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Smile or Die

I had never really thought of it in this way. I know a lot of people run into the “stop being negative” response in their organization. As it turns out, overly positive thought has drawbacks too.

The excerpt below is from Christopher Hart’s review of Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America.

Back in 2003, a US government official called Armando Falcon warned the White House that companies such as Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae were backing far too many dodgy mortgages, risking financial collapse and “contagious illiquidity in the market”. Did the White House look at tightening up regulations? Nope. They tried to sack Falcon. He was just being “negative”.

Barbara Ehrenreich’s study of American optimism at its most delusional is fascinating, often very funny, and wholly convincing. She is a distinguished journalist with a sharp eye for corporate America, but also has a deep affection for her great but increasingly troubled nation. Once America was John Wayne: stoical, taciturn and tough as hell. Now it’s a babbling neurotic on the couch, popping pills and whining about its self-esteem. What went wrong?

Ehrenreich’s antidote is the time-honoured wisdom of “realism, to the point of defensive pessimism”. Studies show that a certain level of buoyancy is synonymous with good mental health, for sure; but this means more “existential courage”, she says, than “positive thinking”. And a long, hard stare into the face of truth can be distinctly bracing, like a cold shower, a good black joke, or one of Churchill’s speeches from 1940 promising nothing but blood, toil, tears and sweat. This was hardly accentuating the positive. But it worked.

Americans, in order to have a nice day, every day, have to consume two-thirds of the world’s antidepressants, along with all those burgers and that horrible “cheese”. And as well as gobbling Prozac, they have to lie to themselves a great deal. Life coaches counsel them to look in the mirror every morning and “make affirmations” such as “I am successful! I am beautiful! I love myself!” Such statements would strike any sane person as ludicrous, boastful and untrue. Yet millions of Americans do this. The US market in “motivational products” is worth a staggering $21 billion a year.

Continue reading the review or buy the book Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America.

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