TMC Reviews… Smile Or Die by Barbara Ehrenreich
by Strawberry Cheesecake
Smile or die! It’s such an arresting title that, on first thought, it seems like it must be the sort of contrivance which publishers and authors come up with to emblazon the fronts of their books. Well it may seem that way but, as we learn by the first chapter of Smile or Die, it’s not. In fact “Smile Or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America And The World” was what the author Barbara Ehrenreich was effectively told when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. At the lowest point of her life she found herself immersed in a culture of flagrant optimism which counselled that the way to survive breast cancer was to maintain optimism and, as a dark corollary, suggested that those who were not positive (i.e. didn’t smile) would not survive (i.e. would die).
At the most unnerving extreme, breast cancer is not seen as a sufferance but as a gift. As the author of The Gift of Cancer: A Call to Awakening writes “cancer is your passport to the life you were truly meant to live”. Within this culture of optimism the understandable desire to ‘stay positive’ in the face of cancer has become a perverse embrace of it: individuals who shy away from this attitude are castigated for letting themselves be ‘victims’ and an obsessive self-monitoring of one’s thoughts, in order to screen out the negative and encourage the positive, runs the risk of taking over the lives of sufferers (and in the process abating their recovery due to the sheer amount of time and energy expanded in this way).
Perhaps some of these creepy and destructive excesses to positive thinking are unique to those struggling to cope with cancer? Ehrenreich makes a convincing argument that this is not so. While her own experience with breast cancer and the culture surrounding it brought such problematic positive thinking to her attention, the subsequent research she engaged in led her to conclude that what she encountered was symptomatic of wider cultural trends in American society. She argues that the modern forms of positive thinking developed out of the philosophical and religious backlash to the dour Protestantism which initially dominated American society. One contemporary form of positive thinking which she is particularly contemptuous of is the Secret and her enthusiastic denunciation of the sheer stupidity of the ideas expressed within it will make an impression on those, such as myself, who tended to see it as silly but harmless.
Ehrenreich expertly traces a fascinating evolution from religious doctrine through pop philosophy and the growth of self-help literature and organizations through to the other contemporary phenomena which provoke her ire: business motivation gurus preaching positivity to American workers being laid off in droves, religious leaders explaining to their massively debt-saddled adherents that god wants them to own luxury goods and the academic movement of positive psychology which inadvertently sanctions these ideas with the veneer of scientific objectivity.
In the final chapter (“how positive thinking destroyed the economy” ) Ehrenreich argues rather persuasively that the seeming blindness of corporations, banks and regulators which led to the credit crunch was a consequence of the cult of positive thinking that had swept corporate America over the past decade. At the very least this goes someway to explaining why ‘nobody saw it coming’: in the frantic rush to sustain optimism and think positively any dissenting thoughts were simply stifled by the people having them (and any dissenting individuals who didn’t stifle themselves in this way were quickly and brutally marginalised). It is the final nail in the coffin of positive thinking, a philosophy of life which Ehrenreich’s well-argued and fascinating book comprehensively destroys.