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

Ehrenreich isn’t merely unmoved by the cult of positive thinking, she think’s it’s downright damaging.

By far the best chapter in Barbara Ehrenreich’s neat little anti-positive-thinking polemic takes us back a few years to the day when the author was told that she had breast cancer. It is difficult to know how coolly sceptical she might have been of the pink-ribbon culture and the “think yourself better” brigade had she not been armed with a PhD in cell biology (and therefore also the certain knowledge that thinking positive thoughts about her cancer going away would not necessarily make it do so).

But whatever her academic credentials, her keen intelligence and robust common sense quickly reduce some of the quackery that now prevails in these circles about the connection between ill health and subjective mindset to a rather tragic empty optimism.

Ehrenreich shows us websites where breast cancer is described not as a deplorable injustice but as “a gift”, a “rite of passage” or, as one “survivor” claims, “the best thing that ever happened to me”, a step on the ladder of spiritual upward mobility replete with cuddly soft toys and a weird infantilisation of the grown women it afflicts. (“Certainly men diagnosed with prostate cancer do not receive gifts of Matchbox cars,” she rightly points out.) Although Ehrenreich also comes across a handful of women with cancer who have found themselves unable to remain steadfastly grateful for their predicament, they are quieter voices shushed and marginalised by the online sisterhood for their alleged pessimism in the face of a disease that may eventually lead to their premature death, whether they think positively about their chances of recovery or not. All this is proof, the author says, that a shiny, happy, the-glass-is-always-half-full attitude is not merely hollow and potentially fallacious but also harmful, inhibiting a fundamental human need for authentic feeling, vigilance and self-expression. What a travesty, therefore, that positive thinking has been imported wholesale into American culture, she says.

Cancer, however, is only a lifting-off point from where Ehrenreich — activist, feminist, liberal with admirably fierce protective instincts towards the blue and white-collar workers who have borne the brunt of corporate downsizing in recent years (she is of blue-collar stock herself) — attempts to nail the whys and wherefores of some of the less desirable phenomena that have blotted the contemporary American sociological landscape. She has done it before — and convincingly, too — in a heap of books and essays about why, for instance, the sexual revolution inhibits men from committing to their girlfriends or what happens when a middle-aged woman goes undercover, as Ehrenreich has done for several months, in low-wage America.

Here she continues connecting the dots, in this case between what she calls the “cult of positive thinking” and all sorts of societal ills, from lousy online dating advice (“women, in particular, should radiate positivity”) to the televisual sacred cow that is Oprah; from bland, essentially secular mega-churches that have, she says, embraced positive thinking disguised as Christianity to the US Government’s failure to foresee the terrorist attacks on the twin towers.

Most pertinently, Ehrenreich uses her final chapter to attempt to prove a causal connection between “delusional positive thinking” and the financial meltdown. In some ways it’s the weakest part of the book, but in her candid, amusing and yet rant-free prose she constructs an argument in a way that is much more likely to win over patriotic doubters than some independently minded aetheist Oxonions one could mention.

Of course, much of what concerns Ehrenreich in this book will seem to the British reader self-evident about American culture, or at least give him or her a satisfying glow of smug conceit: indeed “healthy British scepticism” is cited by one positive psychologist quoted by the author as one of the main barriers to the full-scale invasion of positive psychology in this country.

However, even in supposedly ultracynical Britain we would do well to bear in mind that neither our lack of mega-churches nor our cheerleader deficit, to give two examples (who knew, by the way, that American drug companies, keen to employ chirpy salespeople, regularly recruit from cheerleading outfits?), necessarily translates as an immunity to the “cult” of positive thinking: one has only to observe the rapid expansion of the self-help industry, whose theories and authors are usually imported from the US.

If America’s positive thinking is loud and communal, Britain’s is a more discreet affair. Ehrenreich has dug up a statistic that holds that even in the UK a third of all CEOs in the FTSE 100 take advice from a personal guru of some sort. And the esoteric bestseller The Secret is as popular here as it is over there. One of Ehrenreich’s great talents as a writer is in picking exactly the right anecdote to skewer the targets of her mocking disapproval. My personal favourite is a quote from Rhonda Byrne, the author of The Secret, who peddles something called “the law of attraction”, which holds that positive things will come to those who think positive thoughts. Disasters such as the Asian tsunami, Byrne is quoted as saying, can happen only to people “on the same frequency as the event”.

Essentially, though, enforced cheerfulness of the sort that Ehrenreich flays in her book is a US phenomenon, a happy-clappy, high-fiving, have-a-nice-day syndrome. Its roots, she says, can be traced back to the “New Thought movement”, a reaction against the austere Calvinism that predominated in the 19th century. Once it became clear that there was money to be made from pushing positivity, however, all sorts of people started cashing in: not only Dale Carnegie types but, eventually, the ministers who came to preside over America’s mega-churches and the CEOs running the companies that have become the megacorporations we know today. What is the difference between the ministers and the CEOs? “Not much,” Ehrenreich claims: both preach to their flocks, whether they be congregations or workforces, identical messages of self-realisation: “Both institutions offer, as their core philosophy, a motivational message about getting ahead, overcoming obstacles, and achieving great things through positive thinking.”

The problem for most Americans is that things are getting worse, not better: 30 million people have lost jobs in corporate downsizing since 1968. Between 1965 and 2000, the ratio of CEO pay to that of a typical worker soared from 24:1 to 300:1. Think positive as much as you like, is Ehrenreich’s message, but reality is unlikely to do you the favour of conforming to your dreams.

Much as she dislikes the mega-churches, however, they don’t do “downsizing” as corporations do. And it is the CEO, not the minister, who is more likely to initiate propaganda campaigns against his own workforce, a step that is, we learn, known in business circles as “internal public relations” but which Ehrenreich prefers to describe as “a massive experiment in mind control”.

How do these campaigns work? Positive-thinking gurus are brought in to make motivational speeches, and to provide what they call “tools” for managing despair or “change”, meaning layoffs. In a rather chilling example of this euphemistic business-speak, Ehrenreich quotes the owner of an outplacement company who asserts that, with his help, people “came to see that losing a job was a step forward in their lives … a growth experience, self-retreat, a needed time-out”. We’re back to the cancer diagnosis and the pervasive belief that change, no matter how traumatic, counts as “an opportunity”. If only we can believe fervently enough — so ministers and bosses claim — then we will become healthy, employed, beautiful and rich. If, on the other hand, these good things fail to happen, who can we blame but ourselves?

There follow some scenes from corporate America that would be wildly comic if they weren’t also true. Ehrenreich illustrates the dovetailing that she feels has occurred between New Age spirituality and capitalism. The most compelling of these finds a group of “some of America’s youngest and most powerful chief executives” taking part, half-naked and blindfolded, in a shamanic healing journey while their guide, someone called Richard Whiteley, a Harvard-educated bestselling author and management consultant, instructs them to retrieve from their inner depths their “power animals, who would guide the companies to 21st-century success”.

Later, we watch Richard Fuld, former chairman and CEO of the now-defunct Lehman Brothers, pace through the rooms of his various properties at night, racked with insomnia. Over and over he asks himself: “What could I have done differently?” But Ehrenreich has already answered the question in the previous paragraph when she points out that two years before Lehman Brothers collapsed, Fuld was in the habit of firing any clear-eyed realists who dared to cast doubt on his business model. Proof, she says, that delusional positive thinking has infected America’s boardrooms.

And so to the climax: the financial crisis happened, Ehrenheich says, because CEOs — increasingly removed from reality on their enormously inflated salaries, narcissistic, their egos pumped up by positive-thinking gurus — could not countenance a world in which their specific desires did not equal a concrete result. I’m not sure that I agree that the head of a bank necessarily needs the author of Who Ate My Cheese? whispering in his ear about what a great guy he is to behave greedily, solipsistically or with a sense of grandiose entitlement. Whether positive thinking helped to create the system in which charismatic leaders were able to flourish unchecked is also questionable. This was a global crisis in the end, and its key players weren’t by any means exclusively American, or schooled in America, or even living there. Whether a quasi-devotional belief in the market can be attributed wholly to positive thinking is also disputable.

So, it’s a thrilling, succinct and wittily written book. If it fails in any way, it is in Ehrenreich’s reluctance to concede that a positive attitude can sometimes be helpful in overcoming difficult circumstances, and that stress — and isn’t stress essentially a form of “negative thinking”? — has proven links with ill health.

Her definition of happiness is also conspicuously narrow. Happiness, she says, “is generally measured as reported satisfaction with one’s life — a state of mind perhaps more accessible to those who are affluent, who conform to social norms, who suppress judgment in the service of faith, and who are not overly bothered by societal injustice”. If this is happiness, who needs it? — although one suspects that Ehrenreich is never happier than when she is comprehensively reducing the perky perpetrators of enforced positivity to a laughing stock.

Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World by Barbara Ehrenreich (Granta, £10.99; Buy this book; 240pp)


Early life Barbara Ehrenreich was born in 1941 in Butte, Montana, a blue-collar mining town.

Education She graduated from Reed College, in Portland, Oregon, in 1963 with a physics degree and holds a PhD in cellular biology from Rockefeller University in New York.

Career She says that her involvement in the turbulent politics of the 1960s and the anti-Vietnam war movement took her out of the laboratory and into a writing career. She began with a monthly bulletin advocating better healthcare for poor people before settling into a work life that spanned journalism, book-length projects and activism on issues such as women’s rights and economic justice.

She was a regular columnist for Time magazine from 1991 until an assignment in 1998 from an editor at Harper’s magazine required that she work in a range of jobs, from a waitress to a cleaner, to explore first-hand how millions of Americans live on the minimum wage. The subsequent book, Nickel and Dimed, sold more than a million copies. She followed it with Bait and Switch, based on her experiences as an undercover white-collar jobseeker. She has since become the face of “immersion journalism”.

She is a leading figure in the Democratic Socialists of America and is the author of more than 20 books.