 am

    • I’m sorry that happened to you, Betsy . . . you don’t deserve that sort of nonsense.

      I agree with you that whatever our authentic feelings are, they should be expressed. I don’t think expressing anger when you don’t feel it helps — I also don’t think that suppressing anger when you do feel it helps (though the way you let it out might be different for each person; me, I write and play my instruments when I can, and compose — I try to let it out creatively).

      It’s also possible that Ms. Ehrenreich dealt with a more than usual number of idiots during her breast cancer, though everything she said jibed with things I’ve heard from other breast cancer survivors — there’s a big overreliance on pink, there’s an even bigger overreliance on trying to feel positive (which isn’t always helpful), and people are told to swallow their negative emotions for fear that those negative emotions will somehow impede their recovery, which is really not the best way to go. (Michael’s way of dealing with adversity — express it, then move on as best you can, but don’t _deny_ what you feel and certainly don’t suppress it, either — seems a lot better, and more to the point, a whole lot _healthier_.)

      Barb Caffrey

      August 23, 2011 at 8:58 pm

  2. Hi, Barb! I have enjoyed reading around on your blog – your insight and honesty comes through! I especially appreciate your piece on comfort books. Some I share, some I want to explore. Yours is at least the second time recently I’ve been pointed toward the Liaden Universe, so maybe I need to get moving there.

    As for Ms. Enerenreich’s work, I have not read it, and likely will not take the time – too many more useful books out there. To the extent that she argues that baseless positive thinking is not a good approach to life and that it is counterproductive to “manage” one’s emotions by avoiding awareness of negative ones or trying to force oneself to “feel positive”, she’s right, but where’s the book-worthy insight in that?

    On the other hand, to the extent she attempts to trash the science, her one-sided, prove-my-point-without-opposition journalism could easily keep others from benefiting from an understanding of what the science of well-being has and is discovering about ways to become happier. For example, Michael’s approach as you describe it above is directly in line with Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. The popular books on that topic tend a bit toward using clinical examples too much for my taste, but they do a good job at expressing the approach overall. Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life by Hayes and The Happiness Trap by Harris are two good books on ACT. Beyond that are a double handful or a few more books written by the top researchers on the skills – cognitive, emotional, attentional, behavioral, and relational – that can reliably help most people flourish, thrive, become happier, get more of what they want out of life, or whatever term works best for you to describe overall well-being, engagement, and satisfaction with life. I’ve got notes about several of them over at my blog (see the sidebar). Your comment toward the end of the review, “In short, I’m willing to do whatever it takes to learn, to grow, to change, to have meaningful human interactions, and most importantly, not to deny the reality of suffering on this plane of existence,” suggests you might find some of those books to be saying things you would find useful.

    Anyway, all the best. And, on yeah, baseball … love your posts!

    Dave Shearon

    August 31, 2011 at 7:12 am

    • Thanks, Dave, for reading my blog. I’m glad you’ve enjoyed doing so, and I’m glad to have been able to give you points to ponder.

      Yes, Michael had read many, many books and like me, had gone through counseling at least once. (Me, more than a few times, before I’d met him.) We both felt that you get out of counseling what you put into it, and so we’d both done whatever we could to understand what we could and process the rest. (Hoping this makes sense; my mind feels a little fuzzier than usual today due to the ongoing hot weather here.)

      I’ve read the first book by Hayes; I haven’t read the book by Harris. I read a number of books by Wayne Dyer and my Mom was big into something called Rational Therapy years ago — I hope I’m not misremembering the term — which also goes along with Michael’s philosophy, which you completely understand (and I thank you for so doing; some folks really don’t get why you have to first accept whatever the problem is before you can do anything about it). Some pop psychology books have a few nuggets in them, as I’m sure you’re aware; even “The Secret” has a few things that make sense (though to my mind most of the sensible things are outweighed by the author’s insistence on natural disasters like the terrible tsunami that hit in ’05 having happened because that’s what people _wanted_ to happen — that’s ridiculous).

      What Barbara Ehrenreich tends to do in her books — I’ve read a number of them — is bring up the legitimate points, then start to discuss the ones that make no sense whatsoever and annihilate them. In “Bright-Sided,” her biggest and best argument for rational thinking was with those financiers; they’re supposed to be risk-averse sorts as a matter of training and inclination, yet for whatever reason they turned against their training and insisted that they were right and the rest of the world who tried to point out the errors in their thinking were flat wrong.

      Another review I wrote at SBR was for Tim Harford’s “Adapt,” which discusses some of the same things Ehrenreich does in a different fashion. He points out that businesses like Whole Foods have thrived in a down economy precisely because they do not want — indeed, cannot use — “yes men” in their business model. And his points about the economists and the meltdown of Lehman Brothers and other markets go hand-in-hand with Ehrenreich’s, with the greater weight given to Harford because he’s an economist by trade.

      Perhaps it’s because I read three books in fairly rapid succession — Harford’s “Adapt,” Gladwell’s “Outliers,” and Ehrenreich’s “Bright-Sided” — that I understood why Ehrenreich took the position she did. She is definitely a curmudgeon in the H.L. Mencken sense (without being anti-Semitic, though that last point is debatable according to Mencken scholars, my late husband of course being one of them), but many of her arguments make sense.

      I felt that Ehrenreich isn’t saying you can’t get _anything_ out of books like Dyer’s “Your Erroneous Zones” (hoping I’ve remembered the title right; haven’t read that book in years); you can. I think she’s also saying that you shouldn’t ever check your mind at the door and hope for the best; you should do the work and the planning and then use the skills you’ve amassed in continuing onward in order to do more work _while_ you hope for the best. 😉

      Once again, thanks for your kind words and thoughts here and I’ll be interested to read your blog down the road.

      Barb Caffrey

      August 31, 2011 at 3:42 pm

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