Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Five top books on happiness through negative thinking

Oliver Burkeman is a writer for The Guardian based in Brooklyn, New York. His new book, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking, explores the upsides of negativity, uncertainty, failure and imperfection. Each week in "This Column Will Change Your Life" he writes about social psychology, self-help culture, productivity and the science of happiness, and makes unprovoked attacks on The Secret.

With Jane Rudloff at The Browser, Burkeman discussed five top books on happiness through negative thinking, including:
Smile or Die
by Barbara Ehrenreich

Your first choice, Barbara Ehrenreich’s Smile or Die, explores further the tyranny of positive thinking.

This is a brilliant political polemic and a critique of the problematic effects of positive thinking. Ehrenreich argues, among other things, that the idea that nothing can go wrong is a terrible philosophy to adopt in the world of business. To some degree she directly attributes the current financial crisis to how positive thinking affected the culture of American business. If you’re a banker, constructing complex financial instruments, the idea that nothing could go wrong is obviously highly problematic. On the consumer level the same goes for homebuyers, thinking that if they want the house of their dreams all they need to do is convince themselves that they can go out and get it, whatever their financial circumstances.

Why does she think this way of thinking came to be so dominant in the US?

Ehrenreich shows that positive thinking came to be a useful ideology for corporate America to instill in its employees and in the population at large. The classic example here is the book Who Moved My Cheese?, a very badly written story about some mice and how they adapt to changes in their environment. The moral is that change happens, you just have to soldier on and look on the bright side. Various companies distributed huge numbers of copies to their employees as a motivational tool. You can see how useful that might be for a company planning huge and often detrimental upheavals for its staff – how helpful it would be if the staff took a compliant stance towards change.

The other powerful part of Smile or Die concerns Ehrenreich’s involuntary immersion in the positive-thinking culture of breast cancer sufferers. In that situation, the pressure to maintain a positive outlook can be felt as an oppressive, aggressive force. When she goes on online discussion forums for people having treatment for breast cancer, and admits to feeling bad about what is happening to her – as you might expect she would – she is jumped on by people who don’t want to let her feel like that. She thinks the message of positive thinking is often there to enable other people to not have to face up to a situation. If someone suffering from cancer is told to be positive at all times, then other people don’t have to confront what is really happening – they don’t have to feel awkward and embarrassed in their company.
Read about the other books Burkeman tagged at The Browser.

Visit Oliver Burkeman's website.

The Page 99 Test:  The Antidote.

--Marshal Zeringue