humour, music, life, sociology. friendly agnostic.

Grinning to Death

Posted by spritzophrenia on October 21, 2010

“Think and grow rich”. “If you can dream it, you can achieve it”. “Your thoughts create your reality.” Sound familiar? Perhaps you’ve seen “The Secret”. I was interested to hear Barbara Ehrenreich had published a book on the negative side of positive thinking but didn’t realise it started with her experience of breast cancer. Here’s an excerpt from Smile or Die.

I wanted to link to a friend’s blog reviewing Ehrenreich’s book, but can’t find the article. Message me if it’s you, huh? [Edit: Found it! Linked in the comments]

I did find this perceptive review by Eliza, a Lupus sufferer. A short sample:

My disdain for the Positive Thinking movement only grew as I began to become disabled about four years ago. I cannot even count how many people lectured me about the merits of “thinking positively” once I began to suffer sometimes-debilitating pain. …



Constantly lectured about how I should learn to see my chronic pain and fatigue as “positive developments” that “teach me to be more loving of humanity,” I call bullshit. And I was thrilled when I learned that Barbara Ehrenreich had written a new book on the subject.

On the whole, I would say that this is a highly flawed book that is nevertheless worth reading. …

She effectively draws on her scientific background to expose the pseudo-scientific claims (usually drawn from quantum physics and psychology) that are often quoted in order to add a scientific veneer to what is primarily an ideological movement.

This article notes

While Ehrenreich seems to harbor no ill will toward Christianity, some of her harshest critique is directed at positive thinking’s inroads into American churches. She indicts the usual suspects—Joel Osteen, Robert H. Schuller, Norman Vincent Peale—but she also includes much of the megachurch movement. Like other critics, the author believes the pressures of church growth have caused many pastors to adopt principles from the world of business and commerce at the expense of Christian distinctiveness.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been in christian meetings with razamatazz and hyped-up motivational speakers, thank g0d. I don’t like the way positive thinking has crept into spiritualities that have emphasised humility and even poverty in the past. Somehow it just seems fake to me.


How does this stuff make you feel? What place do you think positive thinking should have in our lives?

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The Streets | Positive

17 Responses to “Grinning to Death”

  1. Zannadeeya said

    Um….. Actually, reading the Secret and other similar books has helped me out tremendously, as far as being less gloomy and despairing about life in general. I still don’t consider myself, as such, a “positive” person, just a “pro-active” one. I believe there’s a difference. The former, to me, sorta puts me in mind of Barney, singing songs, being in denial of how shitty life really can be at times, and just living the whole “ignorance is bliss” thing. The latter recognizes that life is most definitely shitty, can be for years with no end in sight, but also recognizes that we DO have some control in some areas of our life, but it’s up to US to do our part to try to glean some good things from life. I focus not on all the negative, but instead try to focus on the positive, and if there seems to be no positives, to just stay busy so I don’t have the time to think about it!

    • Anne said

      I really appreciate your distinction between positive and proactive. A lot of people hide inside the positive thinking movement so they don’t have to do anything… not unlike the Christians I know who will say, “God will provide.” (But when a boat comes along, they won’t climb in because they want a better boat.)

  2. leesis said

    it is true that what we focus on with intensity influences our external reality. When I wanted to lift myself out of the swamp I grew up in I focused and achieved.

    But when someone suggested yesterday that the reason things are so messy for me right now is because I’m ‘attracting it’…well I felt slightly homocidal.

    Some times extraordinary things happen and we handle it as best we can. To have someone say we are attracting it, well its inaccurate, its hurtful, and it adds to the weight one feels emotionally

  3. I found that blog I mentioned. It’s Lydia’s. In part she says

    “the problem with positive thinking is not optimism, it’s expectations. There’s nothing wrong with looking on the bright side or expecting that everything will eventually work itself out for the greater good. ”

    That essentially is what I think. I actually think there’s a great deal of good in being optimistic. If nothing else, it’s much more fun to live with than being pessimistic. (Said as a person who tends to think negatively).

  4. Anne said

    When I used to talk with cancer patients on a hotline, I heard similar stories as Eliza’s about people being blamed for their illness. I wanted to tell them to have a positive outlook as much as possible through treatment (oncologists recognize that it can be beneficial for patients to be optimistic during treatment) and yet if it were me, how would I feel? I also of course didn’t want to give the message that it would be their fault if the outcome wasn’t good. Some people really wonder if the illness is their fault. It’s an extreme example of the flaws in the “attraction” law idea but that’s where it all falls apart.

  5. Cristine said

    I think it is CRUEL to tell someone who is suffering that they need to “be grateful, it could be worse” and “look at the bright side”. I agree that when you suffer loss or pain, you do need to keep it in perspective. That said though, you also need to acknowledge and express your grief. If you don’t express it, it will come out in a very unhealthy manner. There is generally a series of stages you generally need to go through to heal and trying to ignore that process or pretend (because that is what you are doing) that you are not suffering will hurt you much more in the long run. People need compassion not to be made to feel like they don’t have a right to their sorrow.

    People who are into extreme positive thinking are right in that having a pity party or seeing yourself as a victim can be very harmful but the extreme opposite isn’t any better. This is not a justification to wallow or not improve yourself or your situation but you do need to allow yourself to feel, to grieve, to heal

  6. Cristine said

    as soon as I wrote this, I took a look through my newsfeed on Facebook (noooo…time sucker!) and saw a status where someone had something bad happen to them and someone responded it with “there’s a lesson to be learned in everything” Good grief!!! whether that is true or not is beside the point, give the woman a chance to catch her breath! i think it’s insulting..as though to say “you shouldn’t be upset by this bad thing happening to you”

  7. Anne said

    I’ve now read the excerpt you link to from Barbara Ehrenreich’s Smile or Die… I really resonate with her statement that “The cheerfulness of breast cancer culture goes beyond mere absence of anger to what looks, all too often, like a positive embrace of the disease.” When I see the pink cosmetics and yogurt, it makes me angry. It is just marketing to take advantage of our sentiments.

    I think her book is an important statement and I hope it will help bring some balance. However–and to bring it back to a “spritzophrenia”-like discussion–I think it’s fair to say that there is a need in many of us to transcend. I don’t think that’s a bad thing and who is to say that if one’s mind is in a good place it can’t help us (that is, if we are making that choice, not because someone else tells us we “should” be there). Transcendence is powerful (as shown by Elie Wiesel, for instance).

  8. Iain said

    I think that positive thinking is only as true as this following quote is,

    Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.  ~Abraham Lincoln

    The reason why I say that is because sometimes I meet people whose lives are pretty much the same as anyone else and yet they are less content. As you will read in a quote below, the different is not one of material fact but seems to be more one of perspective or imagination. Sometimes I am surprised when I find joy in the smallest of things. It might be a tree (thanks, Leesa, I remember your blog about your friend with the panic attack), it might be the reflection of sunlight on water, it might be a cool breeze, it might be a nice coffee and relaxing music. Sometimes happiness finds me and ambushes me like a bandit, sneaking in to my mind when I am least expecting it. But happiness comes and goes and I think is not a good goal per se. I prefer the idea of contentment which can last whether I am immediately feeling happy or not.

    Here are some quotes which you may or may not agree with. For the other side of things, and a recognition of the reality of the negative side of life, please do keep reading.

    If only we’d stop trying to be happy we could have a pretty good time.  ~Edith Wharton

    Happiness is always a by-product.  It is probably a matter of temperament, and for anything I know it may be glandular.  But it is not something that can be demanded from life, and if you are not happy you had better stop worrying about it and see what treasures you can pluck from your own brand of unhappiness.  ~Robertson Davies

    It’s pretty hard to tell what does bring happiness.  Poverty and wealth have both failed.  ~Frank McKinney “Kin” Hubbard

    The foolish man seeks happiness in the distance; the wise grows it under his feet.  ~James Openheim

    Often people attempt to live their lives backwards; they try to have more things, or more money, in order to do more of what they want, so they will be happier.  The way it actually works is the reverse.  You must first be who you really are, then do what you need to do, in order to have what you want.  ~Margaret Young

    Happiness is like a butterfly which, when pursued, is always beyond our grasp, but, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.  ~Nathaniel Hawthorne

    We tend to forget that happiness doesn’t come as a result of getting something we don’t have, but rather of recognizing and appreciating what we do have.  ~Frederick Keonig

    Happiness is not an ideal of reason, but of imagination.  ~Immanuel Kant

    But, also, I really think that the world would be “A Better Place”(TM) if everybody made it their deep, personal goal to make others in their life happy. Imagine knowing that all of your friends and associates wanted nothing more than your own happiness! Imagine how your friends would feel knowing that you wanted nothing more than to see them content. I think that recipe for society would make a huge difference. Nobody would be alone, everyone would be supported by many.

    Here are some final quotes to that effect,

    If there were in the world today any large number of people who desired their own happiness more than they desired the unhappiness of others, we could have a paradise in a few years.  ~Bertrand Russell

    If you want others to be happy, practice compassion.  If you want to be happy, practice compassion.  ~Dalai Lama

    The best way to cheer yourself up is to try to cheer somebody else up.  ~Mark Twain

    Sometimes people just get given the short stick. That is why I think that happiness is not a solo job. Too often our happiness is contingent on circumstance or relationships. And sometimes those circumstances or relationships really, really suck. We can’t help that (and I don’t blame the individual or think it is some part of a Grand Plan). What we can do, however, is to be there for each other.

    I think we need a little bit of imagination, a little bit of courage, and a little bit of hope. As Mignon McLaughlin said (in the Neurotic’s Notebook), “Hope is the feeling we have that the feeling we have is not permanent”.

    When sadness is present, hope can still remain to remind us that sadness is impermanent. And how much easier it would be to feel hopeful despite sadness if we also knew we were deeply and completely loved. For that, we need others. We also need to love ourselves. That means people need to care for people and it also means not be too embarrassed to keep the door open for love from others even when, in deep misery, we may (ironically) least feel like it.

    Ah, what a great society we would have if even the government made “love” its civic duty.

  9. Anne said

    Iain, what a beautiful and inspiring statement you made: “the world would be “A Better Place”(TM) if everybody made it their deep, personal goal to make others in their life happy. Imagine knowing that all of your friends and associates wanted nothing more than your own happiness!” I think you wrote an essay here, and everything you said filled me up. Thank you.

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