Smile Till It Hurts

Kate Tuttle reviews Bright-Sided:

When Barbara Ehrenreich was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2000, the sharp-eyed social critic found herself nearly as discomfited by the “pink ribbon culture” surrounding the disease as by the illness itself. Relentlessly upbeat, cloyingly inspirational, the breast cancer world, as Ehrenreich describes it, is a place where anger, fear and depression — all perfectly reasonable responses to a potentially mortal diagnosis — are frowned upon and the cancer itself is lauded as a great opportunity for spiritual growth. … Why do so many of us seem so willing to discount reality in favor of vague wishes, dreams and secrets? …

Ehrenreich’s examination of the history of positive thinking is a tour de force of well-tempered snark, culminating in a persuasive indictment of the bright-siders as the culprits in our current financial mess. … The author deploys her sharpest tone to eviscerate the business community’s embrace of positive thinking. Offered as a sap to those facing layoffs, used as a spur to better performance by those workers who remain. … “American corporate culture had long since abandoned the dreary rationality of professional management for the emotional thrills of mysticism, charisma, and sudden intuitions.”

We are naturally happy when times are good and sad when times are bad.  Since we prefer to associate with folks having good times, we prefer associates who act happy.  So we tend to be biased to act happier than our hidden info about our circumstances justifies.  Of course when things go really bad we may switched to acting depressed, to realistically assess our prospects, and to perhaps induce more assistance.

But going too far signaling your confidence via happiness can interfere with signaling your intelligence – you might just seem too stupid to notice how bad things are.  Since Ehrenreich has much intelligence to signal, it makes sense for her to show snarkiness instead of happiness.  But it is not clear why business deserves more criticism than any other part of society on this – the clearer harm here seems the meds wasted on faint hopes.

Added 11a:  In case there are any doubts, yes of course the recent panel advice to reduce breast cancer testing is right, and yes this bodes ill for US med spending.

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  • q

    its ehrenreich’s bias on one hand, and on the other hand it’s a description of the dynamic governing how ‘business’ gets paid — making hopeful promises, selling the thing that people would rather have or believe or be compared to their currently perceived reality, playing into and reinforcing peoples’ fantasies, etc. there is absoluteliy no money in telling people that they are deluded. none.

  • http://spivonomy.blogspot.com/ Sam Wilson

    Y’know Robin, I don’t think I’ve ever seen you with anything but a smile on your face. Granted, I haven’t known you very long, but you seem like one of the happiest guys I’ve ever met. Are you intentionally trying to associate with folks who are having a good time, or are you honestly filled with Bayesian cheer?

  • Jeffrey Soreff

    Perhaps one reason businesses come in for particular criticism is that their ludicrously sunny announcements are more frequent than typical medical ones. For instance, in IBM I hear year after year of upbeat forcasts – while the US workforce has been cut consistently every year for five years. I’m not sure if upper management is capable of honesty, after this history.

  • Aaron

    Jeffrey, are we sure that the size of their US workforce is the best measure of IBM’s success?

    • Jeffrey Soreff

      The upbeat forecasts I described were directed to US employees. For this group, the size of the US workforce is a good measure of IBM’s success, certainly better than most other publicly available measures (e.g. stock price).

  • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

    “The author deploys her sharpest tone to eviscerate the business community’s embrace of positive thinking. Offered as a sap to those facing layoffs, used as a spur to better performance by those workers who remain. …”

    What’s going on in this set of sentences? I don’t see the direction connection between optimism leading to “the current financial mess” and using optimism ” as a sap to those facing layoffs, … as a spur to better performance by those workers who remain”.

    Messy logic here, in my opinion.

  • Jess Riedel

    In case there are any doubts, yes of course the recent panel advice to reduce breast cancer testing is right, and yes this bodes ill for US med spending.

    Why does this bode ill? Because the backlash is indicative of what will happen in the future if the government tries to cut back on unnecessary procedures?

  • Rob

    “But going too far signaling your confidence via happiness can interfere with signaling your intelligence – you might just seem too stupid to notice how bad things are. Since Ehrenreich has much intelligence to signal, it makes sense for her to show snarkiness instead of happiness.”

    I’m a keen reader of this blog, but passages like that make me see why a lot of people find you overrated.

    • Marian Kechlibar

      Interesting. I actually found that quite a lot of people associate the ability to snark wittily (a la Oscar Wilde) as an important indicator of intelligence.

  • Spinoza’s Prophet

    “there is absoluteliy no money in telling people that they are deluded. none.”

    Yet Consumer Reports stays in business, and pessimists like Ehrenreich (or my favorite crochety curmudgeon, John Derbyshire) get their books published (and appear to make at least a modest living from them), so there’s at least some money in telling people their deluded. Likewise, many forms of psychotherapy (not to mention some forms of mysticism (!), like Buddhism) are based on telling people that they are deluded and getting them to face reality- and therapists tend to make a fairly tidy living. Though they could simply be feeding them the delusion that freedom from delusion is possible (or even desirable).

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