Here’s a counter-cultural book. In Smile or Die, How positive thinking fooled America and the world, Barbara Ehrenreich takes a bold and much needed swipe at the culture of positivity. It sounds instinctively like it ought to be grouchy and pessimistic, but it’s more of a call to reality. Ehrenreich rails against the oppressive culture of mandatory optimism and looking on the bright side, but the book ends up being refreshingly life affirming, making a case for authenticity and hope rather than optimism and shallow positivity.
Though it is aimed at American culture, positive thinking is something of a global phenomenon. It’s the idea that thinking the best of something can actually make it happen, that shunning negativity is good for us. To boil down the motivational speaker’s message, it is the set of beliefs where “the only barriers to health and prosperity are within oneself. If you want to improve your life – both materially and subjectively – you need to upgrade your attitude, revise your emotional responses and focus your mind.”
Like all these things, there are grains of truth to this philosophy. Cynicism and pessimism can be paralysing and corrosive, for sure. But the idea that positive thinking is powerful in and of itself is obviously false and actually pretty dangerous. See the gurus who encourage people to ‘manifest’ the good life they desire by putting it on the credit card, or who instruct their followers not to watch or read the news. Or how about the advice to cut negative people from your life, presumably turning your back on family and friends who are having a hard time, in order to protect your own energies.
It’s hard to imagine anything more damaging to community, and of course it works perfectly in tandem with consumerism. “The consumer culture encourages individuals to want more – cars, larger homes, television sets, cell phones, gadgets of all kinds – and positive thinking is ready at hand to tell them they deserve more and can have it if they really want it and are willing to make the effort to get it.”
It’s a big industry, with roots going right back to the Great Depression, Ehrenreich suggests. It runs right through the motivational speaker market, the books and the courses, and influences business and politics. There’s a section of the book where the author meets Martin Seligman, and he keeps avoiding her difficult questions. Seligman is an advisor to David Cameron.
Ehrenreich explores the consequences of this pervasive philosophy, through the pseudo-science of willing yourself a recovery from cancer, to how fortunes are made by dressing up self help in religion through the prosperity churches. Most relevant to this site, she shows how positive thinking contributed to the financial crisis.
This is pretty shocking. At the pinnacle of the housing boom, 40% of mortgages were sub-prime. It was obvious that it could not continue, and yet people were able to publish books like Why the real-estate boom will not bust and how you can profit from it. The head of Lehman Brother’s property division was fired for being too negative after advising the company to get out of property in 2006, and that attitude was not uncommon. A kind of wilful blindness operates in financial circles, where caution or even a realistic assessment is dismissed as pessimism. The markets were self-correcting, everything would be fine. “What was market fundamentalism other than runaway positive thinking?” says Ehrenriech.
As I mentioned before, the answer isn’t to complain more. A little pessimism wouldn’t hurt, if only to help us spot disaster before it’s too late. But the bigger answer is to be less preoccupied with ourselves. A focus on protecting ourselves ends up harming us. We are isolated and community breaks down. We shut out the ‘downer’ news of climate change, or the injustices of inequality, until it is too late to do anything about them. “The threats we face are real,” the book concludes, “and can be vanquished only by shaking off self absorption and taking action in the world.”
I agree. And if you want my own take on self help, it’s that true fulfillment doesn’t come from seeing ourselves as personal life projects, but from giving ourselves to something bigger than we are. Happiness comes to those who aren’t looking for it, but have thrown themselves into loving and serving others – caring for family, building community, campaigning for a better world, pursuing God. Consumerism would have you believe otherwise, but we only find ourselves when we give ourselves away.
Here’s an animation of Barbara Ehrenreich talking about positive thinking: