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No Sacred Cows  
Toby Young
Monday 1st February 2010

Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World by Barbara Ehrenreich

When the left-wing American essayist Barbara Ehrenreich was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2000 she became a little depressed. After all, 40,000 American women die every year from breast cancer and the chemotherapy with which it’s typically treated involves numerous unpleasant side effects, including baldness, nausea, mouth sores, immunosuppression, anemia and -- most terrifying of all for a public intellectual with a PhD in cellular biology -- “chemo brain”. Under the circumstances, feeling a bit glum seems perfectly rational.

However, she quickly discovered that this reaction was verboten. When she posts a statement on a breast cancer message board under the subject line “Angry”, listing her complaints, the reaction is overwhelmingly negative. “You need to run, not walk, to some counselling,” advises one fellow-sufferer. Apparently, breast cancer patients are supposed to be cheerful and optimistic, viewing the disease as a blessing rather than a curse.

“In the most extreme characterization, breast cancer is not a problem at all, not even an annoyance -- it is a ‘gift’, deserving of the most heartfelt gratitude,” she writes.

Thankfully, Ehrenreich’s cancer has gone into remission, but the rage she felt on first encountering America’s positive thinking movement hasn’t dissipated. Smile or Die is a 200-page jeremiad against this upbeat philosophy, describing it as a “mass delusion”, a form of “self-hypnosis” and a “tool of social control”. In her analysis, positive thinking is not only a constant irritant in popular culture, it was responsible for the financial crisis of 2007: “What was the point in agonizing over balance sheets and tedious analyses of risks -- and why bother worrying about dizzying levels of debt and exposure to potential defaults -- when all good things come to those who are optimistic enough to expect them?”

That may be overstating things a bit, but Smile or Die is a hugely enjoyable rant in which Ehrenreich hits the bulls eye more often than not. As a trained research scientist, she’s at her best when debunking the dubious factual claims made by the exponents of positive thinking. For instance, she makes short work of the snake oil salesmen who claim that maintaining a positive mental attitude improves your chances of surviving cancer. After reviewing all the most up-to-date research, she concludes that psychotherapy or being in a support group has no medically beneficial effects at all.

Ehrenreich is so thorough in her demolition of nearly all the claims made by the exponents of positive thinking that, at times, it feels as if she’s using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. She is particularly annoyed by a book called The Secret which maintains that you can make a beautiful sexual partner materialise by your side or win the lottery simply by screwing up your eyes and concentrating. She goes to some lengths to refute such “magical thinking”, explaining in scientific detail why it is that thoughts alone cannot exercise a gravitational pull on physical objects. But is that really necessary? Books like The Secret are so obviously utter poppycock it seems foolish to devote such energy to debunking them.

More worthwhile is the chapter on “positive psychology”, an upmarket version of the same gobbledegook that has become so respectable it forms the basis of the “happiness” courses currently taught in several of Britain’s top public schools. The highpoint of the book is her encounter with Martin Seligman, the ex-President of the American Psychological Association and the father of this movement. In spite of Seligman’s intellectual pedigree, his claims can no more withstand the laser beam of her scientific scrutiny than those of Tony Robbins or Deepak Chopra.

Throughout Smile or Die, Ehrenreich presents herself as the voice of common sense and the reader is nearly always on her side, not least because she writes with such unforced authority. It is only when she tries to ally her scepticism with a critique of modern capitalism -- discovering in positive thinking a sinister plot to prevent the poor and downtrodden from protesting about their economic plight -- that her argument becomes a little thin.

Like many left-wing intellectuals, Ehrenreich thinks that the forces conspiring to preserve the capitalist economies of the West are being co-ordinated behind the scenes by a cabal of well-paid evil geniuses. How else to explain why the “historically inevitable” socialist society has failed to materialise? In fact, this belief is every bit as imaginary as the notion that buying a pink teddy bear will improve your chances of surviving breast cancer.

Nevertheless, if you can ignore the left-wing politics, Smile or Die is a wonderfully informative and entertaining book. Anyone who’s ever been taken in by a self-help guru or a motivational speaker should be locked in a room and forced to read it.

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