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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