The Observer, Sunday 10 January 2010
Every so often a book appears that so chimes with your own thinking, yet flies so spectacularly in the face of fashionable philosophy, that it comes as a profoundly reassuring relief. After reading Barbara Ehrenreich's Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World, I feel as if I can wallow in grief, gloom, disappointment or whatever negative emotion comes naturally without worrying that I've become that frightful stereotype, the curmudgeonly, grumpy old woman. Instead, I can be merely human: someone who doesn't have to convince herself that every rejection or disaster is a golden opportunity to "move on" in an upbeat manner.
Ehrenreich came to her critique of the multi-billion-dollar positive-thinking industry – a swamp of books, DVDs, life coaches, executive coaches and motivational speakers – in similar misery-making circumstances to those I experienced. She was diagnosed with breast cancer and, like me, found herself increasingly disturbed by the martial parlance and "pink" culture that has come to surround the disease. My response when confronted with the "positive attitude will help you battle and survive this experience" brigade was to rail against the use of militaristic vocabulary and ask how miserable the optimism of the "survivor" would make the poor woman who was dying from her breast cancer. It seemed to me that an "invasion" of cancer cells was a pure lottery. No one knows the cause. As Ehrenreich says: "I had no known risk factors, there was no breast cancer in the family, I'd had my babies relatively young and nursed them both. I ate right, drank sparingly, worked out, and, besides, my breasts were so small that I figured a lump or two would improve my figure." (Mercifully, she hasn't lost her sense of humour.)
I had long suspected that improved survival rates for women who had breast cancer had absolutely nothing to do with the "power" of positive thinking. For women diagnosed between 2001 and 2006, 82% were expected to survive for five years, compared with only 52% diagnosed 30 years earlier. The figures can be directly related to improved detection, better surgical techniques, a greater understanding of the different types of breast cancer and the development of targeted treatments. Ehrenreich presents the evidence of numerous studies demonstrating that positive thinking has no effect on survival rates and she provides the sad testimonies of women who have been devastated by what one researcher has called "an additional burden to an already devastated patient".
Pity, for example, the woman who wrote to the mind/body medical guru Deepak Chopra: "Even though I follow the treatments, have come a long way in unburdening myself of toxic feelings, have forgiven everyone, changed my lifestyle to include meditation, prayer, proper diet, exercise and supplements, the cancer keeps coming back. Am I missing a lesson here that it keeps re-occurring? I am positive I am going to beat it, yet it does get harder with each diagnosis to keep a positive attitude."
As Ehrenreich goes on to explain, exhortations to think positively – to see the glass as half-full even when it lies shattered on the floor – are not restricted to the pink-ribbon culture of breast cancer. She roots America's susceptibility to the philosophy of positive thinking in the country's Calvinist past and demonstrates how, in its early days, a puritanical "demand for perpetual effort and self-examination to the point of self-loathing" terrified small children and reduced "formerly healthy adults to a condition of morbid withdrawal, usually marked by physical maladies as well as inner terror".
It was only in the early 19th century that the clouds of Calvinist gloom began to break and a new movement began to grow that would take as fervent a hold as the old one had. It was the joining of two thinkers, Phineas Parkhurst Quimby and Mary Baker Eddy, in the 1860s that brought about the formalisation of a post-Calvinist world-view, known as the New Thought Movement. A new type of God was envisaged who was no longer hostile and indifferent, but an all-powerful spirit whom humans had merely to access to take control of the physical world.
Middle-class women found this new style of thinking, which came to be known as the "laws of attraction", particularly beneficial. They had spent their days shut out from any role other than reclining on a chaise longue, denied any opportunity to strive in the world, but the New Thought approach and its "talking therapy" developed by Quimby opened up exciting new possibilities. Mary Baker Eddy, a beneficiary of the cure, went on to found Christian Science. Ehrenreich notes that although this new style of positive thinking did apparently help invalidism or neurasthenia, it had no effect whatsoever on diseases such as diphtheria, scarlet fever, typhus, tuberculosis and cholera – just as, today, it will not cure cancer.
Thus it was that positive thinking, the assumption that one only has to think a thing or desire it to make it happen, began its rapid rise to influence. Today, as Ehrenreich shows, it has a massive impact on business, religion and the world's economy. She describes visits to motivational speaker conferences where workers who have recently been made redundant and forced to join the short-term contract culture are taught that a "good team player" is by definition "a positive person" who "smiles frequently, does not complain, is not overly critical and gratefully submits to whatever the boss demands". These are people who have less and less power to chart their own futures, but who are given, thanks to positive thinking, "a world-view – a belief system, almost a religion – that claimed they were, in fact, infinitely powerful, if only they could master their own minds."
And none was more susceptible to the lure of this philosophy than those self-styled "masters of the universe", the Wall Street bankers. Those of us raised to believe that saving up, having a deposit and living within one's means were the way to proceed and who wondered how on earth the credit crunch and the subprime disasters could have happened need look no further than the culture that argued that positive thinking would enable anyone to realise their desires. (Or as one of Ehrenreich's chapter headings has it, "God wants you to be rich".)
Ehrenreich's work explains where the cult of individualism began and what a devastating impact it has had on the need for collective responsibility. We must, she says, shake off our capacity for self-absorption and take action against the threats that face us, whether climate change, conflict, feeding the hungry, funding scientific inquiry or education that fosters critical thinking. She is anxious to emphasise that she does "not write in a spirit of sourness or personal disappointment, nor do I have any romantic attachment to suffering as a source of insight or virtue. On the contrary, I would like to see more smiles, more laughter, more hugs, more happiness… and the first step is to recover from the mass delusion that is positive thinking". Her book, it seems to me, is a call for the return of common sense and, I'm afraid, in what purports to be a work of criticism, I can find only positive things to say about it. Damn!
Versión en castellano: Blog del Centro Enrique Eskenazi