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'Smile or die': positive ideology and its discontents

By Timothy Watson - posted Wednesday, 17 February 2010

If you ever wondered why Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein thinks he’s doing “God’s work”, or why televangelist Pat Robertson believes the Haitian earthquake was caused by a people’s pact with the devil, Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America & The World by Barbara Ehrenreich is a very good place to start.

In a searing, and often amusing indictment of American optimism, Ehrenreich charts a cultural history of the positive thinking phenomenon in the United States. From humble beginnings as a theological reaction to repressive Calvinist Puritanism to the modern “Prosperity Gospel” of televangelists such as Joel Osteen and Hillsong’s Brian Houston where God wants you to be rich. A story of how the popularity of motivational gurus, business coaches and self-help literature such as How to win Friends and Influence People and The Secret has provided fertile conditions for an attempt to scientifically establish the links between positive affect, health and success in the form of the positive psychology movement.

Somewhat absurdly, Ehrenreich notes that despite America’s view of itself as a positive, optimistic nation, America ranked only 23rd in a recent meta-analysis of more than 100 national happiness surveys. This comes despite the fact that anti-depressants are the most prescribed medication, with America alone constituting two-thirds of the global market for anti-depressants.


Would the United States fare much worse in such surveys if it were not for the large doses of medication reinforcing the prevailing positive mood?

In light of these surveys, and other empirical evidence that fails to conform to America’s optimistic self image- Ehrenreich makes a strong case that positive thinking isn’t so much a reflection of the national mood but rather a powerful ideology.

And need we look any further for such evidence of a pervasive “positive ideology” than President Obama’s recent State of the Union address. One in ten American workers remain out of work but stimulus spending will be wound back immediately, government spending will be frozen for three years from 2011, and barely any jobs are being created directly in the public sector. But don’t worry America has always been destined to succeed and the recession will be over pretty soon as long as we hold on to the determination and optimism that have allowed the United States to triumph in the past.

More than a year after Obama’s momentous election it is now clear “Yes we can” was not a message that we are going to get people back to work, get Wall Street lending again, stop the foreclosures and finally achieve healthcare reform, but rather a hollow flashback to platitudinous Reaganite optimism that plays well in Oprah land. Perhaps the secret of this slogan’s electoral success was its equal appeal among social reform hungry liberals, positive thinking evangelicals and Reagan conservatives.

Ehrenreich poignantly describes her struggle with breast cancer, and how this experience brought her face to face with positive ideology. She argues that looking on the bright side of cancer has had the effect of transforming “breast cancer into a rite of passage - not an injustice or a tragedy to rail against but a normal marker in the life cycle, like menopause or grandmotherhood”.

During her chemotherapy web sites, books, oncology nurses and fellow sufferers all stressed to her the importance of maintain a “positive attitude” towards recovery despite there being no evidence that a positive affect can improve cancer survival prospects. Ehrenreich reveals the “victim blaming” felt by some cancer victims that has arisen out of popular beliefs concerning the mind-body connection. Although the misperceptions are not necessarily perpetuated by physicians, there is a pervasive cultural belief that thinking positively will help you recover from cancer, and that negative emotions can make cancer grow, or even cause cancer in the first place.


In a world where having a positive attitude is deemed normal and essential to the health, prosperity and success of businesses and individuals, where does this leave the sceptical, critical, pessimistic or melancholy? Ehrenreich claims “the penalty for non-conformity is going up, from the possibility of job loss and failure to social shunning and complete isolation”.

If negative thoughts lead to poor outcomes, poor outcomes occur because people don’t believe in the inevitability of their own success. If you lost your job it’s your own goddamn own fault, and involuntary unemployment does not exist either. Alarmingly, Ehrenreich documents advice from motivational gurus and business coaches to sack “negative people” and bias in behavioural interview questions towards positive individuals.

From Ehrenreich’s perspective if the stick is social exclusion, the carrot is the promise of great things happening to you if you just think positively. You can have anything in the world as long as you focus your mind on it. At least this is the promise of best selling motivational books such as The Secret which contain claims that if you visualise or focus on what you want hard enough, be it a relationship, a car or limitless wealth, it will be attracted to you.

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About the Author

Timothy Watson is a student and writer from Melbourne.

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