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I just love the concept of this book.

The way that positive thinking is used by some people to spare themselves from having to listen to you, help you or really try to understand the reality of illness when you are seriously ill is something that comes up a lot in the chat groups for ill people I am a member of. On the surface they are being kind and offering you 'positive thoughts' but it is really about this serving their needs rather than yours.

Expressing legitimate anger is helpful and necessary. If you do this it passes quickly! Far better to vent for a little while to friends who understand than to repress all your feelings and so end up feeling unhappy far longer, in the end.

The chapter on positive thinking and illness was good but really only scratched the surface. I was somewhat disappointed by it as there was so much that could have been said on this topic and I'd have loved lots more comments on this topic to have been in the book. But then I am biased and this is a special interest subject of mine and probably this short chapter was more than enough for the average reader, so fair enough.

The way the author ties in positive thinking brainwashing to political apathy in the last chapter was very well done too and I couldn't agree more with her conclusions. As someone involved in trying to fire people up to participate in activism I absolutely find the 'nicey nicey at all costs' mindlessly positive attitude to be an enormous obstacle in effecting real positive change. Just enormous.

I highly recommend at least searching your local library for a copy of this book, it deserves to be widely read.
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on 11 January 2010
Having read 'Who moved my Cheese?'/ Authentic Happiness etc with makes happiness seem so easy to attain , just an attitude really, it is most refreshing to read 'Smile or Die' which comes across as a well researched and clear thinking explanation of how being a realist is more likely to succeed than the endless Pollyanism of Positive Psychology. I was totally enthralled by Seligman's 'Authentic Happiness' and its ideas,even though it didn't seem to work . It must be me, I thought. However, I realise that all emotions, whether joyful or painful, are markers that point out what is/isn't happening in our lives. In her thought provoking study, Ehrenreich neatly lays out the 'Quo bono' question? Who benefits from Positive Psychology ? Big business and the state! WHo pays for research into Positive Psychology? Big business. Why would they do this apart, from humanitarian motives, wanting to share the 'good' attitudes that got them their megabucks, with the rest of us? Well no actually. The writer points out the rather sinister lining behind the 'positive' facade, showing how brain washing under the Shah and in Korea meant that if you questioned the status quo, the poverty and brutality that existed you were spreading defeatism which was a punishable crime. She points out how financial realists such as Gelbrand, who ran the property section of Lehmans were already pointing out that they seriously needed to rethink their 'positive pollyana' attitude, as early as 2006. The CEO, fired him for being negative! She points out that anxiety and realism are tools that help us to survive rather than hinder us. That unchecked optimism that is not based on fact is an undesirable and often dangerous attitude. After all who would go to sea in a storm without safety rafts,flares etc and feel at ease... a child perhaps ? Ehrenreich clearly illustrates how the assumption that 'positive' = good and desirable, has helped us get into the mess we are in at the moment. As she says, if we realistically examine our circumstances, we have far more chance of putting things right and so being happy. As a Psychotherapist and someone interested in living life to the full, I would highly recommend this book.
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on 14 February 2010
Barbara Ehrenreich is in danger of becoming an American institution. She's that rare thing, a genuine liberal investigative journalist, one who's prepared to put in the hours and do the legwork to get the story. You get the feeling that there were hundreds like her in the 60s and 70s, digging the dirt on corrupt politicians and exploitative business practices, but now they're a dying breed. So, more power to her elbow.

In her latest book she takes on the global `positive thinking' movement. Successive chapters outline the roots of positive thinking in the reaction to Calvinism, tracing its contemporary manifestations in multinational businesses, academia and religion (NB: to someone who had assumed that all US preachers were encouraging their congregations to strive for Armageddon sooner rather than later, it's actually quite reassuring to know that most of the big churches are in fact run by pseudo-businessmen whose main hook isn't Apocalypse now but a nice car soon if you pray hard enough).

The best chapter in the book demonstrates how psychology departments have come under the spell of so called positive psychology, even though the evidence for its value is weak verging on non-existent. Indeed, I'm tempted to say that in one short chapter she decisively knocks down the claims put forward by Martin Seligman and a host of lesser figures in any number of recent bestsellers. This is something else that sets Ehrenreich apart from most modern journalists - she has a deep and rigorous scientific background, understands the scientific method and clearly cares about getting it right.

You also have to applaud her conclusions. We are in danger of falling in love with `magical thinking' to the detriment of rationality and realism; positive thinking, when it goes to the extreme of `purging' negative influences from your life, leads to a blinkered view of the world that can be dangerous; and it is behind the distasteful trend towards victim blaming - after all, if you can control the world by the power of your thoughts and bad things still happen to you, you must in some way have wanted them.

But I do have some complaints. The last chapter, on why `Positive Thinking Caused the Credit Crunch' is very weak. The economic downturn is a phenomenon so complex and multifaceted that you can't possibly blame it on one cause, least of all the actions of a small bunch of footloose consultants. Ehrenreich sees that positive thinking was in the air during the naughties, sees that `irrational exuberance' contributed to the credit crunch, and assumes a causal link - in this she's doing exactly what she criticised Seligman et al for doing in the previous chapter. She doesn't have nearly enough evidence to show that one caused the other. Indeed, it's extremely unlikely - humans generally tend to believe that prevailing conditions will continue and dislike listening to criticism; we don't need a positive thinking industry to make us greedy and arrogant. There were no business coaches during the South Sea Bubble.

The second complaint is more subtle. We've had uncritical positive thinking books for years. Ehrenreich's book is an important counterblast against them. But, I suspect, the truth lies somewhere between. After all, there are some areas of like in which positive thinking clearly helps - in dating, for example, it's clearly good advice to smile for the first six months and only reveal your feelings of worthlessness and the deep, gaping emptiness at the centre of your life when you're sure of the relationship (possibly not then). I'd have liked to hear more from a sceptic about what she thinks positive thinking might be able to do. After all, I'm reminded of Churchill's maxim `be an optimist: there's not point being anything else'. Churchill, of course, was lifelong manic depressive.

There's nothing subtle about the final whinge: the cover price. What were the publishers thinking of? This is not a long book - it scrapes to 206 pages of large, well-spaced lettering - what's that, 60,000 words? Less? And it's clear that the design budget was zero. I'm sorry but I'd never pay such a high cover price for something so slight. I'm sure Ms Ehrenreich won't mind me saying so - after all she encourages constructive complaining.
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on 20 January 2010
Ever bought a self-help book that didn't deliver what it promised? Then Smile or Die (published in the US as Bright-sided) is for you. This is a forensic diagnosis of why boundless positive thinking turns our minds to mush, deracinates managers, and helps make us willing believers in economic bubbles.

Ehrenreich has several distinct strands to her book. She kicks off with her experience at the age of about sixty when diagnosed with breast cancer. To her amazement she stumbled across on an entire industry in the US devoted to presenting the disease as little short of the best thing that could ever happen to a woman.

Other chapters analyse how the school of mindless optimism was born with Mary Baker Eddy, fed the subprime scandal and has come to infect mainstream corporate management thinking. Anyone who has sat through a toe-curling session by a motivational speaker at a company off-site will chuckle in recognition.

Ehrenreich has evidently survived her brush with cancer without resorting to a whacky, manic outlook. And her book is far from down at the mouth. It is a good read, sceptical but sane, probing yet witty. There are especially amusing interviews with "positive thinking" gurus at various stages of derangement.

One gap is that she does not discuss cognitive behaviour therapy. This is successful in treating depression by eliminating negative thoughts that tend to reinforce themselves - at least the National Health Service, which now stumps up for the treatment, believes so.

In short, this is a book for grown-ups baffled by the credulity of others, and perhaps their own. A life-changing book? No, but its explanation of how fads have entered the mainstream will certainly generate a wry smile.
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on 6 April 2010
Ehrenreich came face to face with the subject of positive thinking when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Buried under an avalanche of pink ribbons, teddy bears, and bogus claims for the value of positive thinking in beating cancer (hence the title Smile or Die!) she began to look into the pervasiveness of positive think-ism in American society in her usual thorough, good humoured and insightful manner.

It is everywhere. There are "Christian" denominations that are devoted to it that offer a materialist heaven on earth - "God wants you to be rich!" Self help (or help yourself) manuals that claim that one has only to imagine wealth, have a picture board of desired consumer durables to worship every morning, and before you know it . . . In the workplace, personal relations and politics the power of positive thinking is privileged over rational and sceptical thinking.

Most disturbingly of all, the American Psychological Association is up to its neck in positive think-ism. The interview that Ehrenreich conducts with their president Martin Segilman is notable, in that her scepticism - which ought to be welcomed by a scientist - turns this guru of positive thinking into an ill mannered and ratty prima donna. His happiness equation, apart from its laughably unscientific nature, posits that someone's circumstances will have a minimal effect on their feelings of happiness or unhappiness: it is all in the mind. A cheap and cheerful solution, and no doubt a great relief to the rich who might think negatively about the implications for their tax rates of improving the social circumstances of the majority. Ehrenreich also covers the origins of this malign mania, and quite plausibly and with plenty of evidence, roots it in the Calvinist beliefs that would have been pervasive in Americans original northern European colonisers and migrants.

The self absorbed examination and policing of ones thoughts, the obsession with personal and often financial gain, the exhortations to cut all negative people out of your life (sceptics? a clinically depressed relative or friend?) seems to me to be essentially onanistic, insular and deeply pernicious doctrine. No need to think about wider economic, political and social questions either: just think positive . . . even fake it . . . and everything will be all right. Ehrenreich's brilliant book is the antidote to this nonsense, one that empowers you to think critically about positive thinking, that will make you smile too. It deserves a wide readership.
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on 6 September 2010
There are many learned contributions to the reviews here but little personal experience, so as I am not very learned I am going to try to fill that gap.
I was brought up by christian scientists and was fascinated to see that their religion was an instigator of this Positive thinking movement. I always knew I had problems with people advocating it as a cure for cancer, but was unaware that my experience was so relevent.
My mother died at the age of 58 from cancer. By chance my brother took the call that gave the diagnosis as CLL, our father would never has passed on the news as it represented 'mortal mind', that bugbear of a christian science outlook on life and rightly equated with 'negative thought'. CLL is currently controlled by treatment, but I have no idea how well medical science would have done in 1977 when my mother died. I do know however that she would have died in a more supportive compassionate environment and would not have said to me a week before she died 'I feel I'm letting everyone down'. At the time she was in great pain, her body was distended by the cancer so that she looked pregnant, she was throwing up blood - and this is only what I know, what she let me know. My father died at the age of 75 from an undiagnosed cancer in his abdomen - my doctor thought it most likely an untreated prostate cancer. His own father had been treated for this in the conventional manner and had gone on to live to 96.
My father adopted christian science as a young man of 19, just before he went to war. Many of us have a well developed world view when we are 19. The difference is that we let experience and the experience of others adapt our thoughts and occasionally bring us back to reality from our fantasy and wish-fulfilment. A christian scientist - as a positive thinker - must reject any challenge to their views.
This is the key value of this book and the questioning of Positive thinking. We must never give up our ability to think critically. If you are interested I was 22 when my mother died and I have now been christian science free for 34 years!!
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VINE VOICEon 6 September 2010
One phrase I'd always liked was 'a cynic is only what an optimist calls a realist' and this book just bears that out. What it shows is that perky optimism is all very well but if it precludes the consideration of facts or contrary evidence then it can be very dangerous.
It is all very well to be positive but what it does show all well is that a culture of ONLY seeing the good stuff had led to some very disturbing trends like staff being pushed out if they don't toe the party happy line or even a possible contributor to the global financial meltdown we've just had
Its very readable and makes it points very clearly - I suppose that its not a license to be a grumpy old man but it does say its OK to recognise that there are minus points in any given situation and these should be considered
So it positively OK to be a pessimist .. lol
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on 7 August 2011
Having just finished Smile or Die and I have to say I found it a joy to read. It is impeccably well researched and written in a balanced, engaging way. The only point I would call referee on is Ehenreich's seeming conviction that antidepressants have been perfected and that talk therapy has been finally displaced by them.

As an instance of this, I quote her on page 149 (of my 2010 UK paperback edition) as saying, "Effective antidepressants had become available at the end of the 1980's and these could be prescribed by a primary care physician after a 10 minute diagnostic interview, so what was left for a psychologist to do?" She elsewhere acknowledges that the US currently consumes two thirds of the world supply of antidepressants (page 3). It's strange that she doesn't ask the obvious question: if antidepressants are so effective then why is the US not the happiest and most mentally balanced place on earth? Why, as antidepressants are been prescribed like sweets, are mental distress rates going through the roof in recent years there? The jury is still out on the benefits and limitations of currently available antidepressants at the time of writing.

The corollary of this is the omission of an examination of cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), as another reviewer has noted. CBT is a mainstream psychological treatment that is a lot older (dating to the 1970's) and much more influential (currently it is highly regarded by national and international health organisations) than positive psychology. It has a lot of empirical studies attempting to measure its effectiveness against other talk therapies and against medication for a variety of mental disorders. The cognitive aspect of it is heavily invested in thought monitoring and thought management. It seeks to identify and replace various 'negative' thoughts (which, according the theory, 'cause' negative feelings) with broadly 'positive', constructive thoughts. For instance, check out David D. Burns' "Feeling Good" to see this presented. Most crucially, it locates a person's mental problems in the person's own head, and places the burden on the patient to "work on" and "fix" their own "faulty" thinking patterns. Although CBT is more sophisticated than the more dumbed-down positivity streams, it bears some striking resemblances to this conceptual gene pool. This is right in the territory of Ehrenreich's book, but it is overlooked.

Crucially, CBT typically balances the cognitive "thought monitoring/thought management" aspect with an action orientated behavioral therapy element. This is closer to where Ehrenreich sees the right location for one's energies to be targeted, albeit she would urge community-based collective action while CBT usually urges individualist efforts. A critical review of this topic and its place within her thesis would have been fitting, but we will have to seek it elsewhere it seems.
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on 21 September 2010
Barbara Ehrenreich is to be congratulated for producing a long-overdue criticism, not only of the 'positive thinking' industry, but of an outlook within which many have become trapped. 'Positive thinking' may not be without its value. But as Ehrenreich points out, it also facilitates the denial of reality, behind which individuals shelter, often with the sinister encouragement of elements unable or unwilling to entertain more collectivist strategies for personal improvement. Ehrenreich's historical interpretations, linking the rise of positive thinking to a re-orientation of American theology away from Calvinism in the mid-19th century are interesting. One hopes, perhaps in vain, that this work will give rise to a wide discussion in which opinions do not inevitably become polarised into those for and those against the author's viewpoint (positivists and negativists?). So much radical thought in America, both before and since the time of Dr Benjamin Spock, has sadly got bogged down in that way.
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on 8 August 2010
Very interesting story of the origins of 'positive thinking' backed up with fine research sources. An eye-opener, and one of those books that gets you to see things from a new angle.
From the early beginnings with christain science countering victorian miserable-ism through to pseudo-science of think yourself happy and cure your cancer, the author weaves a thread. The happy worker reconciled to his/her lousy job provides a horrifying glimpse into the corporate world.
The last bit on happiness theory from economists etc. I would judge less good. Ok so some of the well-known academics in the field are not above cashing in on their knowledge, and pandering to the happiness gurus. But the search for the good life goes on, regardless. Maybe if they seek ways to be happIER they might have a better handle on this.
Overall, I'd say a very good read, very insightful.
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