Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World
by Barbara Ehrenreich
Granta Books | $29.95
WANT a highly paid sales job in the US pharmaceutical industry? May I suggest pursuing a career in cheerleading first? Modern-day corporate America likes its workers to be full of frenzied enthusiasm and positive thinking. Cheerleaders, the drug companies noticed, possess both attributes. Should we be surprised, then, that cheerleaders are now recruited directly from university to smile relentlessly at doctors in order to sell them medicines?
Former president George W. Bush was a cheerleader in high school. If only some clever recruitment consultant for Pfizer, say, had spotted his potential and swept the young George off into a career combating erectile dysfunction instead of the Axis of Evil. Give me a “V.” Give me an “I.” Give me an “A-G-R-A.” It would have saved us all a lot of trouble.
I would never have known about the cheerleader–Big Pharma nexus if one of America’s leading journalists hadn’t been diagnosed with a life threatening disease. Barbara Ehrenreich is the author of the classic, Nickel and Dimed, in which she examined the lives of America’s low paid. The genesis of her latest work, Smile or Die, was the news that every woman dreads: there was a lump in her breast, and it was malignant.
As a well-informed woman – with a doctorate in cell biology, no less – she understood immediately how her life was about to take a nasty turn: hospital, chemotherapy, anxiety. What she didn’t anticipate, however, was “the tyranny of positive thinking” which dominates what she soon thought of as the Breast Cancer Industry.
As Ehrenreich points out, breast cancer is probably the biggest disease on the cultural map. Hundreds of websites advertise everything from charity runs to beribboned cuddly toys with names like the “Nick and Nora Wish Upon a Star Bear.” There’s even a monthly magazine about breast cancer called Mamm.
Angry and in fear for her life, Ehrenreich found the upbeat message of the industry pretty hard to take. But she was particularly appalled to discover that breast cancer patients are encouraged – on the websites and in the many books by survivors – to view their disease as a blessing, as an opportunity for self discovery and personal growth. “What does not destroy you, to paraphrase Nietzsche,” she tartly comments, “makes you a spunkier, more evolved sort of person.”
But perhaps the most pernicious notion she encountered was the common idea that a positive attitude will actually help fight the cancer. Drawing on the scientific literature, Ehrenreich convincingly rejects this as pure dogma. Staying positive may help your immune system operate more successfully, she argues, but unfortunately the immune system counters foreign disease-bearing microbes, and cancer cells are not foreign, they are the body’s cells gone mad.
So forget the chanting and the meditation, forget the unburdening of toxic feelings, because you might as well believe that your cancer cells can be removed through telekinesis.
The feisty Ehrenreich never did get “positive,” but she did get royally pissed off. And luckily for the world’s other grumpy old bastards, she survived to write this witty and insightful book.
Smile or Die exposes the intellectual and spiritual emptiness that lies at the heart of America’s obsession with positive thinking. If you’ve ever been lured to an Anthony Robbins seminar under false pretences, or suffered through a “team building exercise” led by a grown man with a ponytail, or been trapped in a hospital waiting room and forced to watch Oprah, then this book will make a lot of sense.
After encountering the positive ideology of the breast cancer ward Ehrenreich started to wonder: where did all this delusional thinking come from? She traces it back to America’s roots in Calvinism, a punitive religion overseen by a hostile God who demanded from his believers constant self-examination for sin. This harsh doctrine created an epidemic of melancholia among its adherents. Middle class women, in particular, took to their beds with what was then called “neurasthenia,” a malady we would label today as depression.
Contemporary medicine made little headway against this outbreak of fashionable invalidism. It was not until a former watchmaker and mesmerist who delighted in the name Phineas Parkhurst Quimby noticed the connection between Calvinism and the illness that something could be done about it. Quimby’s “New Thought” turned Calvinism on its head. Instead of being ruled by a God eager to pounce on our failings and punish us, Quimby told his patients that we lived in a benevolent universe where a person’s mind could exercise control over the physical world. What they needed was some fresh air and a positive attitude, dammit.
Ehrenreich traces a direct line from Quimby to the founder of Christian Science, Mary Baker Eddy, and then on to Dale Carnegie, the author of How to Win Friends and Influence People (first published in 1936 and still in print) and to the man who coined the phrase “the power of positive thinking,” Norman Vincent Peale. Over the years their ideas have metastasised across the culture, finding their way into the exhortations of life coaches, the sermons of mega-church preachers, and the patter of TV talk show hosts.
In late 2006, for example, America was let in on The Secret, a runaway bestseller and accompanying DVD which basically advocated for the efficacy of magic: the power of thought alone to attract success. Want a new car; simply “will” it into your life. What about better eyesight? Put on your thinking cap and throw away those glasses. Desire a new boyfriend? Just clear out your wardrobe to make way for his clothes and, before you know it, he will have moved in.
It’s pretty much the same idea put forward by Phineas Quimby over a century earlier. And millions lapped it up.
But what does it matter? What harm can positive thinking do? Well, as Ehrenreich ruefully points out, this cult of inane cheerfulness also played an important role in the creation of the global financial crisis. From the cheerleader-in-chief in the White House and plutocrats on Wall Street in thrall to the teachings of their dangerously optimistic business gurus, to the holders of sub-prime mortgages in the vast American suburbs who were told every Sunday they could have it if they just believed, the power of positive thinking played its part.
So if you notice Barack Obama occasionally emphasising the negative, give thanks for the survival of grumpiness. •
Brett Evans is the author of The Life and Soul of the Party: A Portrait of Modern Labor (UNSW Press).