Smile or Die

Issue section: 
(344)

Barbara Ehrenreich, Granta, £10.99

Americans account for two thirds of the global market for anti-depressants. In studies of self-reported happiness they rank 23rd in the world. If we include factors such as health and environmental sustainability, they come 150th. The US is also the heartland of the "happiness" industry.

Barbara Ehrenreich's previous book Nickel and Dimed investigated minimum wage jobs and the economics of corporate recruitment. Now, out of her own experience of treatment for cancer, she has investigated the vast "positive thinking" industry which protects that status quo.

This ranges from TV evangelists telling congregants to visualise a new car to get it, the pseudo-science of positive psychology, cancer patient support groups, and large employers "motivating" their remaining employees after mass lay-offs. She argues that what began as a reform movement in the 1860s against the dreariness of Protestant religion has become under neoliberalism another expression of the idea that "there is no society".

If you are ill, losing your job, depressed, or just overworked and underpaid, these are personal failings. There's no point demanding decent housing, secure jobs or healthcare. They won't make you happy until you rid yourself of your negativity and anger.

Of course, there are personal training courses and DVDs, and books to buy like The Gift of Cancer, Who Moved My Cheese? (which recommends quiet acceptance of job cuts) and, my personal favourite, We Got Fired!: And It's the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Us. Positive thinking involves a blind refusal to look facts in the face and Ehrenreich ends by arguing that this was a major contributory factor to the financial crisis. She understands class and why people would buy a house that they couldn't possibly afford or run up credit card debt.

But, nevertheless, Ehrenreich ends the book hoping that society has learnt its lesson and will never again blame individuals for capitalism's faults. To still believe this when the US government has delivered thousands of troops to Haiti but almost no aid, requires a leap of faith worthy of positive thinking.

That said, this is an informative and witty read and more ammo for the argument that this system needs its head ripped off.