Barbara Ehrenreich: Smile or Die

I just finished washing watching (!) the RSA Animate version of journalist and social critic Barbara Ehrenreich’s talk on the perils of positive thinking. It came out a year ago, but I found it as relevant now as then. We’re still not out of the economic crisis; positive psychology has continued to gain strength.

The ideological side of positive thinking, of how it morphs into suppression and denial, a happy face for everything, is what Ehrenreich discusses, encompanied by the delightful illustrations of Cognitive Media.

Is there something wrong with a society that tells us we can have what we want if only we focus hard enough, adopt a relentlessly positive outlook, and really, really hope for it? What kind of example does the plethora of self-help books and motivational speakers set in a practical world of markets, job losses and random, unpredictable events? Does our self-analysing, “think positive” therapeutic culture prevent us from approaching problems by banding together in a practical and efficient way? Can change in the world really be brought about by such an individualistic and self-directed approach?

You can see the original talk by Ehrenreich here, which presents a longer version of the same talk, including a discussion of breast cancer and the pink ribbon culture. And of course you can find many more delightful things over at the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce.

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4 Responses to Barbara Ehrenreich: Smile or Die

  1. Janis says:

    Someone should let Ehrenreich know that 2008 was the zenith of all that self-centered, happy-fluffy-to-no-effect culture. I don’t think she’ll care to hear THAT, though.

  2. shawn says:

    Anyone who actually has studied Positive Psychology knows that it is definitely not just putting on a happy face, just positive thinking or denial. Or that to associate it with the book “The Secret” is just ignorance. Perhaps greed was to blame for the financial crisis, where the needs of a few outweighed the needs of many. Narcissism is on the rise that’s proven and Positive Psychology is not to blame. One of the core tenets is to be social connected and more focused on the greater good. Perhaps Barbara should study Positive Psychology deeply before criticizing it.

  3. Jennifer Jo Thompson says:

    While I there is clearly evidence of the physiological benefits of positive thinking, I think this is an important critique of a broader neoliberal ideology that places the responsibility for ‘success’ (whether that is financial success like finding a job after being laid off, beating cancer, or rehabilitating neural pathways following stroke) on the individual. The ‘dark side’ of this ideology of positivism is that it — by default — suggests that those who don’t ‘succeed’ are responsible for their own failure, a failure of faith, hope, and mind over matter.

  4. I agree with Shawn that Positive Psychology is a lot more that putting on a happy face./ In fact, I think one of the founders Martin Seligman has in some ways moved on from the original premises of the ‘movement’.

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