January 12, 2010

The "Tyranny" of Positive Thinking

Author Barbara Ehrenreich (Photo: REUTERS)

Positive Thinking Making Us Miserable, Says Author

The modern "tyranny" of positive thinking is to blame for society's ills and was the true cause of the financial crisis, according to a new book by author Barbara Ehrenreich.

By Anita Singh
09 Jan 2010
Telegraph UK

She said the belief that everything will turn out all right in the end if we remain optimistic and upbeat is "delusional".

What began as a 19th-century "quack theory" has become the dominant mode of thinking in the United States, she argues, influencing everything from global business decisions to the treatment of cancer patients.

Ehrenreich's book, Smile Or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World, sets out to demolish the "distinctive American ideology of positive thinking".

Speaking ahead of the book's publication in Britain next week, Ehrenreich said: "Delusion is always dangerous and the big example I would give of that is the 2008 financial meltdown. There are many things that fed into that.

"Many, many people got way over their heads in debt – ordinary people. And in what frame of mind do you assume large amounts of debt? Well, a positive frame of mind. You think that you're not going to get sick, your car's not going to break down, you're not going to lose your job and you're going to be able to pay it off.

"Mostly, though, I blame the top levels of corporate culture which, by the middle of this decade, were completely in a bubble of mandatory optimism and positive thinking."

Ehrenreich referred to the "cult-like atmosphere of high-fives" at Countrywide, the mortgage lender which became one of the biggest casualties of the subprime crisis, and claimed that executives who sounded warnings of impending financial disaster at Lehman Brothers were dismissed as "negative" thinkers.

"Corporate America had gone into this bubble of denial where bad things could never happen," she said.

Ehrenreich, a writer and sociologist, began investigating the "positive thinking" industry after she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2000. She was dismayed by "the cheerfulness of breast cancer culture", with its "sappy pink ribbons" and thousands of website and blogs urging sufferers to see their illness as life-enhancing.

In the book, she challenges the notion that a positive attitude can increase chances of survival. "There's a widespread idea – it sounds so familiar that you let it go right by you – that your immune system will be boosted if you are thinking positively," she said. "Well, there's not a whole lot to support that. And, more to the point, it's not clear that the immune system has anything to do with recovery from cancer or with whether you get it in the first place.

"When I was diagnosed, what I found was constant exhortations to be positive, to be cheerful, to even embrace the disease as if it were a gift. If that's a gift, take me off your Christmas list," she said.

The book singles out Oprah Winfrey, the talk show host, and Deepak Chopra, the self-help guru, as examples of celebrities who perpetuate the positivity industry.

In the course of her research, Ehrenreich interviewed motivational speakers, a major industry in the US. "They are brought in to corporate meetings and the message is, again and again: you can have whatever you want so long as you focus your thoughts on it. I think that's nuts, frankly."

Despite the premise of her book, published in the UK on January 14, Ehrenreich said she was not a miserable person. "I am not against having a nice day or smiling at strangers," she insisted.