Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World

Tumours are a source of happiness. Accepting the laws of physics - or not - is a matter of personal choice. And getting the things you want is primarily a question of imagining what it will be like when they are yours (and perhaps berating God for not having provided them yet). This sort of patent idiocy would be disturbing enough if it lurked only on the wilder fringes of life in America, but, as Barbara Ehrenreich explains in her affronted, surprisingly cheering attack on positive thinking, mainstream culture is also riddled with its destructive tenets. Everything from health care to the global financial system has been infested.

It's not that Ehrenreich is a killjoy or curmudgeon. The last of her 20 or so books, Dancing in the Streets, was a history of collective happiness, and she begins this volume with her vision of utopia, in which "life becomes a perpetual celebration". But positive thinking, she argues, is nothing to do with happiness: it is a state of delusion.

The facts would seem to bear her out. America, the home of having a nice day, is where two-thirds of the world's antidepressants are consumed; it is a country usually found wallowing near the bottom of global happiness indices. Meanwhile its standards of education and health care remain dismal, and inequality, violence and debt are rampant. These are problems that will take more than a sunny dis­position to sort out.

But an exhortation to look on the bright side is what America is offering - in its workplaces, in its churches and in scholarship. Particularly insidious is the "law of attraction", the quite barking notion, popularised by a self-help book called The Secret, that simply visualising what you want - perfect health, or a new necklace, or a fulfilling marriage to the woman behind you in the queue at the supermarket - will draw it to you. The author's horror at those who "manifest" new handbags with the help of their credit cards is nothing in comparison to the scorn she rains down on positive thinkers who use quantum physics - "or perhaps I should say 'quantum physics'" - to explain this theory.

But Ehrenreich is at her most withering when tackling the subject that inspired the book in the first place. Diagnosed with breast cancer in 2001, she found herself trapped in a cloyingly upbeat "pink ribbon culture", in which cancer "victims" become "survivors", the dead go unmentioned in favour of celebrating those who recover, and the illness itself is no longer a deadly injustice to which a cure must be sought, but a rite of passage, imparting valuable life lessons and beautifying post-chemo effects such as tighter skin and softer hair (that is, once it grows back). Even more sinister is the insistence that a positive outlook is somehow essential to recovery - a myth, "cobbled together somewhat imaginatively" in the 1970s, that Ehrenreich, a former cellular immunologist, wearily dismantles.

In business, positive thinking can similarly, and conveniently, shift the burden of responsibility on to the individual. The self-help classic Who Moved My Cheese? offers this brand of solace to the recently laid-off: when a worker wakes up to find that his "cheese", or job, has disappeared, he should immediately "paint a picture . . . in great realistic detail, [of] sitting in the middle of a pile of all his favourite cheeses - from Cheddar to Brie". And magically, a delicious new employment opportunity will arise. Have employees swallowed this? Unlikely: but in a precarious world where failure to create "positive vibes" can be a sacking offence, few are prepared to object.

For all Ehrenreich's scepticism, no doubt shared by virtually all of her readers before they even picked up this book, millions of Americans have bought in to these ideas. A new and well-funded academic discipline, positive psychology, examines the links between happiness and desirable outcomes such as health and success. The "prosperity gospel" has a vast audience that listens to pastors such as Edwene Gaines admonish their Lord: "Now look here, God! . . . As far as I know I've done every single thing that I know to do in order to manifest this trip to Mexico City . . . So now I'm going to go right down to that travel agent and when I get there, that money had better be there!" Ehrenreich ascribes much the same sense of entitlement to the Wall Street bankers who, warned that their super-leveraged, pre-2007 banking models were unstable, fired the bearers of bad news.

This attack on banking feels like a bit of an afterthought: visualising your desires is not the same as blind greed, and, in any case, the book was conceived several years before the financial crash. But otherwise it is hard to fault the ideas in Smile or Die. The alternative that Ehrenreich offers to positive thinking's strange mixture of self-absorption, personal responsibility and blind acceptance of the status quo isn't revolutionary: all she suggests is realism, and a little critical thinking. But, coming after the circus of mindless positivity that she documents, it is as welcome as a cool drink of water.

Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World
Barbara Ehrenreich
Granta Books, 235pp, £10.99

Alyssa McDonald is assistant editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 25 January 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Afghanistan: Why we cannot win this war