Smile or Die by Barbara Ehrenreich

Ehrenreich-Smile-Or-DieI 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:

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This entry was posted in Authors, Ehrenreich, Barbara, Non-Fiction, Reviews, Self-Help and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Smile or Die by Barbara Ehrenreich

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    Sounds fascinating and I tend to agree that there’s a ridiculous culture that says you can overcome anything by willpower (in fact Litlove did a similar kind of post over on Tales from the Reading room recently) Frankly, I think it is a first world viewpoint – if you’re fighting for existence that’s all that’s going to matter at the end of the day.

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  2. Ste J says:

    The vulnerable will always be played upon by mercenary people. Positive thinking is a fine tool in the hands of the sane but the relentless positive thinking that you mention is pretty much pornographic. Having said that a pint and a book can solve pretty much anything, which is the extent of my positive partisanship.

    Solution in the making, that is a wonderful term of complete bollocks…management speak makes me laugh, I tend to use to it to describe the most simple of things which always has people seething.

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    • Jeff says:

      > I tend to use to it to describe the most simple of things which always has people seething.

      I hope your descriptions focus on quality rather than quantity.

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  3. Eric Wayne says:

    “Solution in the making”!? I’m sure there will be instances where you can use that, such as when there’s a “solution in the making” with the toilet. Can you, for fun, out-postive-think your coworker? Y’know, if he has a terrible headache, it can be pronounced better as “an opportunity to better appreciate all the times when you don’t have a headache!”

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    • Jeff says:

      Oh yeah, I’m all for quoting anyone’s platitudes back to them so frequently that they wish they’d think a little more about their relationship with the ‘ideas’ they publicly commit to before doing so. I notice that the migration of Syrians has provoked an outbreak of the phrase ‘charity begins at home’. Whenever anyone uses this phrase, press them on what they mean by it. See how they wriggle to avoid admitting that what they mean is ‘don’t help strangers’. As an experiment, ask them what their views are on social mobility. Presumably, they resist at every opportunity the ascent of talented people they don’t personally know. After all, it’s not what you know.

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  4. fandyliu says:

    This really sounds like an interesting book. I remember when Sal Khan, the founder of Khan Academy, published an article on “Why I Will Never Call My Son Smart.” It seems that we have replaced work ethic with complacency; the virtue of resilience with self-satisfaction. I wonder if this has, in any way, led to our increased attention deficit problems or if that’s just a huge extrapolation…. Interesting!! 🙂

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