Smile or Die: Barbara Ehrenreich at the RSA

The managing director of a business I used to work for once demanded from the firm’s staff that they would enjoy working for the firm: he told everyone they had to “have fun” in a droll, distinctly unhumorous Mancunian accent. It sounded more like a threat than anything else.

Barbara Ehrenreich would have sympathised with us. In discussing her latest book “Smile or Die” at the RSA last week (and all over other media as well – she was on both BBC radio and tv the same day), she attacked current orthodoxy that one had to think positively about everything – to see every knockback as an opportunity, and every kick in the teeth as a positive event.

It was an interesting thesis, though she didn’t wholly win me over: it is generally easier to get on with our lives if we have a positive outlook than otherwise, albeit that, in Ehrenreich’s words, we are deluding ourselves.

She started her war on the positive after she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She reacted strongly against the advice to keep a positive outlook, and started to investigate the culture of positive thinking. She found that there was no evidence to support the view that maintaining an optimistic view would increase the likelihood of survival. She reckoned her scientific background (she used to work in cellular immunology) enabled her to sceptical view proposed mechanisms through which positive thinking is said to work: there is no link between optimism and a healthy immune system, and no mechanism by which a healthy immune system could have helped her survive her cancer (as she had been told).

She like she was treated as if she had two diseases – the first, an aggressive and pernicious cancer; the second – her bad attitude.

She railed against the view that a positive outlook can influence the material world – “the secret” used to sell self-help manuals around the world. She said that those seeking to prove the benefits of positive thinking were guilty of cherry picking – presenting only the evidence and examples that support their arguments, ignoring evidence against it.

In the corporate world, delusional optimism is a necessary prerequisite to succeed. Any form of realism is seen as dissent. Failure to smile and spread good cheer means that you will be perceived as “not being a team player”. She met Wall Street bankers who were aware that the pre-crunch boom could only lead to disaster, but who couldn’t say anything for fear of being fired. (Paul Moore, former head of regulatory risk management at HBoS was apparently fired for raising his similar fears – effectively, for doing his job.)

She described the “mandatory optimism” required in America, in all walks of life. She thought it was rife in politics, citing the need to toe the line and remain positive (rather than realistically critical) as key to the USA’s failure to adequately plan for the aftermath of the war in Iraq: conceiving of failure and planning for its possibility simply wasn’t an acceptable option to the strategists in the White House. Any politician who failed to exhibit a positive attitude today would be doomed to fail, whatever their manifesto promises.

Ehrenreich had lots of issues with this prevailing positivism. Firstly, it is delusional, which could only be a mistake. Secondly, it is cruel: it implies that people’s problem lie within themselves – that it is their bad attitude, their negativism, that lead to personal disasters (be that redundancy or tsunami – Ehrenreich quoted an American commentator who believed those caught up in the Asian tsunami of 2005 had only themselves to blame). And thirdly because such wilful ignorance stops us taking reasonable mitigating action. It provides a sticking plaster for society rather than tackling the real issues facing us.

She described positive thinking as a system of control, rather than the empowering personal tool practitioners portray. This crosses into the area of emotional labour, such as when supermarket checkout staff are exhorted to smile, when employees are told they will “have fun” whether they want to or not – when our very emotions become a commodity.

Everything that Ehrenreich said made sense. And yet… When push comes to shove, I would rather have, and be with others who have, a positive attitude than not – albeit one which is tempered with a healthy dose of realism. If we believe that positive outcomes are possible, it seems clear that we are more likely to work towards them than if we don’t – for instance, if we really believe that whatever we do we cannot hope to survive climate change, society would not work towards mitigating climate change.

Ehrenreich also seemed to conflate positive thinking with positive psychology; she expressly disagreed with much of the views of Martin Seligman, one of the founders of positive psychology as a practice. As I understand it, positive psychology is about looking at and working with what works well, rather than looking at situations in which people are not functioning well, and building psychological models around that. That seems to be quite different from the dogma of positive thinking. Perhaps her book explains her views on positive psychology – in her talk, her focus seemed clearly on the very different, and clearly delusional, positive thinking. She believed that a focus on happiness was misjudged – happiness is too vague a concept and subject to whim: small changes can greatly influence our happiness.

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