Smile or Die | Barbara Ehrenreich

Summary of: Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World
By: Barbara Ehrenreich


Dive into the world of positive thinking and its impact on American culture with Barbara Ehrenreich’s eye-opening book ‘Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World’. Discover the history behind the ideology that shaped modern American optimism from its roots in Calvinism and the New Thought movement. But, are there negative consequences to positive thinking? Learn how churches, businesses, and the healthcare industry have been influenced by the power of this seemingly uplifting mindset. This summary unpacks the pros and cons of positive thinking and offers insights into the reality of its potentially harmful repercussions.

Positive thinking and its consequences

Calvinism, a strict, frugal form of Protestantism, believed that God has already pre-determined one’s destiny. New Thought emerged, a philosophical movement teaching that one’s positive thoughts can overcome suffering and shape their destiny. Over time, positive thinking became a national ideology in America, leading individuals to hold themselves accountable for their circumstances.

In early European settlement to America, Calvinism was a widely practiced religion. Calvinists believed that the fate of an individual was predetermined by God, and there was nothing an individual could do about it; everyone was either destined for heaven or hell. This belief led to a strict religious lifestyle that frowned upon leisure, frivolity, and excess.

However, children raised in Calvinist households often rebelled against their religion’s extremist beliefs, leading to the development of new and more accepting spiritual attitudes. One such example is Mary Baker Eddy, whose spiritual writings helped shape 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 and that positive thoughts could help overcome suffering, including physical illness. This ideology encouraged believers to think positively and influenced what we now call positive thinking.

The idea of positive thinking created a nationwide ideology, leading individuals to believe that they could shape their future and overcome any obstacles if they tried hard enough. However, this ideology has consequences, as individuals hold themselves accountable for their circumstances, even those beyond their control.

Overall, positive thinking has become a significant aspect of American culture, shaping how individuals perceive and handle their circumstances, leading to both positive and negative outcomes.

The Power and Perils of Positive Thinking

Positive Thinking has become a dominant principle of American culture affecting almost every aspect of life, including religion. Certain churches now promote a “prosperity gospel,” preaching that believers should maintain a positive attitude and that God will help them succeed and become wealthy. The positive thinking ideology has led to rising expectations, with extreme views suggesting that personal beliefs determine everything in life, even success. This mindset has led to unrealistic expectations that are hard to meet. Some people believe they can achieve anything by changing their thoughts, leading to a “get rich quick” mentality. The belief in positive thinking has transformed American culture, but it also has its drawbacks, and people must be mindful of its limitations.

The Dark Side of Motivational Coaching

Employers are promoting motivational coaching based on positive thinking to hold employees accountable for their successes and satisfy the bottom line. However, this approach places personal accountability on employees and encourages them to accept poor conditions without questioning their workplace and employer’s role. The use of dream boards, positive thinking books, and motivational speakers has resulted in a thriving industry for coaches, earning billions annually.

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