Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World

Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World by Barbara Ehrenreich by Jenni Murray

Jenni Murray salutes a long-overdue demolition of the suggestion that positive thinking is the answer to all our problems

The Observer, Sunday 10 January 2010

Every so often a book appears that so chimes with your own thinking, yet flies so spectacularly in the face of fashionable philosophy, that it comes as a profoundly reassuring relief. After reading Barbara Ehrenreich’s Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World, I feel as if I can wallow in grief, gloom, disappointment or whatever negative emotion comes naturally without worrying that I’ve become that frightful stereotype, the curmudgeonly, grumpy old woman. Instead, I can be merely human: someone who doesn’t have to convince herself that every rejection or disaster is a golden opportunity to “move on” in an upbeat manner.

Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World    by Barbara Ehrenreich.  240pp,  Granta Books,  £9.99

1. Buy Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World at the Guardian bookshop

Ehrenreich came to her critique of the multi-billion-dollar positive-thinking industry – a swamp of books, DVDs, life coaches, executive coaches and motivational speakers – in similar misery-making circumstances to those I experienced. She was diagnosed with breast cancer and, like me, found herself increasingly disturbed by the martial parlance and “pink” culture that has come to surround the disease. My response when confronted with the “positive attitude will help you battle and survive this experience” brigade was to rail against the use of militaristic vocabulary and ask how miserable the optimism of the “survivor” would make the poor woman who was dying from her breast cancer. It seemed to me that an “invasion” of cancer cells was a pure lottery. No one knows the cause. As Ehrenreich says: “I had no known risk factors, there was no breast cancer in the family, I’d had my babies relatively young and nursed them both. I ate right, drank sparingly, worked out, and, besides, my breasts were so small that I figured a lump or two would improve my figure.” (Mercifully, she hasn’t lost her sense of humour.)

I had long suspected that improved survival rates for women who had breast cancer had absolutely nothing to do with the “power” of positive thinking. For women diagnosed between 2001 and 2006, 82% were expected to survive for five years, compared with only 52% diagnosed 30 years earlier. The figures can be directly related to improved detection, better surgical techniques, a greater understanding of the different types of breast cancer and the development of targeted treatments. Ehrenreich presents the evidence of numerous studies demonstrating that positive thinking has no effect on survival rates and she provides the sad testimonies of women who have been devastated by what one researcher has called “an additional burden to an already devastated patient”.

Pity, for example, the woman who wrote to the mind/body medical guru Deepak Chopra: “Even though I follow the treatments, have come a long way in unburdening myself of toxic feelings, have forgiven everyone, changed my lifestyle to include meditation, prayer, proper diet, exercise and supplements, the cancer keeps coming back. Am I missing a lesson here that it keeps re-occurring? I am positive I am going to beat it, yet it does get harder with each diagnosis to keep a positive attitude.”

As Ehrenreich goes on to explain, exhortations to think positively – to see the glass as half-full even when it lies shattered on the floor – are not restricted to the pink-ribbon culture of breast cancer. She roots America’s susceptibility to the philosophy of positive thinking in the country’s Calvinist past and demonstrates how, in its early days, a puritanical “demand for perpetual effort and self-examination to the point of self-loathing” terrified small children and reduced “formerly healthy adults to a condition of morbid withdrawal, usually marked by physical maladies as well as inner terror”.

It was only in the early 19th century that the clouds of Calvinist gloom began to break and a new movement began to grow that would take as fervent a hold as the old one had. It was the joining of two thinkers, Phineas Parkhurst Quimby and Mary Baker Eddy, in the 1860s that brought about the formalisation of a post-Calvinist world-view, known as the New Thought Movement. A new type of God was envisaged who was no longer hostile and indifferent, but an all-powerful spirit whom humans had merely to access to take control of the physical world.

Middle-class women found this new style of thinking, which came to be known as the “laws of attraction”, particularly beneficial. They had spent their days shut out from any role other than reclining on a chaise longue, denied any opportunity to strive in the world, but the New Thought approach and its “talking therapy” developed by Quimby opened up exciting new possibilities. Mary Baker Eddy, a beneficiary of the cure, went on to found Christian Science. Ehrenreich notes that although this new style of positive thinking did apparently help invalidism or neurasthenia, it had no effect whatsoever on diseases such as diphtheria, scarlet fever, typhus, tuberculosis and cholera – just as, today, it will not cure cancer.

Thus it was that positive thinking, the assumption that one only has to think a thing or desire it to make it happen, began its rapid rise to influence. Today, as Ehrenreich shows, it has a massive impact on business, religion and the world’s economy. She describes visits to motivational speaker conferences where workers who have recently been made redundant and forced to join the short-term contract culture are taught that a “good team player” is by definition “a positive person” who “smiles frequently, does not complain, is not overly critical and gratefully submits to whatever the boss demands”. These are people who have less and less power to chart their own futures, but who are given, thanks to positive thinking, “a world-view – a belief system, almost a religion – that claimed they were, in fact, infinitely powerful, if only they could master their own minds.”

And none was more susceptible to the lure of this philosophy than those self-styled “masters of the universe”, the Wall Street bankers. Those of us raised to believe that saving up, having a deposit and living within one’s means were the way to proceed and who wondered how on earth the credit crunch and the subprime disasters could have happened need look no further than the culture that argued that positive thinking would enable anyone to realise their desires. (Or as one of Ehrenreich’s chapter headings has it, “God wants you to be rich”.)

Ehrenreich’s work explains where the cult of individualism began and what a devastating impact it has had on the need for collective responsibility. We must, she says, shake off our capacity for self-absorption and take action against the threats that face us, whether climate change, conflict, feeding the hungry, funding scientific inquiry or education that fosters critical thinking. She is anxious to emphasise that she does “not write in a spirit of sourness or personal disappointment, nor do I have any romantic attachment to suffering as a source of insight or virtue. On the contrary, I would like to see more smiles, more laughter, more hugs, more happiness… and the first step is to recover from the mass delusion that is positive thinking”. Her book, it seems to me, is a call for the return of common sense and, I’m afraid, in what purports to be a work of criticism, I can find only positive things to say about it. Damn!

Smile Or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and The World

Author: Barbara Ehrenreich
Pages: 226

Journalist Barbara Ehrenreich knows the flaws of the American dream all too well. She became a best-selling author when she worked in a range of jobs from waitress to cleaner, to show how millions of Americans live on the minimum wage. The book on her experiences, Nickel and Dimed, was followed by another Bait and Switch, which followed her trials as an undercover white-collar jobseeker.
She first encountered “the cult of cheerfulness” when she was diagnosed with breast cancer and found herself surrounded by upbeat slogans, teddy bears and pink kitsch. In her new book “Smile or Die” she insists the power of positive thinking, much beloved by her fellow Americans and heralded by Oprah, is not the answer to all our woes, in fact it is highly damaging and even contributed to the global financial crisis.

The relevance to Tony Quinn and other purveyors of positive thinking is obvious, we leave it to you to link it all together.

3 Responses

  1. This is a complex area. The oversimplified garbled version of mind power and spiritual power being sold by various phony gurus has done harm financially and emotionally to people. Dividing the complexities of human thinking into “positive” and “negative” in the way these “gurus” suggest as well as other simplistic versions of mind development are unrealistic, dangerous and leave people vulnerable, of course, to the manipulations of the “guru”. The ineffective and incomplete methods taught by certain gurus have left many of their followers in debt, confused and feeling guilty about failures as the “gurus” blame their victims for not being “positive” enough. You mention the link with the Tony Quinn system – a good case in point. The case of Marcus is one public example of the dangers of “positive” and unrealistic thinking. The Quinn system has many stellar examples of financial and mental loss. The clothes company man, the Galway business man, etc as examples of major financial loss. Many other less well-reported cases have come out and admitted their problems with this system over the years. It’s easy to attribute any success to a guru’s “positive” thinking system and ignore the casualties. Successes can be due to many factors other than the “positive” thinking. A more creative and intelligent kind of thinking (which some might label as “positive”) is much better than defeatist and depressive thinking IMO. You can, however, learn about this from sources other than the phony gurus. There is research that supports effects of mind on body but it’s not the exaggerated and simplistic claims of Quinn and his cancer claims or the “how I became a multi-millionaire using my methods”. Such “gurus” accumulate money usually by teaching their “success” methods of “positive” thinking rather than by having applied it successfully themselves in business. You can learn to use your mind creatively and more intelligently, meditate, relax, etc from some reliable books, for example, and for a fraction of what the phony gurus cost and without the risk of becoming ensnared into the cult. The methods of the phony gurus also have only superficial resemblance to the spiritual disciplines of faith, prayer, etc as taught by eminent spiritual teachers of the past and differ greatly at the deeper levels.

    Let the buyer beware (of the false messiahs and gurus)!


  2. What about “considering the lillies of the field”? I hope this doesn’t imply that we should worry, I definetly agree that we should be realistic but I will continue to look up at the beauty around us and not down at the ground and the dirt. Where does the placebo fit into all this then?


  3. Glad to see someone is lifting the lid of the jar of the positive thinking gurus


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