Don’t put on a happy face

Published

Tom Bonnick

I never imagined that one day I’d be reading a book with “positive thinking” in the title — save for some unlikely gun-pointing-head scenario — and least of all that I would, a week later, be singing its praises.

And yet, here we are. Barbara Ehrenreich has achieved both of these feats in one fell swoop with Smile or Die, and thankfully, the cursed phrase in question comes attached with the qualifier “How Positive Thinking Fooled America & The World” (interestingly, in America, the book has been published under the somewhat more palatable title “Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America”. Evidently, Americans can swallow the thought of being undermined, but not fooled.)

Much like Ben Goldacre’s outstanding Bad Science, Smile or Die is a relentlessly intelligent, often hilarious and sometimes horrifying, sustained attack on the crasser elements of a popular culture already chronically plagued by crassness — in this case, a burgeoning fixation with positive thinking, and the ironclad grip with which it now holds much of the Western world.

Ehrenreich was inspired to produce this counter-manifesto after a diagnosis of breast cancer led to her being confronted with one of the more insidious displays of the cult of positive thinking: the exhortations that, during her “difficult time”, she must remain upbeat.

The subtle implications of these demands are — according to similar critics of positive thinking — that negative thinking must be to blame for cancer in the first place; that the onus of recovery is placed, irrationally, on sufferers of the disease.

The effect of re-imagining sickness as an opportunty is, according to Ehrenreich’s unimpeachable reasoning, “ to transform breast cancer into a rite of passage—not an injustice or a tragedy to rail against but a noral marker in the life cycle … And in our implacably optimistic breast cancer culture, the disease offers more than the intangible benefits of spiritual upwards mobility. You can defy the inevitable disfigurements and come out, on the survivor side, actually prettier, sexier, more femme.”

It is her ability to parse from within the wider healthcare industry the complex distinctions between genuine sentiment and cynical mercantilism, to identify the broadly shared tropes of organised religion, pop-psychology and pseudo-science, and to expose the lazier elements of the media who swallow wholesale the empty posturing of positive thinking advocates that makes Ehrenreich truly stand out.

urlShe traces self-delusion throughout history, points out its worst excesses (I didn’t think it could get much more distasteful than in the memoir The Gift of Cancer: A Call to Awakening, sample line: “cancer is your ticket to your real life” — but that was only chapter one!) and argues that positive thinking “destroyed the economy”, all with the same conviction of purpose and razor-sharp wit.

As with Bad Science, the experience of reading Ehrenreich is enhanced throughout by the interior understanding that this book is an important and necessary one. Jenni Murray, of Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour — another survivor of breast cancer with a similar distaste for positive thinking — has announced that she wishes she had written Smile or Die, so great was its effect on her. I am merely incredibly glad to have read it.

Smile or Die is out now in paperback, published by Granta, RRP £10.99.