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Smile or Die summary

Barbara Ehrenreich

How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World

3.6 (80 ratings)
12 mins
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    Smile or Die
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    The United States today is a land of “positive thinking,” but early settlers were far more pessimistic.


    Let’s say God has already determined whether you’re going to heaven or hell, and there’s nothing you can do to about it. If you look deep within yourself, or catch yourself thinking sinful thoughts or acting lazily, you’ll just confirm what you already knew: that you’re doomed.

    That’s what early European settlers to America, adherents to Calvinism, believed. Calvinism is a strict, frugal form of Protestantism that stresses the importance of labor and frowns upon leisure, frivolity and excess.

    Reacting to their religion’s extremist beliefs, many children raised in Calvinist households eventually rebel, preferring a less forbidding God and developing new, more accepting spiritual attitudes.

    Take Mary Baker Eddy, for example. The daughter of strict Calvinists, her spiritual writings helped shaped the New Thought school in nineteenth-century America.

    New Thought was a philosophical movement that taught that God’s loving spirit lives within all people. Believers felt that anyone could overcome suffering, even physical illness, by thinking “divine” or positive thoughts.

    This marked the beginning of what we now call positive thinking, or the idea that every person is in charge of his or her fate. This mind-set went on to transform America into a place of boundless optimism and opportunity.

    Just like Calvinism, New Thought stressed self-analysis, but through a different lens. Positive thinking encourages a person to believe that things can always get better, an assumption that makes one think she can influence fate.

    In other words, such an ideology promotes the idea that anyone can do anything as long as they try hard enough.

    Since then, a cult of positive thinking has spread and grown to become a national ideology: the idea that every American has the opportunity to succeed.

    But there’s a major problem with such logic. If people believe that it’s up to them to change fate, then they’ll hold themselves accountable for everything that happens to them.

    And that’s precisely what has happened in America.

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    What is Smile or Die about?

    Smile or Die (2009) explores the impact of positive thinking on mainstream American culture. These blinks show how Americans have convinced themselves that they alone are in control of their happiness, buying into a mass delusion which in the end only does them harm.

    Best quote from Smile or Die

    If pride goeth before a fall, the United States has one heck of a comeuppance in store. – Paul Krugman

    —Barbara Ehrenreich
    example alt text

    Who should read Smile or Die?

    • Anyone curious about the roots of American optimism
    • Professionals who question positive attitudes promoted at the workplace
    • People annoyed when told to “be more positive”

    About the Author

    Barbara Ehrenreich is an award-winning American author and journalist who has written over 20 books. She wrote Smile or Die following her diagnosis of breast cancer, when she discovered that the positive thinking rooted in cancer care can stifle the expression of a person’s true emotions.

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