The Bad Science and Good Marketing of Positive Thinking

Book review: Bright-Sided, by Barbara Ehrenreich (Amazon / Book Depository)

An acquaintance told me about a friend of hers experiencing a breast cancer recurrence. That’s harrowing anytime, but was coupled with shock since the friend was quite young. My acquaintance told me that her friend was in a relationship with a man she’d been “obsessed” with until they got together, and their relationship wasn’t smooth: he’d been with someone else when they met, so she was insecure about his fidelity, didn’t get along with his kids, etc.

It became clear that she was indicating that this woman, now afflicted with cancer, had been negatively fixated on her relationship and the result of that negative thinking was that her cancer returned. She circled this connection and finally stated it outright, I guess because I wasn’t encouraging her.

I was internally screaming. Can stress harm your health? Absolutely. Can negative thinking give you breast cancer? GET OUT.

This is an extreme example but not an uncommon one, and it’s why I was so excited to learn this book existed.

A far less rational theory also runs rampant in American ideology—the idea that our thoughts can, in some mysterious way, directly affect the physical world. Negative thoughts somehow produce negative outcomes, while positive thoughts realize themselves in the form of health, prosperity, and success.

When sociologist/biologist/journalist/woman of many trades Barbara Ehrenreich was diagnosed with breast cancer, she became familiar with the world of pink, ultra-feminine positive thinking targeted at breast cancer. It’s when she realized what a disturbing market exists around positive thinking, and how its message can be unhelpful at best and detrimental at worst.

To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with showing support or solidarity or encouraging awareness and donations using pink ribbons. There IS something wrong with criticizing people and blaming them for feeling pain, frustration, or experiencing setbacks, or a refusal to act blissed-out and upbeat when health isn’t recovering as desperately hoped for. Initiated into breast cancer support groups, Ehrenreich says that “some women have reported being expelled by their groups when their cancers metastasized and it became clear they would never graduate to the rank of “survivor.”

Breast cancer, I can now report, did not make me prettier or stronger, more feminine or spiritual. What it gave me, if you want to call this a “gift,” was a very personal, agonizing encounter with an ideological force in American culture that I had not been aware of before—one that encourages us to deny reality, submit cheerfully to misfortune, and blame only ourselves for our fate.

Ehrenreich began a thorough exploration into the marketing and big business behind positive thinking concepts, which is much more intense, and insidious, than merely looking on the bright side. The message of thinking positively to achieve your desired outcome has become ingrained in messaging, branding, workplace philosophies, religious movements, and the national psyche, in addition to its health care applications.

She traces the evolution of the mindset that essentially, “You’re God,”… promoted by every positive thinker from Mary Baker Eddy to Joel Osteen, from Norman Vincent Peale to Rhonda Byrne.” It’s a truly fascinating if often enraging look at the variants in the concept, how they’ve been monetized, and what harm this is causing in various sectors.

Although the connection to health care was initially what interested me, a big part of her research is focused on positive thinking in business. (To be fair, the health care aspect is also a business.) All of this is about making money, ultimately, and there’s a long trail of precedent leading to our current state: “America has historically offered space for all sorts of sects, cults, faith healers, and purveyors of snake oil, and those that are profitable, like positive thinking, tend to flourish.” It’s as simple as that, really.

By the late first decade of the twenty-first century… positive thinking had become ubiquitous and virtually unchallenged in American culture… it had been adopted as the theology of America’s most successful evangelical preachers; it found a place in medicine as a potential adjuvant to the treatment of almost any disease.

The most alarming issue in health care is the victim blaming that can occur when you’re apparently not being positive enough. She quotes a psychiatrist concerned about this additional burden placed on patients, observing that “the failure to think positively can weigh on a cancer patient like a second disease.” I would add that it’s not only cancer patients, although that’s the most dire demographic affected by this.

If you have a chronic condition, or one not responding to treatment, there will be someone who lets you know that you’re not positive-thinking yourself better the right way. I can’t even express how frustrating this is when all anyone sick thinks about is being healthy again, only to have someone lay more of the responsibility for an already frustrating illness directly on you. I can’t wrap my head around why we do this or how we can believe it, although of course it makes sense that there’s money and marketing involved.

Ehrenreich expertly debunks the bad science used to support these ideas (she identifies as “a myth buster by trade”, which I love). Some of it is plain ridiculous, like the quantum physics of Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret, a concept I can’t believe exists / is taken seriously. Ehrenreich is similarly flabbergasted. She’s kindly told that the fake quantum physics – “inescapable pseudoscientific flapdoodle” – invoked at a conference she attends, and espoused in The Secret, just “doesn’t work for [her],” as if science is something you can choose whether you accept or not.

I know an argument sure to arise is that types like Ehrenreich (and me) draw badness to us like magnets because of our negativity, like Eeyores that just want everything bad to rain down on us. But why would anyone want that, especially when it’s your physical health? As Ehrenreich explains:

I do not write this in a spirit of sourness or personal disappointment of any kind, nor do I have any romantic attachment to suffering as a source of insight or virtue. On the contrary, I would like to see more smiles, more laughter, more hugs, more happiness and, better yet, joy… But we cannot levitate ourselves into that blessed condition by wishing it. We need to brace ourselves for a struggle against terrifying obstacles, both of our own making and imposed by the natural world. And the first step is to recover from the mass delusion that is positive thinking.

Another highlight from her Secret mythbusting is how your secreting brain powers affect others who probably don’t want to be involved in your positive thinking journey.

Cue Larry King’s hilarious but reasonable reaction while hosting “a panel of The Secret’s “teachers.” One of them said, “I’ve been master planning my life and one of the things that I actually dreamed of doing is sitting here facing you, saying what I’m about to say. So I know that it [the law of attraction] works.” That was too much for King, who was suddenly offended by the idea of being an object of “attraction” in someone else’s life. “If one of you have a vision board with my picture on it,” he snapped, “I’ll go to break.” This was an odd situation for a famous talk show host—having to insist that he, Larry King, was not just an image on someone else’s vision board but an independent being with a will of his own.” I really did laugh out loud.

Additionally, on the “law of attraction,” Byrne cited it when alleging “that disasters like tsunamis can happen only to people who are “on the same frequency as the event.”” Where did I just read the exact same thing…

Speaking of which, religion is another area that’s found the business of positive thinking quite lucrative, with Ehrenreich identifying that “megachurches and those aspiring to that status needed a substitute for the more demanding core of Christian teachings, and that has been, for the most part, positive thinking…because it produces satisfied “customers”—as some megachurch pastors refer to them.”

I’m excerpting a lot here, but Ehrenreich makes her arguments so well, with so much insightful data and background, that it’s hard to talk about this topic without including the incredible points she raises. The business behind positive thinking is bigger and nastier than I realized, but this is such a valuable study for understanding it. Marketing is so pervasive, and so many of these messages enjoy near-unquestioned status, making it even more important for us to be informed about where it’s coming from and why. Incredibly incisive and illuminating. 4.25/5

Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America
by Barbara Ehrenreich
published August 2010 by Picador

Amazon / Book Depository


35 thoughts on “The Bad Science and Good Marketing of Positive Thinking

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  1. A friend of mine read this book and was completely convinced that Ehrenreich was right.
    I remember not being so enthusiastic about the book….but have not read it or given it a chance.
    Thanks for the extensive review….with highlights and your thoughts!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I have her Natural Causes sitting on my shelf but I’ve shied away from it because I have a weird phobia about reading books about/dealing with illness. I fear bringing it into my life via my reading which is CLEARLY insane and yet, here we are. But maybe I should read this one and try to deprogram my thinking this way!
    Great review, as always!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Haha I completely understand you though! That’s why I always avoid books like Emperor of Maladies, not so much that I’m afraid I’ll call up cancer in myself but more just like…I’m not sure I can handle knowing how this works and what can happen, if that makes sense?
      But I’m so intrigued by Natural Causes too, and also kind of apprehensive about it too! On the one hand I think it might have some information that’s helpful or reassuring, but on the other I’m scared of what else I might have to confront. I think I’ll get to it eventually though, I really like anything that addresses how messed up the “wellness” industry can be.

      And you’re right, it is a kind of programming, especially when she shows how pervasive certain messaging is around us. It’s not just new agey-type ideas that you can easily choose not to engage with, so much of this is entirely mainstream. It was fascinating. I think this one’s definitely worth reading, very thought-provoking.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. One that I’ve heard frequently is that if you are sad, you should try smiling more. Surprise: see one’s teeth does not cure one’s depression. I review this book several years ago and was impressed. Her books are so uneven for more, so I also appreciated the research and clearly-argued assertions in Bright Sided.

    I felt there were several logic flaws in Nickel and Dimed (that review is also on my site) and BARELY scraped through her absolutely baffling book Living with a Wild God. That one almost (or maybe did) ruin all of Ehrenreich’s ethos for me (you can search this title on my blog too to see a review).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, I’ve heard that one too, that the very act of smiling supposedly makes you happier. Ugh. These kind of arguments are simplistic to the point of nonsensical. Who WOULDN’T choose not to have cancer if it was as easy as positive-thinking it away?

      I really like everything I’ve read so far of Ehrenreich’s, that’s too bad that that book changed your mind about her work. I wasn’t interested in reading that one but still want to read some of others.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I really appreciate your book choices and reviews and as like you said somehow in our modern society we have shunned anyone who shows negative feelings and we are forced into being the perfect version of us especially when we use social media

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much, Ina! I love that we always have so many in common between us. That’s such a good point about the social media element and trying to show only our best sides. She doesn’t really address that here but I’d be interested to read more about how that affects happiness, perception, etc. Definitely a big factor now!


  5. This book sounds fascinating and it really appeals to me. I don’t think I’d have picked it up in a book shop but your review has sold it to me. I am always interested to read books about how people think and the way this influences (or not) their health. I’m going to look this book up now and see if I can buy a copy.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t think I’d have picked it up if I’d just seen it either, but I came across it mentioned elsewhere in reference to how certain self-help mentalities can actually be harmful and the way it was described sounded so fascinating.

      I’m glad I could convince you to give it a try! You’re in the UK, right? I’m pretty sure it has a different title there – “Smile or Die”. Hope you like it!


  6. Terrific review! It is shameful for anyone to blame a person with an illness or mental health condition for their situation. Especially for profit. Good grief. I am all for having a positive attitude in general but people shouldn’t be scolded, shunned, or penalized if they don’t.


  7. Somehow I had not heard of this positive-thinking-cures-cancer phenomenon? Although, I am not necessarily surprised. I actually had a bad experience with a doctor recently who, instead of having a solution for the issue I came in with, suggested I “talk to someone” about how distressed it made me. (Which is a fine suggestion, but only helpful in addition to actually helping the physical ailment.) Anyway, people are wild! This sounds like a good read.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m so sorry you had that experience. It’s just the worst when someone thinks that the bigger problem is that you’re overreacting. It’s ridiculous. Of course being able to talk about it is helpful, but it’s so condescending to highlight your distress as the true issue. I hope you get it resolved the right way and quickly!!

      And yes, this is unfortunately a prevalent line of thinking. I get the impression people buy into it in different degrees, depending which school of thought they subscribe to. I’ve heard it most in relation to non-cancer illnesses, that part of the blame for chronic physical illnesses lies with your negative attitude. UGHHHHHHHHH

      Liked by 1 person

  8. This sounds like a fascinating read and, after reading Nickled and Dimed, I trust her to give us the truth and her personal reactions. I’m not great at cancer stories, however, so a bit conflicted about reading this, as I’ve seen mention of it before. I have had a different kind of medical treatment where I was victim-blamed for the treatment not working because I wasn’t positive enough, so I know this book is needed.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know exactly what you mean. If it’s any help, I tend to shy away from medical memoirs and it doesn’t read like one at all. She does discuss her cancer and some of the fear around it but it’s just to make the case for her research, it wasn’t upsetting. I’ve had the same – a chronic condition where I heard that my lack of positivity was contributing, which was so frustrating and also patently wrong. I’m sorry you had to go through that too. It’s why I think spreading the word about this one is so important, this kind of thinking is so prevalent and it’s only hurting people unnecessarily!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That’s good to know: I will definitely pick it up if I spot it, then. And I’m sorry you’ve been through this personally, too. I didn’t get a baby because I wasn’t positive about going through a horrendous, trying experience?? No thank YOU!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. That’s just eye-rollingly ridiculous. Even after reading this I don’t understand how people can buy this and then be bold enough to say it to someone who’s already suffering. Just so blatantly ignorant and arrogant. I’m so sorry you had to deal with that!!


  9. I would put the people who peddle this nonsense about positive thinking and health on the same level as those who market odd dietary habits (like Gwyneth Paltrow). People who follow their advice are often in a vulnerable place so will try anything but could be doing themselves far more harm.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, exactly. That’s what upsets me so much – these kind of things hurt the people who are already the most vulnerable and desperate to begin with. And so many of these ideas have become more mainstream, making it even more difficult to differentiate between what’s true and what’s nonsense. It’s so bad.


  10. The fact that The Secret is something anyone buys into confuses and annoys me, so I suspect I’d enjoy hearing someone debunk that kind of thinking. I also appreciate books that share the perspective of someone going through something difficult, like breast cancer, because I think it can help me be a better friend if someone in my life is in a similar situation.

    Does the author discuss whether gender plays into this idea of business selling people positivity or people expecting positivity of others? I could see this happening to women more, since it seems like women are more likely to be expected to put on a happy face for the comfort of others, but it also strikes me as pretty ubiquitous sentiment that might impact men with equal frequency.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The Secret has always blown my mind with its ridiculousness, but even worse after reading this because I didn’t realize that they actually have some bunk physics that they use for it! When Ehrenreich said it didn’t make sense, they just said that it “didn’t work for you”. Because that’s how science works: You can pick and choose what parts of it you like or don’t 🙄

      Gender isn’t a major topic, although she looks at it a little bit, like that saying there are notions like almost infantilizing adult femininity within the breast cancer topic, and we’d never gift matchbox cars to men diagnosed with prostate cancer like women are given pink teddy bears. The health portion is primarily focused on women’s experiences, and within that especially on breast cancer, and she mentions how the whole positive thinking movement began with targeting women. But other parts, like around the prosperity gospel idea and the prevalence of application in business show where it becomes ubiquitous in targeting men as well.

      That’s such a good point, that women are more expected to suffer cheerfully. She does discuss that a bit too, how people turn on you if you dare to acknowledge your pain or frustration but less in terms of the gender dynamic. I think you’d like this one, I’d love to hear your thoughts on it!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Haha, I’m not sure I knew people pretended The Secret was backed by science either. I don’t think I can like it any less though!

        Thanks for sharing your thoughts on how this idea related to gender! I’m definitely putting this on my to-read list 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

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