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This is the first book I’ve read by cultural commentator Barbara Ehrenreich. I’ve read and enjoyed her journalism – in fact I was inspired to read this book when I saw that it contained an essay on her experience of a particular tyranny of positive thinking in her treatment for breast cancer. I found her finely controlled and incisive anger moving, and I wanted to see where her analysis took her beyond the personal.
Who wouldn’t want to think positively, if it can be done with clarity and intellectual honesty? As Ehrenreich points out in her conclusion, negative thinking can be dishonest and delusional too. The thesis of this book is that positive thinking becomes pernicious when it steps into the realm of delusion, of self and others, and when it is imposed as a discipline against the interests of the individual and in the service of a prevailing power, corporate, institutional or state. She sees a thread in US policy-making, business and academe of positive thinking gone bad.
Ehrenreich explores the roots of a particularly American brand of positive thinking, its origins in a reaction against Calvinist theology, and the strange circular train of thought that has taken it back in that direction. It surfaced in religious thinking as Christian Science, and in the secular realm in the Self-Help movement. She traces the phenomenon through health care, workplace, religious denominations, the new academic discipline of Positive Psychology, and finally, in a killer chapter, the implosion of the Economy.
In the first chapter, ‘Smile or Die: The Bright Side of Cancer’, she experiences with dismay the spectrum of positive thinking that attempted to deny her the right to face up to the risk and the pain of the illness and its treatment. There is a prevailing culture of ’embracing’ the cancer, of patients saying things that truly shock her, like ‘cancer is your ticket to real life. Cancer is your passport to the life you were truly meant to live.’ There is a sentiment that patients would do well to know their place on the bright side, be model patients, and Barbara Ehrenreich’s clear-sighted expression of feelings that her cancer was not in any way a positive thing in her life earned her rejection within a so-called support group. Along the way, she tests and finds wanting the pervasive myth that positive thoughts can in any way alter your medical outcome. This is the first sign of a recurring theme, that then comes through in even wilder myths such as the Law of Attraction (think of the money and material things you want hard enough and they will come to you) and its religious sibling, the Doctrine of Prosperity (add the verb ‘pray’ to ‘think’). The logical conclusion of this is a turning inward to examine your mind (and find it wanting if you are poor, or unfortunate, or ill).
The use of Positive Thinking as a weapon of control is another theme. Downsizing corporate America is turned into an exercise in thought control. Mentoring in positive thinking is offered to those being ‘downsized out of the organisation’, with an implied threat if they do not see this as an ‘opportunity’ and follow the path set out to stay fit for employment in future. The same mentoring is needed for the remaining workforce, so that they take on board the increased work, longer hours and static pay. Business is invigorated by the multi-million dollar motivation and coaching industry. Workers with positive, can-do outlooks do well because they feed into and off this culture – so it is how they are encouraged to survive. The notion of injustice and arbitrary cruelty in the corporate world is squeezed out. The fact that all this is done in the name not of delivering goods or services, but maximising shareholder value, has a veil drawn over it.
The effect of Positive Thinking on religion in the US is astonishing for those who are not exposed to the theology of the mega-church. There’s not much that’s positive about the sacrifice of Christ on Good Friday, come to think if it, so the modern mega-church is surprisingly light on symbols of Christianity – no cross, let alone a crucifix to be seen. It is also surprisingly light on the more difficult of Christ’s teachings, when the prevailing thrust is less about personal salvation and following Christ’s way, than personal prosperity. God is hectored to provide that better job, bigger house, win that court case, pay that debt. For those who thought Christianity in the US was still dominated by a hell-fire doctrine – not exclusively so, any more. The lines between the aims of the church and the corporate world are becoming more and more blurred. A real eye opener.
Apart from an arresting title, this sounds rather like an academic social science text. So it is – impeccably researched and referenced – but it is also short, snappy, feisty, droll, sharp as a rapier and in parts very funny. It’s a mostly exhilarating read, full of ‘Yes! You’ve hit it!’ moments, though some of the background history can be tough going for those in the UK who are unsure why certain gurus (Norman Vincent Peale, Joel Osteen and Rhonda Byrne) are particularly singled out for a good kicking. However, if Rhonda Byrne truly did say that victims of the 2006 Tsunami had obviously been in the wrong place attracted there by their negative thoughts, that really does put her into a category all her own.
So what is left, once Positive Thinking is demolished? Well – still a certain sort of positive thinking: the sort that comes from realism and vigilance. Critical thinking weighs up the evidence and assesses the positive and negative in any situation. In the final chapter, she points out that there are areas of life where no-one would expect the Power of Positive Thinking to trump intelligence, vigilance and action, such as safely landing an aeroplane, or bringing up children. Why should anyone think that endeavours such as fighting cancer, going to war with Iraq or making a judgment that property prices will rise and rise, are exempt from the discipline of applying reality checks and critical thought? Nevertheless …. .
If you would like to enjoy Barbara Ehrenreich’s distinctively dry, witty voice, do take a look at this video of a talk she gave to the Royal Society of Arts, in the fabulous RSAnimate series.
Barbara Ehrenreich: Smile or Die. How Positive Thinking Fooled America & The World. London: Granta Books, 2010. 235pp