I started this book in Autumn 2010, almost completely read it, then started a course and found myself reading other things, and in any case, I was already converted. I recently picked this up again to finish it as part of my mini-excursion into self-help this year. It still stands out as the best of the lot because it goes against a tide so strong that it’s overwhelming. Ehrenreich, as the title suggests, isn’t impressed.
Her interest in ‘Positive Thinking’ movements began when she had a cancer diagnosis. People with a diagnosis are in a vulnerable position. They face an uncertain lifespan that could be blighted by stressful treatments and their side-effects. So while looking for information and support, she found to her surprise (and alarm) a breast cancer support movement that considers a diagnosis as an opportunity to change your life for the better. This upbeat outlook extends to seeing the disease as something to embrace as if it’s a gift. What particularly disturbed Ehrenreich was the one-dimensionality. Feeling down is shunned as though it’s a weakness; furthermore, and importing the magical thinking from Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret, some support groups even take the view that terminal illness is something people have come back to them from the universe because of something they gave out – i.e. negative thinkers bring bad things upon themselves. Ehrenreich found this callous attitude increasingly fashionable and widespread.
Her book goes on to give a short history of self-help. There’s a particularly American Century focus along with the influence from protestantism and its propensity for inward flagellation. Figures such as Norman Vincent Peale and Dale Carnegie are set within their postwar, door-to-door salesman context, and then brought up to date to today’s harsh and judgemental self-help culture in which the good, should they work hard enough on themselves, will one day be blessed with riches.
I couldn’t help wondering whether all this is a first-world situation? What reach, for example, does all this fire and brimstone have in poorer nations? So many have been colonised, enslaved, and then subjected to religious conversion. Does positive thinking convince those who reap this legacy that their difficulties today have nothing to do with colonial destruction and everything to do with how they’ve given out too many negative vibes and brought woe upon themselves? Maybe a third-world account will come one day?
As it is, I find Ehrenreich’s combination of compassion and hard-nosed rationalism a refreshing touchstone. I had someone correct me in the office recently for mispronouncing ‘solution in the making’ as ‘problem’. Decency stopped me from pointing out that he’s on the minimum wage in a profession (administration) that’s being eradicated by outsourcing and technology. Playing with language only goes so far. Making decisions and taking actions is all you can do, and even then, shit can and does happen. How dark the genius to exploiting the appeal of anaesthetic.
Smile or Die crops up on the secondhand market these days. My copy was new, but there’s something satisfying to finishing a previously unfinished book. It’s inexpensive of course!
Here’s a presentation that Ehrenreich gave at the RSA in London: