Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World
Posted by addisethiopia on October 9, 2013
by Barbara Ehrenreich
Demolition of the cult of positive thinking
Review by Sinclair McKay
For some years we have been listening to the chilling echoes from across the Atlantic, all those life-affirming whoops and high-fives and cries of: “All right!’’ And now, as any foray into a bookshop’s “self-help’’ or “business’’ section will tell you, Britain has been turned. Corporate culture is about inane team-building exercises, “motivational speakers’’ and stifling “negative attitudes’’. Individuals are looking for “fulfilment’’ and “growth’’. It is the cult of positive thinking. And, according to Barbara Ehrenreich in this beguilingly sharp, witty and clear-eyed account, it has pretty much brought us to our knees.
Ehrenreich encountered this phenomenon in some force when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. From the mammogram on, she found that she had entered a world of pink ribbons, Ralph Lauren pink ponies and balloons, of “fun runs’’, of books featuring personal testimonies with statements like “cancer is your ticket to your real life’’ and “cancer will lead you to the divine’’. Ehrenreich found that any expression of dissent – any suggestion that one found the illness frightening, and the treatment and insurance arrangements disgraceful – led to her being howled down online by fellow sufferers for having a “bad attitude’’ and “anger and bitterness’’.
And from this, she looked around at the whole of American society, only to find that, like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, it had been taken over by the same fixed-smile think-on-the-bright-side fever. She cites the 2006 self-help multimillion bestseller The Secret – a book that claimed, among other things, that any obstacle can be overcome by the power of thought, be it obesity, myopia, or just very much wanting a beautiful necklace you have seen in a shop window. Simply thinking a thing can make it happen, or “manifest’’. The laws of the universe can be overturned on your whim.
But it’s not just individual fulfilment; the madness over there has spread to the church and to the boardroom. Ehrenreich beguilingly traces the American history of this disorder right back to “the claw marks of Calvinism’’ and the violent reaction against it. In the 1850s, a healer called Phineas Parkhurst Quimby founded the “New Thought’’ movement , teaching that “the universe was fundamentally benevolent’’ and that his patients could “leverage their own powers of mind to cure or ‘correct’ their ills’’.
Quimby inspired Mary Baker Eddy, who took this further by founding the Christian Science religion that posits, as Ehrenreich says, “that there is no material world, only Thought, Mind, Spirit, Goodness, Love… Hence there could be no such things as illness and want, except as temporary delusions.” Ehrenreich visits some modern-day Protestant mega-churches and finds, shockingly, that the message is pretty much the same. It is all soft-rock and the belief that “God wants you to prosper’’.
Ehrenreich goes on to trace how this mania for positive thinking seeped into the American boardroom, how professional management in recent years has given way to the “emotional thrills of mysticism, charisma and sudden intuitions’’, to the subculture of motivational speakers and “coaches’’.
What else was the catastrophic subprime bubble but the expression of insane, unfounded optimism? There were those at Lehman Brothers who were dismissed after raising doubts about the stability of these investments. Our very own PM’s mantra – “no more boom and bust’’ – might be said also to have been a part of this positive-thinking lunacy.
But as Ehrenreich highlights, there is also genuine cruelty in this corporate system. In “downsized’’ firms, redundant employees are told by outsourced counsellors that their job loss can be a “growth experience’’, a “step forward’’. Keep smiling – bitterness, or simply openly expressed anxiety, will make you unemployable.
And in a wider sense, this philosophy has lately been backed up by a battalion of psychologists, some of whom have formulated happiness equations and who seem a little impatient with Ehrenreich’s questions about how such equations are really quantified.
Ehrenreich throughout is bracingly acidic and engaging, but also, shall we say, surprisingly “un-negative’’ in the face of so much smiley-faced idiocy. All she is ultimately asking for in a sane world is not gloominess or pessimism but simply “vigilant realism’’. Fat chance. Because it is all really about fear in the end: fear of death, of illness, of poverty. If you believe that you fundamentally deserve to be rich and happy and healthy, the long-established religions will be of little use to you. You will instead need all the preposterous motivational New Age CDs you can get your hands on. Self-help will probably be the only growth industry of this decade.