Toxic optimism

My review of Barbara Ehrenreich’s Smile or Die (published as Bright-sided in the US) appeared in last Saturday’s Irish Times.

Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America & The World , by Barbera Ehrenreich, 224pp £10.99

TEN YEARS ago, Barbara Ehrenreich went for a routine mammogram and was told she had breast cancer. While her physician’s impersonal tone (“unfortunately, there is a cancer”) was perhaps to be expected, Ehrenreich was unprepared for the blizzard of kitsch that followed the diagnosis.

All manner of peppy gewgaws attended her treatment: teddy bears, ribbons, pink aprons and pyjamas, sloganeering mugs and sweatshirts. There were even crayons – it seemed cancer had turned her into a big scared toddler.

It was her first intimate experience, Ehrenreich recalls, with the cult of positive thinking that has been at work in American culture for a century and a half. Smile or Die is about a species of outwardly sunny delusion of which the contemporary belief that cancer responds to the right attitude – “upbeat and even eagerly acquisitive” – is just one of the more benign examples.

Positive thinking, Ehrenreich argues, is something other than ordinary hope or optimism. Its origins lie in an extreme response, during the 19th century, to the strictures of American puritanism. Where Calvinism had rigorously subordinated future pleasures to present duties, in the 1860s “a diverse and fascinating collection of philosophers, mystics, lay healers and middle-class women” began to formulate a metaphysics of willed happiness in the here and now.

In a cock-eyed variant on Ralph Waldo Emerson’s authentic philosophy of self-reliance, adepts of this New Thought such as Phineas Parkhurst Quimby and Mary Baker Eddy counselled that the mind itself could alter external reality. Unwavering optimism was proposed as a cure-all for everything from poverty to neurasthenia, and even serious thinkers such as William James, who thought its proponents “moonstruck”, conceded there might be something in their earnest nostrums.

The 20th-century equivalents of New Thought tracts were books such as Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich (1937) and Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking (1952). At the core of their doctrine lay the notion that thoughts were actually things and, ergo, could be brought to bear on the world like tools. This idea is now so ingrained in the literature of self-help that its illogic is hard to parse.

Ehrenreich usefully rehearses some of the finer idiocies involved, such as the belief that thought is an “energy”, “vibration” or “wave” that we can deploy at will to cure disease or amass wealth. Inevitably, she notes, failure is blamed on the individual’s giving in to “negative thoughts”; in other words, it’s a failure of faith. It all sounds suspiciously like the power (or not) of prayer, and Ehrenreich devotes a chapter to the eagerness with which “megachurches” in the US have embraced positive thinking as dogma. God, apparently, wants to “prosper you”. In the meantime, He will help with restaurant bookings; one preacher advises this prayer: “Father I thank you that I have favour with this hostess, and she’s going to seat me soon”.

None of this guff would matter so much if positive thinking were merely the preserve of New Age cranks, its books relegated to the “Mind-Body-Spirit” shelves. But as Ehrenreich shows, it’s in the late-capitalist workplace that an admixture of magical thinking and outright avarice has really taken hold.

It is one thing for an aspirant entrepreneur to follow instructions for making his or her own “talisman of prosperity” (though it is certainly rather sad) and quite another for whole corporate workforces to be cowed into submission by the demand that they appear upbeat.

Americans, and by extension the rest of us, can now be “fired for anything, such as failing to generate positive vibes”. Ehrenreich argues persuasively that since the “downsizing” craze of the 1980s the ideology of positive thinking has been used to quash workers’ disaffection and rubbish the grievances of ex-workers, who clearly failed to evince the requisite faith in themselves and the market.

Nowhere has this toxic optimism done more obvious damage than in the vanishing Neverland of home-ownership and easy credit. In the US, Ehrenreich tells us, poor black congregations were actively encouraged by positive-thinking preachers to enter into ruinous debt, in the fond belief that their aspirations were not only logical but divinely sanctioned. Can the rest of us say we’ve been any more realistic? One of the timely virtues ofSmile or Die is to have shown how deeply rooted the structure of fantasy – essentially a gambler’s logic, complete with self-deluding “systems” – has been in our psyches for so long.

Smile or Die is argued with the considerable polemical energy and wit that Ehrenreich brought to earlier books such as Nickel and Dimed and Bait and Switch . In some respects, though, she does not go far enough.

Take, for example, the relationship between positive thinking and depression. Americans, for all their positivity, account for two-thirds of the world market for antidepressants; the cultural requirement for strenuous optimism, Ehrenreich implies, seems to lead to its opposite, crushing despair.

But one could equally argue that positive thinking and what is called depression are symptoms of the same disease.

In both cases, the individual at once assumes and disavows responsibility for his predicament; guilt, helplessness, solipsism, desire, envy and monomania are all confused, and it matters little whether we hope we’re to be saved by fate or our own will – either way, we will fail, as Ehrenreich puts it, to “levitate ourselves into that blessed condition”.

IN HIS RECENT BOOK, Capitalist Realism , the cultural critic Mark Fisher diagnoses what he calls the “depressive hedonia” that afflicts contemporary capitalism: the melancholic inability to strive after anything but immediate pleasure (where pleasure is inevitably mere comfort rather than convulsion).

Smile or Die is an essential description of one aspect of that malaise, but it’s just the first step towards a critique of enforced optimism, and the real joy that might follow.


One response to “Toxic optimism

  1. I read this review with interest. While optimism is a wonderful attribute it, in itself, does not solve or “heal’ problems. Anyone who has read author Mary Baker Eddy’s book, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, would quickly come to the conclusion that she gives all credit to a higher power, God, to whom she has given the synonymous name Mind. But this is not a reference to a human mind or brain.
    And while positive thinking might steer someone in the right direction, again, Eddy’s book and its teachings are not about positive thinking – they are based on the teachings and healings of Christ Jesus in the Bible.
    Optimism and despair, would be said to proceed from the same source, the human brain. Healing, restoration, and peace of mind, according to Christian Science – the teachings of Eddy – have their source in all-powerful divine Mind, God. I hope this is helpful for those who might lump many different beliefs, philosophies, and religious teachings into one category and pass over the differences.

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