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Barbara Ehrenreich

How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Americans constantly claim to be "positive", optimistic, and upbeat. In this book Barbara Ehrenreich launches a sustained attack on this self-image and seeks to show that it has led to a lot of undesirable consequences. Americans, and increasingly other people too, are being led into a morass of self-delusion.

The first chapter is a magnificently acerbic criticism of popular attitudes to breast cancer that made me laugh aloud. Where cancer is concerned a profuse proliferation of pink ribbons and an undue fixation on teddy bears is ubiquitous in the media and on web sites, and it is widely (but almost certainly wrongly) believed that having a "positive" attitude will aid recovery or even prevent the disease in the first place. Ehrenreich finds all this to be nauseatingly sentimental and mawkish as well as scientifically implausible. She is well qualified to write on this subject, both because she has herself had breast cancer and because she has a Ph.D in immunology.

Of course, one might say that even if facile optimism about cancer does no good objectively, at least it makes some patients happier. But this attitude has the unfortunate effect of making people who fail to get better feel that it is their fault. They haven't tried hard enough—haven't "fought" the disease as they should, and are letting the side down.

Americans, Ehrenreich finds, are prone to magical thinking. They are constantly exhorted to believe that they can obtain anything they desire provided they want it badly enough. The universe is pictured as a giant cornucopia of gifts, which anyone can tap into as long as they have the right positive attitude.

Ehrenreich provides an interesting analysis of how this mind-set came about. It arose, she thinks, as a reaction against dour Calvinism, which was brought to the USA by white settlers and which she describes as "a system of socially imposed depression". This began to change in the early nineteenth century, with the coming of "New Thought" promulgated by thinkers such as William James and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Mary Baker Eddy's Christian Science movement arose from this background. The twentieth century saw an outpouring of books advocating the benefits of maintaining cheerfulness and a positive attitude.

Ehrenreich goes on to show how beliefs of this kind have come to dominate business in the USA, and increasingly elsewhere. To cater for this, psychologists have rebranded themselves as "coaches" and make money by motivating bosses and employees to be relentlessly optimistic. But just as emphasis on foolish over-optimism in cancer has its downside in the shape of feelings of guilt in those who don't get better, so too in business: anyone who tries to warn that prospects may not be so rosy as the majority wish to believe they are is liable to get fired. Ehrenreich finds that this syndrome was the primary cause of the current financial quagmire. Although she does not mention it, I wonder if it was also the cause of the dismal failure to plan adequately for the aftermath of the second Iraq war.

The churches, or at least some of them, have fallen prey to the same delusion. Ehrenreich visits some "megachurches", with congregations numbered in thousands, which are largely devoid of doctrine and are hardly distinguishable from commercial buildings (which they are, of course). Crosses are not in evidence because they might have negative connotations and the congregations only want to hear promises of success and felicity.

Ehrenreich insists she does not want to replace optimism with despair. Rather, she makes a plea for rationality. "What we call the Enlightenment and hold on to only by our fingernails, is the slow-dawning understanding that the world is unfolding according to its own inner algorithms of cause and effect, probability and chance, without any regard for human feelings."

18 February 2010

%T Smile or Die
%S How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World
%A Barbara Ehrenreich
%I Granta Books
%C London
%D 2009
%G ISBN 978-1-84708-135-3
%P 235pp
%K pyschology, sociology

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