Rebecca's Reviews > Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World

Smile or Die by Barbara Ehrenreich
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really liked it
bookshelves: history, science-tech, uncategorizable, cancer-memoirs
Read 2 times. Last read August 2, 2011.

The week I was reading this book, my mother happened to ask what I had been reading lately during our regular phone call and I replied that I was reading a book about positive thinking. Her pleased “oh?” quickly morphed into a not-very-effectively-smothered whimper of dismay as I explained that it was a critical book about how self-help and pop psychology have done America a disservice and kept people from facing the truth. After that we didn’t talk so much about books; I think she is best off not knowing about the many books I read that she would surely deem ‘heretical’.

Ehrenreich brings her piercing journalist’s eye to the burgeoning positive thinking and self-help industry, exposing all the hypocrisy, manipulation, and general quackery you might expect. She opens with a chapter about her experience of having breast cancer, when she found that a patient cannot express a single note of skepticism or pessimism without being branded a bad apple. Fellow sufferers insisted that without a positive attitude she was unlikely to beat her cancer; one even pointed her towards counseling when she admitted she was angry that more was not being done to identify and eradicate environmental carcinogens.

From motivational speakers’ conferences to Christian Science and megachurch theologies, Ehrenreich traces the history of the idea that a blithely optimistic outlook will get you everything you want in life, including health, wealth, and happiness. The problem is that in the meantime you have to ignore anything that could possibly threaten your mindset, including the news (she highlights a few preposterous websites that only offer “happy” news), science, and the gospel.

I’m not sure I learned anything new from this book, though that doesn’t mean it wasn’t enjoyable or worthwhile. It confirmed for me many things I already knew (i.e., Joel Osteen and his ilk are a bunch of ridiculous unchristian frauds) and made my blood boil at the thought that some of my family members are probably the victims of this kind of thinking. Even the Church isn’t giving out the right messages, what with lies about the “prosperity gospel” and sermons that never go beyond the platitudes of self-help itself.

Of course it is important to have hope, but denying reality will do nothing but damage. I think Ehrenreich’s conclusion would be that it is best to be critically realistic – approaching life with eyes wide open – rather than either despairing or thoughtlessly optimistic.

(A portion of this review formed part of an article on “anti-self-help” books for Bookkaholic.)
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Reading Progress

Finished Reading (Hardcover Edition)
July 25, 2011 – Shelved
Started Reading
August 2, 2011 – Finished Reading
October 1, 2013 – Shelved as: history
October 1, 2013 – Shelved as: science-tech
October 1, 2013 – Shelved as: uncategorizable
February 10, 2014 – Shelved (Hardcover Edition)
February 10, 2014 – Shelved as: science-tech (Hardcover Edition)
February 10, 2014 – Shelved as: uncategorizable (Hardcover Edition)
February 10, 2014 – Shelved as: history (Hardcover Edition)
April 12, 2016 – Shelved as: cancer-memoirs
April 12, 2016 – Shelved as: cancer-memoirs (Hardcover Edition)

Comments Showing 1-2 of 2 (2 new)

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message 1: by Caroline (last edited Feb 10, 2014 01:24PM) (new) - added it

Caroline Convincing review, Rebecca. I've only read her Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, which I loved, but this has been on my TBR (under a different title) for a long time.


Rebecca Yes, Nickel and Dimed is a great one, too. She's written quite a number of books. I have Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy on my shelf to read sometime - that should, ironically, be a much more positive book!


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