When Ehrenreich was diagnosed with breast cancer—following the publication of her runaway best-seller Nickel and Dimed—she was stunned and even more so, pissed. On a message board for breast-cancer patients, she lamented “the debilitating effects of chemotherapy, recalcitrant insurance companies, environmental carcinogens [etc.],” but instead of offering emotional support, fellow patients suggested she trade pissed-offedness for positive thinking. Everywhere Ehrenreich looked, she encountered this uncomfortably upbeat attitude—from sites like Breast Friends and Bosom Buddies to an endless parade of pink tchotchkes: breast cancer ribbons, angel pins, rhinestone bracelets and teddy bears.
Cultural critic Ehrenreich is not a teddy-bear person. And while the pink-ribbon positivity associated with breast cancer isn’t her only example of a too-sunny outlook that “has undermined America,” it is perhaps the most provocative. Elsewhere in Bright-Sided, Ehrenreich debunks the faux posi-ness of motivational speaking, The Secret and prosperity theology (the belief that if you really want say, an iPhone, and have faith it’ll happen, then God will put you in touch with one). Throughout, Ehrenreich warns that the unrelenting optimism endemic to American society—beginning with Norman Vincent Peale’s 1952 classic The Power of Positive Thinking and carried on by Oprah—fosters mass delusion. Yet few of these arguments feel as fresh or compelling as her critique of breast-cancer culture, and while Ehrenreich’s postscript call to embrace “vigilant realism” (a.k.a. “post-positive thinking,” or just the right amount of sunniness) is intriguing, it needs some fleshing out. How to gracefully navigate this terrain between positivity and negativity? “I would like to see more smiles, more laughter, more hugs, more happiness,” Ehrenreich writes. “But we cannot levitate ourselves into that blessed condition by wishing it.” True enough, but in Bright-Sided, we would’ve liked to have seen more examples of “post-positive thinking” in action.