Is "Bright-Sided" Critical Thinking?

I saw Barbara Ehrenreich, author of the book Bright-Sided, on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart last week. Her book reveals  “How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America.” I love Jon Stewart’s interviews and was keenly curious about this author and her book.

As I watched Ehrenreich on television, I got the feeling she’s a wounded soul. She talked about being diagnosed with cancer and how people around her told her to just think positive. I know from having my own cancer scare a few years ago that her feelings were justified. When you’ve been diagnosed with the C word, you’ve been kicked in the gut. Smiling people don’t help.  I felt for her and agreed with her. Positive thinking in that dire situation isn’t welcome, at least not at first.

As I often do after seeing a Jon Stewart interview, I jumped on Amazon and ordered her book. I was so curious that I paid extra for next day delivery.

IMG00167-20091016-1634Well, it arrived.

It’s a well written historical overview of positive thinking. It mentions all the positive thinkers you might guess, from Napoleon Hill to Joel Olsteen , Jack Canfield, Will Bowen, Bob Doyle, Rhonda Byrne; to the teachers in the movie The Secret, including me.

Turns out Ehrenreich heard me speak a few years ago at the National Speakers Association annual convention. There were more than 6,000 people there, so I never met her. But I apparently left an impression. She says in her book –

“Vitale, who looks like a slightly elongated version of Danny DeVito, offers the theme of ‘inspired marketing,’ and also love. “

Inspired Marketing is the title of a book I wrote with Craig Perrine, and love is the core  of everything I do.

But Ehrenreich didn’t say either fact.

She mentions I’m a disciple of P.T. Barnum in her book, too, but doesn’t explain that’s because I wrote a popular business book on him, titled There’s A Customer Born Every Minute.

For a journalist, she cleverly left off statements that would justify what I, and others she mentions in her book, stand for and teach.

The message of her book seems to be to use critical thinking, not positive thinking, in order to make a difference in your life and world. For her, positive thinking can be delusional, while critical thinking can give you a well-rounded view of your choices.

I agree with her.

The thing is, most people who say they are critical thinkers are actually skeptical thinkers.  They quickly dismiss concepts without trying them, or demand scientific proof for concepts that are still being researched. That, to me, is delusional.

The most powerful books I’ve read on the subject of critical thinking are by Steve Siebold. His books are wake-up calls to your brain. Read his book 177 Mental Toughness Secrets of the World Class, or Die Fat or Get Tough, or read his forthcoming book on mental toughness secrets of the rich.

While I prefer positive thinking over negative thinking, I have to admit that positive thinkers can sometimes be blind to reality. When I had my cancer scare, I didn’t just think positive. I also took massive action. I searched for cures, I contacted all the healers and medical doctors I know, I tried every method offered to me, and I stayed persistent. The end result is a clean bill of health. But I didn’t get there by putting on a happy face and sitting in a corner.

Bright-Sided is a bestselling book and Ehrenreich is getting lots of publicity for it.  While she ends the book with a call to be more critical in our thinking, and to take action to get results, I suspect it will mislead many readers. Too many will jump to the conclusion that positive thinking doesn’t work at all. They’ll use the book to justify not being optimistic, or not choosing to feel good. They’ll just keep on complaining.

My reminder to you is that you always have a choice: When confronted with any moment, you can look at it cheerfully, unhappily, or objectively. I prefer the latter but with a positive expectancy.

When I got the heath scare, I at first was walloped with the news. But then I set an intention to find a cure. I expected one because, as I say in my book The Attractor Factor,  there’s always a way to handle any problem. My critical thinking — or maybe it’s better called objective thinking — included the possibility that positive action and positive expectation would be better than just unhappiness, happiness, or no action.

I appreciate critical thinking, but it’s subject to delusion, too. Most of the people I know who claim to be critical thinkers still have limiting beliefs and negative attitudes they aren’t even aware are in their own head. They are actually skeptical thinkers as a form of self-protection.

Combine all this with the Law of Attraction and you might see where critical/skeptical thinkers will find evidence for their beliefs, and positive thinkers will find evidence for their own beliefs. They’ll simply attract what they need to support their mindsets.

So how do you get out of this maze so you can have a clear-headed, productive life?

For me, the fastest thing that helps you get mentally clear is having the right coach. I know I’ve said it before but it needs said again: Every high achiever I know has a coach in their area of expertise. The coach can help them see their thinking patterns. The coach can help them stay accountable. The coach can help them achieve the results they want.

If having a coach is part of what Ehrenreich condemns as something that has “undermined America”, then I have to disagree with her. In fact, I’d go so far as to suggest she get a coach to help her unravel her own thinking about “Bright-Sided” being  negative. It could also help her heal her psychic wounds.

But as she openly says, it’s “reckless optimism” that bothers her the most. With that in mind, I suggest she’s correct. You don’t want to be recklessly optimistic, but practically optimistic.

In other words, choose what you want, have an optimistic expectancy about the results, take action to attract it, and monitor your progress for feedback and course changes. That’s how you make practical use of the Law of Attraction.

That’s not being “Bright-Sided”, that’s being smart.

Finally, decades ago I had a landlord who made fun of me for reading success literature, such as positive thinking books.

I was struggling, broke and unknown at the time. I was paying him two hundred dollars a month to live in a dumpy little room in his house. I didn’t look like I was going anywhere in life.

He caught me reading a Norman Vincent Peale book (probably Enthusiasm Makes the Difference) and said, “You believe that shit?”

“I sure do, ” I said.

While at the time he questioned me I had no evidence for any future success, and any critical thinking person could have dismissed me as a dreamer, today I’m wealthy and well known.

Was it because I read positive thinking books?

Was it because I chose to be “bright-sided” about life?

Was it because I took massive action and kept a positive expectancy about my future?

What do you think?

Ao Akua,


PS – Check out my Miracles Coaching program by clicking right here.

Note: The T-shirt I’m wearing in the photo of me and the book says “I Create My Reality.” It’s backward writing. When I look at my shirt in the mirror, I see it clearly. It’s a direct message to my unconscious, and a real conversation starter for others who see it. Call it “Bright-Sided” clothing.

amn book ad


  1. October 19, 2009 at 8:49 am

    Thanks for posting this. I had seen Barbara Ehrenreich on The Daily Show and was curious as to your thoughts on her book. 🙂

  2. October 19, 2009 at 10:56 am

    I agree! 100%

    I have found that Positive Thinking on its own is like putting a bandaid over a dirty wound. It doesn’t do anything except hide the dirty wound. Dirty Wounds do end up getting infected. Bandaids don’t do anything if you don’t look at and clean the wound.

    I always giggle when people say “The Secret” is all about positive thinking and your money and whatever else it is you’re looking for will just show up. “It doesn’t say anything about taking action.” It does speak about Inspired Action! People only heard what they wanted to hear.

    People will only hear what they want to hear from her book too.

    I’m an Active Polly-Anna on a wonderful healing journey. It’s a great place to be!

    Dream BIG!

    Velma Gallant
    The Queen of JOY!

  3. October 19, 2009 at 12:38 pm


    I love the phrase ‘practical optimism.’ Never heard that used before.

    I talked to a guy last night that told me he was scientific in his thinking. Simply stated, he said, “If it isn’t 1 + 1 = 2, then, I can’t buy it.”

    Optimism/positive thinking makes a difference. Ask any world class athlete. Ask anyone who has achieved anything out of the norm. I don’t just believe that it makes a difference. I know that it does. It is proven every day.

    I think that the key here is the motivation of love (as you’ve said). Love is caring. Love is considerate. Love wants the most positive outcome for everyone.

    I would say that little has ever been ‘scientifically proven’ if someone didn’t approach it initially with optimism, imagination and belief.

    I appreciate you sharing your balanced perspective on this.

  4. October 19, 2009 at 1:35 pm

    I’ve read Ehrenreich’s other books (“Nickel and Dimed” and “Bait and Switched”) about the working world from two different perspectives, and I’m surprised by her latest endeavor. Seeing that it appears to be so biased against positive psychology leads me to wonder if her other books were also as biased.

    I do know that for several years, what I’d read in her books provided me with ample foundation for maintaining the complaints I had about my own struggles. I used what I’d learned in the books to support my arguments about why I was unable to succeed.

    Now that I’m an avid devotee of the LOA, I’ve discovered I’d gotten in my own way, of course—that my limiting beliefs were what kept me down. Everything I believe now runs counter to what Ehrenreich was proposing in the other two books I’d read.


  5. October 19, 2009 at 5:20 pm

    I agree with you.

    I’m very young, I’m just 21, and people around me think I’m a kind of eccentric smiling dreamer, since I always try to see the glass as half full. But I must say this: I agree with Charlie Chaplin: “a day without a smile is a wasted day”.

    Being critical is important. I mean, you can be as optimistic as you want and persuade yourself you are able to fly flapping your arms, but… hey, are you seriously thinking of throwing yourself off of a skyscraper?

    Being optimistic should have nothing to do with being “blind”. In my opinion, it should be a way of living which leads you not to settle for less than the best (of what you wish). What kind of creature would be a man who couldn’t dream? And if we told that man: “No way, you can’t reach your goal”, wouldn’t the disappointment be so enormous to make the man wonder about his reason for living?

    Thoughts without actions are, on the other hand, rather useless. But I do think there’s nothing wrong in being optimistic and expecting something wonderful to happen. That “something wonderful” is, for me, the *occasion* to achieve our aims. So, as we see, happy thoughts need actions to become a reality.

    …Or some fairy dust!

    With love,


  6. Tom-Reply
    October 19, 2009 at 11:11 pm

    Joe – the real issue is whether positive thinking benefits only those who promote it to others or whether other people benefit from it – there is a lack of testimonials from regular people. Just like your example of becoming successful selling these ideas to others, Joel Osteen also uses his own life of building a church as proof of the power of tapping into positive thoughts, whether they be spiritually based or otherwise. I think we are skeptical of the promoters and would like to hear from those who walk the walk without having to buy into a DVD, seminar, or website to tell us the “whole story.” If the LOA movement provided more testimonials from average people and not promoters who have a money motive – then the message may be better received.

    • October 20, 2009 at 6:15 am

      Tom, did you do a Google search for LOA testimonials, news groups or forums? There are actually hundreds of thousands of testimonials for positive thinking, LOA, etc, all from “regular folk” and not from promoters. In fact, the regular people out number the promoters. And if you look even more objectively, you’ll note that its the regular people (like me, if you will) who became something because of positive thinking. I suggest you do a little research and keep your mind open.

  7. Rebecca-Reply
    October 20, 2009 at 7:45 am

    In 2000, we were $45,000 in debt. If I hadn’t had positive thinking on my side, I would have just given up and declared bankruptcy. Instead, and BECAUSE of positive thinking, I sat down and figured out how to get out of debt, based on our current income at the time, and went to work on that. Staying positive is what kept me going. We’ve been debt free for a few years now. And so many amazingly wonderful things have happened. When we had melted the debt down to $17,000, with the repayment schedule on track and accelerating, we received an amazing gift, taxes paid, that covered most of the remaining balance. Within two more months, we were totally debt-free. This came from a totally unexpected, even unimaginable (to us at the time) source. This could not have happened without persistent positive thinking that gave birth to inspired action.

    There are a number of people I know who are negative thinkers and for all the years I’ve known them, their lives haven’t changed much. They’re not open to positive change because they don’t believe it’s possible for them and they carry so many limiting beliefs that there’s no room for and no vibrational attraction for anything but more of the same. I like your term “practical” positive thought. Positive thoughts and beliefs raise our vibrational level so that INSPIRED action becomes not only a possibility but a certainty. Without changing negative thoughts and beliefs to positive ones, we can only stay mired in the same mess we’ve been in — no problem can be transformed from the state of mind that created it to begin with — and expecting it to do so is, according to some, the very definition of “crazy.”

    I’m sticking with positive thoughts, positive beliefs (beliefs are just thoughts we keep thinking) and the inspired actions that are naturally born from them. My own life has proven for me the validity of positive thinking.

    Thanks for a great article, Joe!

    Peace, Love, Blissings & Abundance to ALL,

  8. October 20, 2009 at 8:53 am

    One of the concepts that my teacher tells me is to simply allow. That’s a hard one when the mind starts obsessing on whatever is happening. My old patterns are to think the worst but when I just breathe and allow, all the fear just lifts off. I know it sounds way too simple to be true but it has actually brought my blood-pressure down! And when I just allow, my soul gives me solutions to whatever is bugging me.

    This works for old impatient me.

    All the best,


  9. chia-Reply
    October 20, 2009 at 11:04 am

    dear Joe,

    I agree with everything you say but with ONE question; I was told it is possible I have MS…this past Spring. I am a vibrant, outgoing personal trainer but obviously, I have some deep seated issues that created this and I am considering going to a psychiatrist but that is not why I write this. My question is, I am pusuing a change with vegetable juicing, cutting out dairy etc. I have always been lean and able to eat what I want but obviously, it wasn’t working. But, with MS there are lesions on the spine and symptoms may come and go. I suffer from nothing now and intend NOT to but since I cannot have repeated MRI’s to see if I’m making progress in healing and I can’t see inside myself I cannot monitor my progress except continually feeling great. How can I know I’m healing if I can’t see inside myself?.. I guess it’s a silly question….I am not feeling sorry for myself or playing a victim but taking the initial symptoms as a message from my highest self to smarten up my act…and this is a gift but I have to change something. Without any symptoms how would I know to change, right?
    Anyways, hope you can answer my question.
    regards in health and fitness,

  10. October 20, 2009 at 1:45 pm


    I know you directed your question to Joe,
    so I just want to encourage you. I would
    take Joe’s principles in ‘Attract Money Now’
    and begin applying them immediately.
    Especially ‘loving yourself’ and ‘Nevillizing’.

    I’m sure you’re already doing this, but I
    would do these things with the attitude
    of ‘I’m going to love myself and Nevillize
    myself into perfect health.’

    You obviously know what to do as far
    as eating healthily and exercise.

  11. October 20, 2009 at 3:27 pm

    I’m only a couple chapters in to Bright Sided, but I’d like to respond to your critique.

    One thing you’ve completely missed is that Ehrenreich’s cancer was iatrogenic. What was needed in her case was not more positive thinking but positive activism to prevent doctors from *causing* breast cancer in women with a dangerous form of hormone therapy.

    In addition, Ehrenreich points out many of the idiotic versions of positive thinking that do no good whatsoever, like visualizing cancer cells being attacked by immune cells. This is a waste of time, for immune cells do not attack cancer cells because they are part of the body, and in fact immune cells often aid cancer cells in spreading. This visualization is total superstition.

    In addition, Ehrenreich points out that diet and exercise have little to do with breast cancer specifically. (They may help with other cancers, however.) There is no known way to prevent breast cancer through personal efforts. And when doctors encourage patients to see the benefit in their cancer, patients consistently report that they aren’t being heard, which is not exactly a positive result!

    I agree that Ehrenreich’s arguments do not destroy positive thinking, only shallow thinking. Unfortunately much of positive thinking literature and culture succumbs to shallow thinking. Certainly just because someone claims to be engaged in critical thinking doesn’t mean their thinking is accurate or useful either.

    I find no necessary opposition between positive and critical thinking. Accepting present reality exactly and precisely, we can envision a positive future. But let’s make sure to fully accept realities of death, structural inequities, and human limitations within our positive visions.

  12. October 20, 2009 at 3:30 pm

    I would also like to add that positive thinking can be delusional at times, leading people even to die under the guidance of a charismatic leader, as in the recent James Arthur Ray sweat lodge deaths. If anything, this is a clear example of the problems of overly positive thinking.

    • October 21, 2009 at 9:02 am

      You have no idea what went on in that sweat lodge. It’s not a clear example of anything until the story is put together with the facts. Jumping to conclusions is exactly the kind of thinking that doesn’t help anyone.

  13. Julita-Reply
    October 21, 2009 at 8:55 am

    Hey Joe:
    If I may ask as it has actually nothing to do with this article, what do Ya think of NWO? I’ve noticed this “NWO emblem” (pyramid on your belt -Attract Money Now book cover); I’m just curious as there is a lot of negative buzz regarding NWO right now and as your belt emblem struck me immediately I felt so curious about your opinion of NWO and why actually Ya wear this emblem that I let myself post this post 🙂
    BTW.Have a nice trip to Poland, hope Ya gonna put some of the videos on your video blog 🙂

    • October 21, 2009 at 9:01 am

      NWO? My belt buckle is the pyramid off the US dollar bill.
      Thanks for good travel wishes

      • Tom-Reply
        October 25, 2009 at 7:39 pm

        Hi Joe and all,

        I just heard about this book and have it on hold at my local library. I have read many of her books, and generally respect her methodology and approach to her subjects. As a fan of yours, Joe, I was interested to see what you wrote.

        Thanks for a balanced, thoughtful approach, Joe.

        I can recommend a book i read quite awhile ago by Martin Seligman, who opined that positive thinkers DID tend to see reality in a “less objective” way but that it WORKS for them. (I am not doing justice to the book, but that is one of the conclusions I remember from it – it is called Learned Optimism.)

        I also recall an interesting piece about positive thinking by Michael Masterson some months back ( which I found enlightening.

        Thanks again, Joe, I know your thoughts will help me approach Ms. Ehrenreich’s book in a different way.


      • Tom-Reply
        October 25, 2009 at 7:40 pm

        I think NWO stands for New World Order.

  14. October 21, 2009 at 1:07 pm

    Hi Joe!

    Just wanted to say a big Thank You for this article, as I agree with it completely. I too watch the Daily Show “religiously” (hehe!) and had my own thoughts about Ms. Ehrenreich and her book. As a psychic healer for the last 20 years, the first thing I look at when working with a client is where their emotional energy is at. I then get them to a place of at least neutrality at first and then into positivity so that their energy begins to change what their body is creating.

    I agree that “blind positivity” doesn’t help anyone in a major health crisis, ( or any “crisis” for that matter) but I’ve found that deep compassion and understanding for what they are going through, followed by guiding them to realize why they created this situation for themselves works best.

    I would suggest that Ms. Ehrenreich go deeper, as you suggest, into what she is actually criticizing and see that there are levels and levels to “positive thinking” and that what she dealt with was just a vague, surface idea and not what you, or I or any of the others using LOA would have given her.

    Her “call”, as you put it, to be more critical in our thinking, has just as many draw-backs as “blind positivity” does. It rarely allows for warm compassion to be a part of that thinking. Without that, and learning how to be compassionately neutral, you end up getting stuck in your head, and cutting off your positive heart energy from flowing naturally. This is what, in my view, causes most people to have an even harder time trying to deal with “crises” when they come up.

    Thanks again for this excellent article. I’ll be sending this around for my friends and associates to read.

    Bright Blessings,

    Ross – Tolemac

    P.S. Love the t-shirt! =)

  15. littlejohn-Reply
    October 22, 2009 at 1:39 am

    “you’ll note that its the regular people (like me, if you will) who became something because of positive thinking”

    This is the lie of positive thinking Joe…that we have to become something.
    It is this promise of ‘becoming something’ that strings this whole positive-thinking LOA business out. And it must be done through this coach or DVD or sweat lodge.
    Goodness, when on earth (and heaven) are people going to be told the truth, that the only way to end conflict within oneself is within. It is only I who has the power to do that. Everything else is avoidance, no matter how desperately you try to convince me otherwise. If there was a buck to be made out of the belief that the ‘something’ can only be arrived at by my inner work, there would be seminars and workshops all over the place.telling me how to do that. But the seats would be empty, for that is not the feel-good-let-me-tell-you-how-to-do-it story that the seekers want to hear.
    If I have to let the world know I have achieved something, then I haven’t achieved anything.
    Joe, tell people what they don’t want to hear…..find your own way within!
    And there’s no cost to doing that.
    I don’t have to become anything….my challenge is to be…. I AM!
    I am in that state now, unless I think I should be something else!

  16. October 22, 2009 at 3:04 pm

    Dear Joe:

    You so expertly questioned, acted and fostered dialog about this media item.

    I hope you can send some love & light to J.A.R. now. He needs it.

    na Zdravi!

  17. October 23, 2009 at 12:15 pm

    Joe –

    Thanks for sharing your background. That is inspiring…Also, I agree that positive thinking and critical thinking are not mutually exclusive. Also, there is an appropriate time and place for both. For example, when we are driving our car, we don’t want to be in lala land with our eyes closed visualizing money coming our way (we should apply critical thinking). Similarly, when we are visualizing, we shouldn’t be critically examining all of our problems (we should be applying positive thoughts)…


  18. October 25, 2009 at 10:44 am

    I’m reading BRIGHT SIDED right now and I have to say that I don’t think it’s a very fair or thoughtful exploration into a topic that does have some validity.

    As you mention in this post, Joe, critical thinking is important and there are some “gurus” who seem to be going a little over the top with thoughts and thoughts alone being the answer to everything.

    However, I’ve found BRIGHT SIDED to be, frankly, pretty mean-spirited as it uses very selective quoting throughout the book in order to make just about every “guru” she covers look like a kook. It’s a very unfair look into a topic she obviously felt strongly about and she therefore set out to write a book that tried to show how ridiculous any opinion that disagreed with hers on the “positive thinking” movement could possibly be. In other words, she set out to write a book that supported her agenda and feelings on the matter and disregarded or manipulated any evidence that disagrees with that agenda.

    It’s too bad because a book like this actually had the opportunity to explore an interesting topic and help separate the kooks or scam artists who seem to just be trying to make a buck (folks like these are in EVERY industry, by the way) from the very hard-working and thoughtful teachers who have made a positive difference in the lives of millions of people.

  19. Deb-Reply
    October 27, 2009 at 4:12 am

    Dear Joe,
    I for one found Barbara to be hostile and close minded. Just her comment that you resemble an elongated Danny DeVito was irrelevant and indicated that she had some sort of axe to grind. By the way (I happen to think Danny DeVito and you are quite attractive and if you weren’t married, I for one would be interested… but I digress.) Throughout history, all inventions, new innovations have been created by positive thinkers. I’m sure the Wright brothers were bombarded with naysayers maintaining…”you want to do what? Be realistic, not a dreamer, think critically… you can’t defy the law of gravity.”

    Also, many metaphysicians maintain hostility is a personality component of cancer. Just something for Ms. E to think about.

    Note to Chia – many people have healed themselves of MS. Check out She healed herself of MS and gives a detailed protocol to follow.
    Love and blessings,

  20. Ravin-Reply
    October 28, 2009 at 9:57 am

    HIi dr.joe,

    I think i can answer your last three questions. Constant reading about positive thinking and mental toughness is the reason, you can think critically like that lady did. It become practice and then you become more open minded about positive thinking. I am thinking, this must be real tough way to achieve critical thinking.


  21. October 29, 2009 at 10:30 am


    Thanks for hitting back. We should never apologize for believeing in ourselves. I firmly believe that not only do I invite what I dwell on (good and bad) into my life, I create a fertile environment for it to find me and grow. I teach public school and I remind my students on a regular basis that you can never feel bad enough to change anything–only good enough.

    Oh I still trip up and get sucked into the negative sometimes, but I quickly pivot out of it and try to become a magnet for the good. I don’t want to take up your blog space, but click on my blog link and read Vibrational Threshing. I have to do it everyday. Soon it will become a habit.


  22. November 9, 2009 at 9:29 am

    I just think positive thinking is overrated nowadays. I agree with you and most of the comments here that we need to couple positive thinking with action, and of course, one’s overall belief in his own divinity. I really love Heidi Walter’s comment on simply allowing. Just like what Dr. Wayne Dyer and Echart Tolle have been teaching.

    Anyways, I love that shirt you’re wearing and it actually gave me an idea for a business. May I know where you got that? Thanks.

    We love you!

  23. May 16, 2011 at 12:52 pm

    I Like you post, and this amazing

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