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Bright-Sided by Barbara Ehrenreich

This article was inspired by Barbara Ehrenreich's Bright-Sided . If you enjoy this article then consider purchasing or borrowing the book.

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How Optimism Has Deluded Americans

“Where cheerfulness is the norm, crankiness can seem perverse.”

Though the United States has stressed positive thinking since its inception, it actually ranks as the 23rd happiest nation in the world. Despite the issues with the US, we have more jailed citizens than any other nation, more antidepressants are prescribed here than anywhere else and our education is one of the poorest in developed nations, Americans remain positive.

Why has optimism become so popular in this country? Well primarily due to the monetization of positive thinking. An entire industry based on positivity now makes millions of dollars by selling materials from motivational speakers and life coaches. Other institutions have realized the usefulness of enthusiasm, as preachers and even schools incorporate positivity in their messages.

A long purported claim, which lacks proof, is that a positive attitude can help the sick, especially cancer patients, recover more quickly. Since an actual link between optimism and a complete recovery doesn’t exist, cancer patients will likely feel more depressed when their cancer worsens than if they had never been deluded.

The growing positivity trend actually causes more problems than one would expect. Pessimists often lose their optimistic friends, as counselors convince their clients that those with negative attitudes will bring them down. Some instructors even suggest that remaining positive requires abstinence from watching news programs or being exposed to bad news through other outlets. How can American’s create positive social change and address the problems afflicting the nation with their heads buried in the sand?

New Age ideas, such as the “law of attraction,” lack a basis in scientific fact, yet motivational speakers and authors treat these mystical suggestions as legitimate means by which to succeed in life.

With America’s settlers professing Calvinism, a religion based on self-denial and abstinence from “sinful” pleasures, the early US was not optimistic. With the advent of the Christian Science religion, an answer to the restrictions of Calvinism, positivity became a national obsession.

The line between business and religion has been blurred by the trend of bright-sided thinking. Companies practically preach positivity to employees, seeking out speakers and activities to keep the workforce motivated. Churches, adopting a secular strategy, preach feel good messages to their audiences and avoid discussing sin and judgment.

Psychologists have jumped onto the happiness bandwagon, writing books and acting as life coaches. Despite conflicting data, a 2002 study demonstrated that slightly depressed women lived longer than positive women; “positive psychology” continues to make money off of gullible Americans.

When financial experts warned of the economic crisis of 2008, they were largely ignored, as positive thinking blinded people to the truth. Optimism continues to hold sway in the US, and important national issues go unaddressed. Pessimism isn’t the solution to the delusion in America, but rather objective rational thinking that looks at a problem from more angles than one. Whether or not Americans will continue to believe in the myths of positive thinking, the issues they ignore will still exist.


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