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.




The Five Stages of Internet Loss

This delay in posting this blog is thanks to a sudden and complete lack of internet. We moved house last week and – while our new internet provider promised us we would be back online in moments – as always reconnecting to the net has taken a couple of weeks, countless emails, and approximately 4 hours on the phone waiting to speak to what is apparently their lone consultant, while their hold system regales us with music that can only be described as “low-budget 70’s porn movie soundtrack”.

As anyone who has gone checking their email before breakfast to total modem silence can tell you, it’s hard to adjust to a life offline. Little things such as paying bills, checking your bank balance and looking up information (“hey, when is George R. R. Martin‘s next book due out anyway?”*) go from instant to impossible.

You move through the 5 stages of internet loss**.

Stage one – denial and isolation. This can’t be happening. You need to send email. You have to log-in to work. You have to log-in to Twitter and Facebook. You have to check the news; the Zombie Apocalypse could have started and you wouldn’t know. Signs of stage one include relentlessly pressing F5 on your browser and nagging your partner by repeatedly asking if the modem is definitely plugged in.

Stage two – anger. How the hell could this happen? Don’t they know there are bills you need to pay, and whole pages of Lolcats being updated daily? How can they do this to you? You have no idea what’s happening in the world – what do they expect you to do, buy a news-paper? What if there are zombies outside? You just don’t know – you’d be eaten in moments! Do they WANT you to be eaten? That’s just brilliant customer service right there, isn’t it.

At Stage 2, you spend large amounts of time on hold composing vindictive customer complaints in your head, swearing loudly at bad jazz music and shouting, before being REALLY POLITE to the consultant as they are the only person who can help you.

Stage three – bargaining. Alright, this is bad situation, but maybe you can make it better. You could see if there is a wireless hotspot… but you can’t the web to find out. How about asking the zombies if they have internet in their old homes? Maybe you could go to another internet provider? Hey, if you just check how much their data packages cost – oh wait, you can’t as you have no net connection. ARGH.

Stage four – depression. Screw it. You have burned through all your mobile phone’s minutes while on hold and all its data to stay on top of urgent emails, and you can’t use Skype to call them as you have no internet. You can’t get online. You can’t do anything. You might as well just sit here freezing in the dark and let the zombies eat you. Yes, the heating and lights are working fine. But that’s NOT THE POINT.

Stage five – acceptance. Well, the internet isn’t available right now. Hmph. Perhaps you could do something else instead? Like read that book you’ve been meaning to get to? Or finally tidy the bookshelves a bit? Maybe this doesn’t have to be so terrible after all.

Look, I’m not advocating a life free of internet. As I am hard of hearing and can’t use phones, if you took away my internet I’d never get any bills paid or order anything online, for a start, so I’d be sitting in an ice-cold darkened room with no books to read at all.

But with a little less time spent online, I have managed to get so much more done; I’ve actually read some of my massive back-log of books, for a start. While I’m delighted to finally have my connection back, in our new place we have moved the computers to a slightly less central location so we won’t be as tempted to while away all our hours on them. And we have moved our book collection to a room with a massive comfy bean bag and futon which is technically the spare bedroom but will, in fact, be our library. Which has to be a win whether the internet is working – and the zombie apocalypse has arrived – or not.


* According to Martin, a realistic estimation for finishing The Winds of Winter could be three years, but ultimately the book “will be done when it’s done“.

** This post is thanks to the Kübler-Ross model of the 5 stages of grief, which I was delighted to discover I could remember correctly from my first year in college. So at least one of the books I read then actually managed to stay in my brain.


Mid-month round-up – the psychopath edition

I think I missed the memo on the season of goodwill. This month my reading has been less about peace and festive feeling to all mankind and more about the horror that can lurks in the minds of men. And women, to be fair.

The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson started me off. Jon (who also wrote The Men Who Stare At Goats and Them: Adventures with Extremists) returns to his pet subject – that much-debated tipping point where eccentricity becomes genuine madness – this time looking at the nuts and bolts of madness from the business end. How do we define a psychopath and is there any place for them in society? In fact, is being a psychopath a hindrance or an excellent business trait to have? And how can we stay assured of our own normality when we are increasingly being defined by our maddest edges?

The book isn’t a dry treatise but a lively international exploration; jumping from interviews with Scientologists to showdowns with CEOs who display more than a touch of the psychopath themselves; bantering with Tony, a Broadmoor inmate who swears he faked a mental disorder to get a lighter sentence but now can’t get out of there; studying psychopathy with Bob Hare, the psychologist who developed the industry standard Psychopath Test that put Tony behind bars.

It’s a thoughtful-provoking  subject but Jon writes with a sense of humour and an eye for the absurd that makes this book an easy and enjoyable read. The Psychopath Test been out for a while and already devoured and dissected by the media but don’t feel you’ve missed the boat. The good news is that, if you haven’t already read it, the paperback coming out in January will drop the price to an eminently grab-able $18. If you’ll forgive the terrible pun, you’d be mad to miss it.

Set off by the this, I ended up re-reading Crazy Like Us, which examines how differing cultures and societies intrepret madness and specifically how the West’s dominance in many forms of medicine and mainstream culture means it is effectively exporting its own views on madness. Ethan Watters argues that America, as the world leader in generating new mental health treatments and categorising disorders, has started to define mental illness and health both at home and abroad and in doing so has changed the mental illnesses themselves.

Examining everything from how marketing for Paxil sought to actively stigmatise depression in Japan to the “contagiousness of mental illness” (using the hysteria that afflicted thousands of women during the Victorian era as an example), Watters puts forward a fascinating argument that will make you re-examine everything you already think about mental health and mental illness.

This last one isn’t non-fiction, but I couldn’t resist the chance to snap up a Stephen King I had somehow missed (got to love a writer so prolific he can occasionally surprise me with a book I haven’t read yet). Desperation follows the King classic formula – take a diverse group of people, stick them in a creepy spot (in this case, Desperation, Nevada – billed as “not a very nice place to live and an even worse place to die”) and add nothing but trouble and watch as they all go mad.

Complete with some of the usual King characters (Alcoholic writer? Check. Child wise beyond their years? Check.) and a disturbed and disturbing villian (a looming and psychotic cop who prowls “the loneliest road in America” rounding up innocent motorists to imprison and kill) the town of Desperation is set to become the battle ground for Good vs Evil. And Evil seems to be holding all the cards…

It’s a classic King formula  but one that that he uses for a reason – Desperation works. Wonderfully. It’s by turns terrifying and heart-breaking, and will have you cancelling your road-trips for the forseeable future and checking the eyes of any law enforcement you meet for the tell-tale signs of madness. And checking your own while you are at it…