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Bookmark and ShareStephen Whitehead is a project manager in the Democracy and Participation team at nef

Barbara Ehrenrich calls us away from glib individualistic notions of happiness, towards real well-being.

American author Barbara Ehrenreich has been all over the British media this week as she pays a flying visit to the UK to promote her latest book Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World. And aside from a slight concern about her carbon footprint, I’m happy that she made it. My enthusiasm for Ehrenreich’s attack on positivity might seem odd given nef’s long-standing interest in well-being, but, in fact, Smile or Die does a lot to illustrate the problems with shallow, individualistic conceptions of happiness.

In her book, Ehrenreich argues that the ideology of positive thinking peddled by self-help gurus like Deepak Chopra or Steven Covey tells people that negative feelings ought to be suppressed and that remaining positive will inevitably bring success. This she argues, is a pernicious con trick– all our lives include problems and it’s natural and healthy to respond to these with sadness and anger.

In a lecture at the Royal Society of Arts earlier this week, Ehrenreich went further, looking at the relationship between positive thinking and inequality. By telling us that success comes from psychological strength, not from privilege, inherited wealth or even pure luck, positive thinking encourages us to blame ourselves, rather than social factors, for the problems that we experience. By telling us that we all get what we deserve, these ideas serve a profound role in convincing us to accept the huge, destructive inequalities that we see in modern, western societies.

In fact, in nef’s work to identify what real well-being means, we are keenly aware of the impact of society on individuals. While the social roots of material factors like the place where you work, to the community where you live, or your physical health are clear, even the more ‘internal’ factors, such as resilience and individual aspirations and expectations, which also shape our experience, are ultimately formed by societal factors such as schooling and the influence of media. Achieving greater well-being for all means creating a society where we all have access to the things we need. Strong communities, meaningful jobs, freedom from material poverty, a culture which supports genuine psychological health, not empty positivity: these are the factors that build real well-being.

And if we’re going to achieve these things, negative emotions might be just what we need. After all, if we really want to build a fairer, better society, free from the spectres of poverty, despair and social isolation, I can’t think of a better way to start than getting angry.

An extract from Barbara Ehrenreich’s Smile or Die is available from the Guardian website.

A recording of the RSA talk can be downloaded from the RSA Events podcast stream.


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nef employees blog in their personal capacity. The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the new economics foundation.