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Smile or Die/Bright sided by Barbara Ehrenreich


Smile or Die is social critic and author Barbara Ehrenreich’s examination of the stronghold that positive thinking has on America.

She first encounters this close-up when diagnosed with breast cancer.  She is encouraged to be positive about her condition, almost to the point of considering it a gift allowing spiritual growth.  Rather than embrace this way of thinking, she finds it sinister, and the pink ribbon she is offered infantilizing.

Looking further afield, Ehrenreich finds that the notion that positive thoughts lead to positive outcomes is pervasive.  She can find no scientific evidence for this, but regardless the notion has become the basis for several best selling books, including The Secret.  The threat is, Ehrenreich writes, that if you do not think positively then you will not thrive.

Ehrenreich says that positive thinking has also percolated into the work sphere.  She identifies this as a source of social control.  People who are laid off are told this is an ‘opportunity’.  This then feeds into the current American paradigm whereby misfortune is never the fault of the system, but rather in an individual for not thinking positively enough.  How could social inequality be important if you can become rich simply by thinking about it?

The solution?  Ehrenreich would like to see herself as a realist, not someone who champions despair.  Instead we should try to see the world as it really is.

By a stroke of luck that’s what I’ve been trying to do for many years.



Guardian review 9 January 2010

BMJ review 18 December 2009

RSA animate video

Interview on R4 Start the week 11 January 2010

(June 2018 review – broken links fixed)

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  1. How does the placebo effect work?

    “[William] Potter, who is now a VP at Merck, helped rev up a massive data-gathering effort called the Placebo Response Drug Trials Survey.

    “Under the auspices of the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health, [William] Potter and his colleagues are acquiring decades of trial data—including blood and DNA samples—to determine which variables are responsible for the apparent rise in the placebo effect. Merck, Lilly, Pfizer, AstraZeneca, GlaxoSmithKline, Sanofi-Aventis, Johnson & Johnson, and other major firms are funding the study.”
    Steve Silberman.
    “Placebos Are Getting More Effective. Drugmakers Are Desperate to Know Why.”

    also available (slightly different text though) at:
    “The placebo problem Big Pharma’s desperate to solve”
    By Steve Silberman
    14 September 09