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Carol Craig is the Centre's Chief Executive. She is author of The Scots' Crisis of Confidence, Creating Confidence: A Handbook for Professionals Working with Young People, The Tears that Made the Clyde: Well-being in Glasgow and The Great Takeover: How materialism, the media and markets now dominate our lives. She is Commissioning editor for the Postcards from Scotland series. Carol blogs on confidence, well-being, inequality, every day life and some of the great challenges of our time. The views she expresses are her own unless she specifically states that they reflect the Centre's thinking.

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Posted 04/01/2010

Those of you managing to break away from festivities in the last few weeks will be aware that the media have been giving a fair amount of attention to Barbara Ehrenreich's latest book - Bright Sided: How the relentless promotion of positive thinking has undermined America.

Ehrenreich is a heavy weight writer whose work deserves attention. My main criticism of the book is that it isn't long enough – this is an important topic and I think it deserved more in-depth consideration than she can give it in two hundred, fairly small pages, However, I agree with most of her conclusions. 

There's little doubt that many people will be offended by what she writes. The first main critique in the book is in the first chapter called 'Smile or die: the bright side of cancer'. In a nutshell Ehrenreich, who has herself had breast cancer, reveals how the victims of the disease in the USA have been taken over by positive thinking. What this means in effect is the belief – completely unjustified – that those suffering from this disease can cure themselves by their positive thoughts. Indeed this world is now so dominated by the ideology  of positive thinking that victims are urged to love their cancer and appreciate what it can help them understand about life. This means that any type of negative thought, or anger, is considered inappropriate. What this then does is stop people looking critically at what is behind the growing epidemic of breast cancer as it encourages victims to cheerfully assume that somehow they are to blame for what is happening to them and primarily responsible for battling the cancer with their optimism.

Ehrenreich also takes issue with the type of thinking behind that  multi-million business phenomenon 'The Secret'. Since I'm also appalled by the underlying philosophy behind this approach (and wrote an earlier blog on the topic) I particularly relished her critique. She also links the rise of illogical, magical thinking in business with the financial crisis which has had such a negative effect on our lives. And again I couldn't agree more with what she writes. She also makes a very convincing argument on how churches in America have largely jettisoned their Christian teaching and values and replaced them with the values of Corporate America – thus God 'wants you to be rich' and if you fail it is your own fault.

Ehrenreich goes much further than I have in critiquing more mainstream coaching and management practices. Basically she argues that in the two decades after 1981 around thirty million workers lost their full time jobs in American institutions. Most went on to get other jobs but often with less money and less security as many of the new  jobs were temporary, contract or freelance. Many of the new jobs also included a new emphasis on sales techniques. These circumstances, according to Ehrenreich were instrumental in the rise of motivational speakers and techniques.  In place of security or job perks, employees were treated to endless opportunities to learn ways to be more positive:

By and large, America's white-collar corporate workforce drank the Kool-Aid, as the expression goes, and accepted positive thinking as a substitute for their former affluence and security. They did not take to the streets, shift their political allegiance in large numbers, or show up at work with automatic weapons in hand.  As one laid-off executive told me with quiet pride, 'I've gotten over my negative feelings, which were so dysfunctional''. Positive thinking promised them a sense of control in a world (which) … was always  moving. They may have less power to change their own futures, but they had been given a worldview – a belief system, almost a religion – that claimed they were in fact infinitely powerful, if only they could master their own minds.

And what is her view of positive psychology? That's the subject of a future blog. Meanwhile, all the best for 2010.

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