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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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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 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 1 February 2010
I was disappointed with this, having loved Ehrenreich's other books of real-world social reportage.

I'd argue that what Ehrenreich attacks here is not, as she suggests, Positive Thinking (and by unfair association Seligman's Positive Psychology) but Pollyanna-ism and conformity. She blames positive thinking for totalitarianism and narrow-thinking in states and corporations; but dissidents aren't punished for being 'negative' -- they're punished for not conforming and for not flattering the ego of higher management. When management hear something they don't like they *call it* 'being negative' because that's how they hide their own ineptitude, short-termism and egotism. Pollyanna-ism and conformity are fair targets; but perhaps not such a good hook-line for a book?

Here, I think, Ehrenreich's own emotional experience with some cancer internet-groups has got in the way of a thorough exploration of the subject. A brief book (200 pages), it seems to skirt around the issues and leaves many important topics unexplored, most glaringly the huge corporate interest in 'negative' psychology and in medicating social problems; the role and mechanisms of placebo; the evidence from 20 years of psycho-neuro-immunology; recent discoveries about neuro-plasticity; and the growing body of evidence on mind-body interaction unveiled by modern brain-scanning techniques.

Even when she has an easy target (the self-indulgent nonsense of a 'Cosmic Ordering Service') she doesn't demolish it the way she could. And, by association, she ends up implying that such superstition is an integral part of Martin Seligman's Positive Psychology work, which it most definitely is not. It is true that many 'Life Coaches' have adopted the philosophy of 'wish for things and you'll get them without having to do any hard work' as a way of extracting money from the gullible, but it's unfair to beat Seligman with that stick.

Ehrenreich has some interesting observations about the Positive Psychology 'movement', but I think she ends up throwing out the baby with the bathwater, not even discussing the important notion of shifting from thinking about problems to thinking about solutions. And, aside from ignoring the influence of the pharmaceutical companies, she also ignores the 'Negative Psychology' movement so prevalent in the US over the last 60 years or so: the evidence of the unnecessary suffering caused by poorly applied Freudian psychoanalytic methods, which by encouraging people to repeatedly relive traumatic events and emotions may in many cases actually deepen and perpetuate suffering, the only main benefit being paying of the analyst's mortgage.

For decades the mental health industry focused on how to eliminate illness, rather than how to promote wellness. Thus the conditions that give rise to illness continue, and we simply try to medicate them away. Discomfort with this view has been around at least since the 50s and 60s, with Fromm, Maslow, Rogers and Ellis among others. So Seligman's 'Positive Psychology' doesn't mean 'Pollyannish' but means promoting wellness rather than eliminating illness. This simple definition doesn't appear in Ehrenreich's book -- and for someone so (rightly) focused on scientific principles, failing to define one's terms is a major omission.

The author also, like many others, seems to hold to the dogma that Randomised Controlled Trials (RCTs) are the only 'valid' form of scientific evidence, as if case studies hold no value at all. The limitations of such trials are not discussed, and interpretations of the results are taken as unarguable. For instance, she cites a study showing no benefit of outcome over the control group among cancer patients who attended group psychotherapy, and so concludes there is 'no evidence' that psychotherapy (in whatever form, it seems) can be beneficial with cancer patients.

Anyone familiar with psychotherapy knows how important details are: one therapist may get much better results than another; one type of therapy may be better indicated for certain conditions, or for certain patients, than others. So all that was shown by that particular RCT was that for those patients, receiving that particular type of group therapy, facilitated by that particular therapist, there were not very good results. As I say, the author makes no attempt to balance such evidence with the evidence from psychoneuroimmunology, neuro-plasticity experiments, or the accumulated evidence from the placebo-groups of all those RCTs she is so keen on.

Ehrenreich rails against the 'interests' of the Positive Psychology movement; but in ignoring the body of evidence for the influence of emotional state on physical health, and instead focusing solely on drug and chemical causes and solutions to health problems, she ends up reinforcing the interests of a far bigger unaccountable lobby: the major drugs companies. A disappointing position for a left-leaning social commentator to end up in.

So, over all, I found this to be a less than rigorous examination of the topic.
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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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on 13 January 2010
I am overwhelmed with admiration for this book. Most of Barbara Ehrenreich's examples are taken from America, the heartland of 'positive thinking', but this British reader found herself becoming uncomfortably aware of how far this dangerous and foolish way of thinking has extended its slimy tentacles across the Atlantic too. Ehrenreich reveals it for the superstitious, cruel nonsense it is. A wake-up call.
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on 6 March 2010
My background is that in January 2009 I had major neurological surgery. I was given a multi-bacterial, hospital borne post-operative infection which was badly diagnosed. Part of my face was eaten away by infection and my eye was also disfigured by errors during the surgery. The upshot is that I have been left grossly facially disfigured for life. The infection also utterly destroyed my hair. I was a very attractive woman before this was done to me. I have a number of complaints about the NHS doctors and nurses whom I have encountered, and it is not appropriate to air them here, especially a legal action is pending.

Amongst comments from inept medical "professionals" that have infuriated me have been "No you're not attractive any more and never will be again, but you should see it as an opportunity to develop another aspect of your personality" from a plain as a pikestaff registrar who resembled a giant poodle and unbelievably worked as a specialist in reconstructing damaged faces. And from the Lead Clinician plastic surgeon who had been partly responsible for this situation: "You WILL feel happier about you face......I have patients who look like you who are happy to be seen in public"

I have looked at a number of facial disfigurement websites and found them sadly lacking, and in particular loathe some of the suggested strategies for dealing with disfigurement. One of the more inept suggested that disfigured people subjected to unwanted, intrusive and sometimes abusive attention from strangers should see it as an overture to making a new friend.

Hence I have bought a number of medical books from Amazon.

I absolutely loved Ehrenreich's approach, which is based on her own experiences of being force-fed "positive thinking" clap-trap and a standard approach of treating a patient (in her case, a cancer patient) as a dim-witted pink-loving jerk. Well, let's face it, the only point of such control is to make the lives of the medical profession easier. I myself was a qualified lawyer before this illness was visited on me by NHS incompetence, and would never have suggested to my clients that they should be cheerful about their problems. It absolutely seems to be an approach only from the medical profession, and one cannot help but think its sole purpose is to make their lives easier. After all, it is always going to be easier in any profession to deal with some smiling nincompoop instead of someone who is asking relevant, educated questions that they are incapable of answering.

It was also interesting to see how the author ties this silly "be jolly and always think positive" into other dangerous waters, such as the fall of the economy
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on 2 January 2012
simple question - have you ever bought a self help book that failed? (are you now a millionaire since reading and using the book, have you lost weight, are you happy?)

this book starts on the author's journey through breast cancer. through this terrible time in her life, she came across lots of charities, websites, blogs etc. that were promoting "positive thinking" - the more she looked into this she found what a crok of s&^% "postive thinking" is around breast cancer (it's a huge multi billion $ business in the usa) - to the extent that cancer patients whose condition had worsened quite frequently stated that getting cancer was the best thing that hapened to them! - when she questioned the sites and found how hard it was to maintain a positive mind set she was told to see a shrink. - so the book takes the reaqder on the journey from the beginning of positive thinking to why this "hoping" mind set has completely destroyed america - george bush refusing to listen to any issues that weren't positive, lehman brothers ceo constantly taking risks - hoping things would get better, how corporate america fired employees because they weren't positive enough, how redundant employees (in usa) now blame themselves for being unemployed as if it was their fault (they were made redundant from the constant downsizing that needed to be done due to ceos taking huge risks in the boom time) - i think you get the point about the book.

what i like about this book is that it's about time to let people know it's ok to have negative thoughts - they stop you from making stupid decisions (complete negativity is a bad way to be but so is complete positivity.)
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