Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America - Barbara Ehrenreich Read the reviews by Trevor ( and Lena ( They are better, but I couldn’t resist a few comments.

I didn’t expect to like this book. I wasn’t wildly enthusiastic about Nickle and Dimed, but this title was chosen for our reading club, so I gave it a whirl.

Ehrenreich uses her personal experience with breast cancer as a jumping off point.which led to her loathing for the pink-ribbon-cancer-is-a-blessing-and-will-make-you-stronger theories that surround the modern cancer patient. Ehrenreich who has a Ph.D. in cell physiology is well trained to look at much of the so-called evidence for the idea that being happy reduce the risk of cancer. She also notes that skeptics tend to be marginalized so the general public is bombarded by pseudo-science and quackery. She was especially troubled by the idea promoted in some quarters that cancer is a good thing, that it makes you appreciate life and helps you “evolve to a much higher level of humanity.” I suppose if all that were true perhaps we should be handing out Carter’s Little Cancer pills so we could all be more enlightened.

The destructive downside to this is that getting sick is all the patient’s fault. (I hear this constantly from my Republican friends as they decry health care. If people would only eat right, exercise, etc. everyone would be healthy.) If only we had been happier we would not have become sick. This kind of thinking just makes one more burden for the patient to bear. “Failure to think positively can weigh on the patient like a second disease.”

She demolishes the idea that we need to magnetize our minds since positive thoughts are like little magnets that attract positive energy. Thoughts do indeed generate tiny electromagnetic fields since they are the result of electrons firing around the brain, but it’s a pathetically weak one. As Michael Shermer noted in Scientific American the magnetic field registers at 10 to the -15 Tesla which is promptly swamped by the earth’s magnetic field of 10 to the minus 5, a difference of 10 billion to 1. “Our heads are not attracted to our refrigerators.”

Then there is the abuse of quantum physics by New Age thinkers. The wave particle duality of matter is translated into human beings being waves and vibrations. The uncertainty principle also comes in for abuse. “The mind is actually shaping the very thing that is perceived,” they say, so we are creating the entire universe with our minds. “Quantum flapdoodle,” said one physicist. These folks have abandoned science where evidence is examined and results are replicated in favor of revelation. The live in a false world where anyone can believe whatever they want.”

Having suffered through countless team-building sessions, I recognize their silliness and bemoan the enormous amounts of money being spent on them. They don’t always achieve their stated goals, however. I remember two in particular. One was in the early years of my career and there was no question the members of the group needed something to bring them together. After going through countless exercises,, e.g., face your supervisor and each of you tell what’s wrong with the other, - even I could have told them that wouldn’t work, over a couple of days, the leader, a well-known psychologist at the university, announced we were his first failure and that it was apparent our management team was dysfunctional. Well, daaah. So things continued happily as before until many of the problems were solved demographically, i.e. the old died off.

At another state-wide attempt at team building, about a hundred of us were chosen (most of us were directors) to attend a three-day workshop that I suppose was to get us all into a positive-thinking frame of mind. About the only thing good about it was the constantly replenished bowls of M&Ms on each table. We did things like take pictures of each other with Polaroids and then make collages, lots of cutting and pasting, kindergarten stuff. I think the leader got a lot of push back, because on the last day she tearfully told us how much trouble she was having. What a crock of shit. About the only positive thing to come out of the meetings I could tell was that an affair developed between two of the directors in a hot tub and they later got married.

At the college where I spent most of my career, about 25 years, and rose through the ranks of management, we really did quite well, and most of the issues seen as problems were not endemic to the institution. A larger problem that several of us tried to address was the recurring nature of initiatives. Three of us even made a presentation to the Board plotting each initiative and its outcome over three decades and demonstrating that each initiative (MBO, different budgeting schemes, diversity awareness, AQIP, etc., etc.) was good but never became institutionalized over the long haul. We struggled up the hill, almost reached the summit, but never quite made it over the top, and soon one initiative was replaced by another. For those of us who represented a lot of institutional memory, that could be demoralizing and made us perhaps less enthusiastic about the latest institutional fad.

One can only speculate on the desperation leaders must wallow in to try and solve what may be serious management issues with such trivia and balderdash. What’s even worse is to go on one of these management seminar retreats, have everyone do some serious thinking and develop proposals, and then have senior management ignore all the recommendations.

And let’s face it, to paraphrase Ehrenreich. If you can be motivated by a pretty girl and superficial speaker you are probably in a very easy job that will soon be done by a robot. But I shouldn’t be so negative and will try to be positive. The food was always great.

Good quote: "We go through life mis-hearing, and mis-seeing, and mis-understanding so that the stories we tell ourselves will add up." Janet Malcolm