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The curse of positive thinking

When Barbara Ehrenreich finished her latest book, she was left with the dilemma of what to do with all the self-help books she had amassed in the course of her research.

"I decided to get them off my bookshelf and was thinking I would make an effort to get them to a community college library or a prison library or something."

She pauses, as if thoughtfully, then scoffs, "Nah! These are going in the recycling bin. I can't in good conscience pass this stuff on."

Ehrenreich, a 68-year-old New Yorker, is not the kind of woman you can easily imagine embracing New Age concepts like the power of positive thinking, even if she hadn't just published a book called Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America & The World.

A serious writer and journalist, with iron-grey hair and a bleak sense of humour, she is best-known for her book Nickel and Dimed, an examination of the minimum wage in America.

Ehrenreich, a mother of two, had her first run-in with positive thinking when she was diagnosed with breast cancer and was encouraged by fellow patients, as well as medical staff, to embrace the disease, to think of it as a 'gift', to take champion cyclist Lance Armstrong's lead and see cancer as 'the best thing that's ever happened to me'.

Ehrenreich was horrified. Her natural feelings towards cancer were ones of anger, but when she tried to express these, she was pacified with 'yucky' pink ribbons, candles, teddies and other infantilising breast cancer merchandise.

She was told she had a bad attitude towards recovery, yet, cynicism and bad attitude intact -- she is a New Yorker, after all -- she survived cancer and escaped the 'pink, sticky sentiment' that came as part and parcel of her experience.

It wasn't until she began researching her next book, Bait & Switch, a study of laid-off white-collar workers in America, that she discovered the phenomenon of positive thinking had a much further reach than the oncology wards of hospitals.

"I went to a lot of networking meetings and pep talks and I began to hear the same sort of things that were said to breast cancer patients, which is 'this isn't really a bad thing that's happening to you; it's a growth opportunity; you're going to be so much happier as a result of this, so don't complain'. It's not a matter of changing anything about the recession or corporate policy or, in the case of cancer, environmental policies, it's just you. It's all YOU."

Soon she found positive thinking everywhere, spreading amoeba-like across America, Europe and the rest of the world. Oprah Winfrey is one of the movement's biggest supporters, dedicating entire shows and live webcasts to books like The Secret, one of the biggest successes of the 'positive living' genre. Even more cynical chat show hosts like Larry King invited its author Rhonda Byrne onto his show. Ehrenreich's 'negative' voice is a lone one in a sea of what she calls 'mass delusion'.

"You can look at it in a conspiratorial way and say this is a masterful method of social control. Telling people not only do they have to assent to whatever the status quo is but they have to act happy about it -- that same sort of thing has been used in the Soviet Union."

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Indeed, the movement is not as new age as you might think, originating with the New Thought movement in the 19th century. So why has it become so overwhelmingly popular in the last two decades?

"I would say two reasons. One is that this became a business in itself. A lot of people are employed as motivational speakers, life coaches, career coaches, or they're peddling DVDs and CDs or books that will teach you how to become an instant millionaire." (The industry is estimated to be worth anything between $9bn and $21bn.)

"The second factor is in the last two decades American corporations began to adopt this more and more as a management method, especially in the age of downsizing.

"When it was no longer possible to provide the traditional incentive of a secure job, what are you going to do to motivate people? Well, you bring in a motivational speaker! Or you make them all read Who Moved My Cheese? and in true Stalinist fashion they all read it and come to work and discuss it." A political activist in the '60s and '70s, Ehrenreich says positive thinking encourages dangerous levels of apathy in its followers.

"It's kind of an admission that you can't change the world in any actual material physical way, so you just have to change your mind about it. I'm very concerned with why there has been such passivity in my own country in the face of so much economic insult and injury."

Not only that, if your hopes and dreams fail to materialise, it lays the blame squarely at your door, whether you're a victim of cancer who hasn't managed to heal herself or an unemployed worker who hasn't managed to think himself out of poverty.

Take this quote from Deepak Chopra, responding to a letter from a woman who could not seem to cure her cancer, hard as she tried. "As far as I can tell," he wrote, "you are doing all the right things to recover. You just have to continue doing them until the cancer is gone for good.

"I know it is discouraging to make great progress only to have it come back again, but sometimes cancer is simply very pernicious and requires the utmost diligence and persistence to eventually overcome it."

The concept that you're just not trying hard enough is "smug and cruel", says Ehrenreich. "Like Rhonda Byrne [author of The Secret] thinking the Jews brought on the Holocaust with negative thinking. It's utterly distasteful to me and I think the gratifying thing about the response to my book so far has been the number of people who write to me and say 'thank God someone said it'.

"I have a little group of 'negative friends' now. In the course of doing this research, I was so thrilled to find a handful of people who are really questioning positive psychology and we formed a little group that calls itself 'the Negateers' and that's been a jolly group for me."

For all those believers who call her a churlish sourpuss, she says she is not against happiness, nor does she think there is anything noble about suffering. "I would like to see more smiles, more laughter, more hugs, more happiness and, better yet, joy. "The first step is to recover from the mass delusion that is positive thinking."

As our interview finishes, I am about to say 'have a nice day', but stop myself, wondering if this might be a little too positive. Should I bid her good day?

"No thanks," she says with a laugh. "I have other plans."

Smile Or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America & The World is out now, £10.99, published by Granta Negative energy: Barbara Ehrenreich

Buy this book from eason.ie

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