Positively pessimistic – and happy about it

It has not been a good month for blogging. I hoped that things would settle down after the house move but it was not to be. I have since developed what can only be described as an Epic DeathCold, complete with hacking cough and tonsils of flame, sapping my energy for anything other than sitting under a duvet and groaning sadly.

I’m not feeling particularly good about this, which according to many people is a bad thing. Optimism, they tell us, is immensely powerful; a panacea for work success, financial success, and your health. Optimists get sick less often than pessimists and heal faster, apparently. If I were a little more positive, popular wisdom suggests, my immune system would be more robust, my love life and career better, and I’d look like an attractive member of society rather than a shambling coughing zombie curled over the keyboard with finger-less gloves on.

Well, according to Barbara Ehrenreich, popular wisdom has very little idea what it is talking about. She says that baseless optimism is not, in fact, a cure for what ails us but be a source of dangerous inaction on issues that require thought and action and that, most tellingly, all those studies that people say are out there proving the benefits of optimism for health simply do not exist or are deeply flawed.

Her book, Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World, is a history and critique of the multi-billion-dollar positive-thinking industry – of the endless self-help books and DVDs, grinning life coaches and firey motivational speakers big on enthusiasm and small on content. As she explains, people who say that optimism alone is excellent for your health are sadly lacking in the facts, and in Smile or Die she lays out both these facts and the reason why adherents of pointless positivity might not want you to know these facts.

I was introduced to Ehrenreich by her powerful essay, Welcome to Cancerland, on her own experience of being diagnosed with breast cancer. She believes that the over-overwhelming (and always pink and fluffy) optimism industry that has grown up around  breast cancer doesn’t allow those diagnosed with it the most basic human reaction – the freedom to feel anger and upset that this is happening to them. After all, she argues, if we are encouraged to believe that positive thinking can cure disease, isn’t it the sufferer’s own fault they are still ill? Does our societal insistence on positive thinking place yet another burder on those who are diagnosed rather than offering relief?

In Smile or Die she starts with her experiences with breast cancer and then explores the rise and rise of positive thinking in America, from its dawn as a reaction to Calvinism in the nineteenth cenury, though its evolution as part of the New Thought Movement, and on to its prevalence in modern life, where books such as The Secret sell millions of copies with their promises that positive thinking can eradicate disease, overcoming obstacles, and help readers to accumulate massive amounts wealth and material success.

It’s a fascination read and often a very funny one. Ehrenreich’s writing is engaging and amusing as she ranges across the history of positive thinking and its place in contemporary religion, business and the economy. She doesn’t advocate a return to hand-wringing and crying in the corner but to living life in full possession of the facts, and making decisions based on those facts. If you want to become rich, for example, perhaps the first place you could save money is by not buying books and conference tickets that promise riches in return for nothing other than thinking about it. If you have had your fill of self-help books promising the world but delivering little more than time-consuming daily affirmations and excessive exclamation marks, Smile or Die might be – literally – the last self help book you ever need.




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Sadhbh Warren

Sadhbh Warren is a freelance writer and proud booklover. Her name is pronounced Sive - like five – an Irish name, easier to say than spell! She lives in Sydney, writing travel and humour articles, and is always on the lookout for a great new book.