Always Look on the Bright Side of Life?


Smile or Die; How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the WorldSmile or Die; How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World

I HAVE often wondered what it is about dictators that cause them to misread their situation so completely.  The late Romanian dictator Nicholai Ceaucescu and the Libyan leader Colonel Qathafi were both surprised at the hatred they inspired in a large number of their people.  The answer seems to be that they had both become isolated in their own little bubbles and had become ‘Masters of the Universe’ in their own eyes.  They thought that they could reshape reality by the force of their own will.

This delusion was reinforced by a coterie of fawning hangers-on who either would not or could not tell them unwelcome truths.  In such societies optimism was compulsory; to point out otherwise was considered unpatriotic, defeatist or counter-revolutionary. Naturally people told their leaders what they thought they wanted to hear.  We hear similar rhetoric from the coalition government; when those posh boys David Cameron and George Osborne – despite mounting evidence to the contrary – insist that their austerity policies are doing us good, really and that we should all knuckle down, get with the programme and like it.

This delusional thinking, though, is not restricted to dictators and out-of-touch prime ministers and chancellors of the exchequer. A glossy best-selling book, The Secret, has convinced many people that getting the things you want is primarily a question of ‘the law of attraction’, visualising what it will be like when they are yours, whether it’s a new partner, that dream job, a fancy car or a lovely necklace or handbag. You will ‘draw’ these things to you. Just ‘name it and claim it’.

In Smile or Die; How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World, Barbara Ehrenreich examines the roots and the effects of the cult of blind optimism known as ‘Positive Thinking’.  This notion has gained a large foothold in American popular, religious and corporate culture.  Positive Thinking sounds attractive for a number of obvious reasons; nobody likes to be a misery or to be thought of as a misery. People are generally happier to be around individuals who light up a room by their presence than those who are constantly moaning, complaining and cursing their rotten lot in life. That’s fair enough. So far, so good.

However, basic cheery natural optimism is not what Ehrenreich is targeting in her wittily written polemic. ‘Positive Thinking’ the ideology is much more pernicious. It’s positively delusional.  The reckless optimistic bias involved undermines preparedness and invites disaster.  Its deep penetration of American popular culture, especially in the corporate world, may well have helped to precipitate the financial disaster that began to hit the world in 2007.  After all, why would you bother about debts and ruinous exposure to defaults when all good things come to those who are optimistic enough to visualise success and to expect it?

The truth is, things don’t get better by wishing them so. Positive Thinking of The Secret kind encourages its practitioners to treat other people as if they don’t matter, mere ciphers and bit players in their own ever so important life, rather that independent, thinking, breathing beings with a will, hopes and fears of their own.

Barbara Ehrenreich exposes the cynicism, delusion and greed of those who sell this stuff at society’s most vulnerable sections, some of whom are seriously ill with cancer, or who have lost their jobs owing to corporate ‘downsizing’.

Ehrenreich opens with a frank account of her own diagnosis with breast cancer, and her dismay at being almost buried in an avalanche of pink ribbons, pink teddy bears and sugar-coated therapy sessions in which there was no room for anger or sadness. Although it’s a popular theory, there is no scientific link between having a ‘positive’ outlook in the face of illness and rates of cancer survival.  As she says, ‘We really should question whether it is valuable to encourage optimism if it results in the patient concealing his or her distress in the mistaken belief that this will afford survival benefits.’

The undercurrent of always having to look on the bright side, so that your recovery may be undermined by your own poor ‘negative’ attitude if you don’t do so, is pernicious. It is disturbing to discover that some American cancer survivor groups have hounded out those whose cancer recurs in case any association with this ‘negativity’ might prove contagious. Such groups can properly help people come to terms with the consequences of their illness.  This may offer the patient social and emotional benefits but it will do nothing to overcome cancer or extend his or her life.

Ehrenreich traces the origins of positive thinking to reaction against traditional Calvinist doctrine in the nineteenth century.  She analyses the development of Positive Thinking through early self-help books to the slicker, more persuasive motivational speakers and their books and DVDs around today. She exposes the dangers to business of reckless optimism as all too often anyone who doesn’t fully sign up to the mantra is dismissed as ‘negative’ or having a bad attitude when they may just be more realistic. This notion also conveniently shifts the burden of responsibility for illness and unemployment on to the individual.

The author cites one self-help classic Who Moved My Cheese? when a worker wakes up to find that his “cheese”, or job, has disappeared, he should immediately “paint a picture . . . in great realistic detail, [of] sitting in the middle of a pile of all his favourite cheeses – from Cheddar to Brie”. And magically, a delicious new employment opportunity will arise. Don’t blame the system. Don’t’ blame the bosses. It’s your own fault if you don’t land another job. It’s no wonder that American corporations are buying this book in bulk and handing it out to the workers they are paying off.

Ehrenreich’s alternative to Positive Thinking’s bastardised mixture of personal insecurity, narcissistic self-absorption and blind acceptance of the status quo isn’t that we all become curmudgeonly Victor Meldrews; grumpy old men or women. All she suggests is that we look at how things really are, not how we would wish them to be and that we use a little critical thinking. To put it another way, don’t moan, organise to put things right. That’s true positivity for you.


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