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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