Sunday, 31 January 2010

Smile or Die

Smile or Die is Barbara Ehrenreich's swipe at the positive thinking industry: the motivational speakers; the megachurch pastorpreneurs; the Oprah-psychology of positive-thoughts-attract-positive-things; the proliferation of self-help manuals and visualisation techniques; the rictus smile of optimism that outshines every sadness, anger or doubt. Her bibliography gives a snapshot of this cultural phenomenon: The Gift of Cancer: A Call to Awakening, Think and Grow Rich!, The Power of Positive Thinking, Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential. She attacks the positive thinking movement as dishonest, exploitative and the latest form of cultural tyranny.

Ehrenreich traces the roots of positive thinking to the Calvinism brought to America by the first settlers. In time, this came to be viewed by sections of the population as an oppressive form of religious pessimism. Ideas of fear, judgement and the punishment of God predominated. The terrors of Predestination became the locus of all theological thinking, practice and discourse. Sinful thoughts and sinful actions in an individual were a sure sign that they were damned to eternal separation from God. A theological smog settled over the nation and the only way to escape its suffocating effect was to work, be industrious and busy. In this atmosphere, the Protestant Work Ethic was conceived.

By the nineteenth century, this dour, judgemental religiosity was being called into question. A theological and cultural thaw began to take place after the hard winter of Calvinism and the "New Thought Movement" emerged, attracting such followers as Mary Baker Eddy and William James, the author of The Varieties of Religious Experience. Harnessing the power of our thoughts, they believed, could cure us from all emotional and physical ills and bring us success. However, this was not so much a break with the judgementalism of the old religion but more a repackaging of Calvinist attitudes, albeit with a shiny happy people veneer. Ehrenreich writes

...the most striking continuity between the old religion and the new positive thinking lies in their common insistence on work - the constant internal work of self monitoring. The Calvinist monitored his or her thoughts and feelings for signs of laxness, sin, and self-indulgence, while the positive thinker is ever on the lookout for "negative thoughts" charged with anxiety or doubt. As sociologist Micki McGee writes of the positive-thinking self help literature, using language that harks back to its religious antecedents, "continuous and never-ending work on the self is offered not only as a road to success but also to a kind of secular salvation."

The viral spread of positive-thinking has contaminated huge areas of modern life. Nothing is a "problem", everything is a "challenge" and an "opportunity" for self-improvement. We are encouraged to "big up" everyone and everything; avoid anything that has "negative vibes" and might be a "downer", including the biggest "downer", death. Our energies are to be mobilised in order to "stay positive" and if you are not positive then you are not putting in the work. Ehrenreich contends that this imbecilic optimism masks reality, airbrushing out all that is difficult, mysterious and unsettling in human life. For example, those "pessimistic" analysts who warned that the American subprime housing market was about to implode and that the financial markets were teetering on the edge of an economic abyss were drowned out by the whooping cheers and high five exchanges in company boardrooms as executives opened their bonus envelopes. Nobody wanted to hear the party-pooping Cassandras.

Ehrenreich presents a compelling case for the prosecution but her proposed alternative is less convincing. "Human intellectual progress," she writes, "results from our long struggle to see things "as they are", or in the most universally comprehensible way, and not as projections of our own emotions...What we call the the slow-dawning understanding that the world is unfolding according to its own inner algorithms of cause and effect, probability and chance, without any regard for human feelings." Ehrenreich appears to put her faith in human progress and the driving force of evolutionary biology. At no point does she examine the concept of hope. Are optimism and hope just synonyms or does the virtue of hope have a more profound quality? Is there a hope that I can personally participate in or are all our hopes projections for a distant future that remain out of my reach? Is my best hope in scientific, political and social progress or am I asking too much of these disciplines? If I am to trust in the perfection of human structures what happens to my exercise of personal freedom? Is there a Hope that encompasses all the greater and lesser hopes of daily living and in which I can put my trust?

Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America & the World, Barbara Ehrenreich, Granta Books, 2009.