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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.

Bookmark and ShareAndy Wimbush is nef‘s Communications Assistant and blogmaster.

Since it’s Friday, I thought I might share a few choice links from around the web which might be of interest to readers of this blog.

First up, is the Guardian Bike Blog, which has emerged at the peak the season for ‘fair-weather cyclists’. It remains to be seen whether the blog will survive into the depths of winter, when only the hardiest, greenest and skintest of travellers continue on two-wheels.  But for now at least, it provides remarkably effective therapy for aggrieved city cyclists, inviting readers to share bad experiences and offer safety tips. The “shower in a bottle” post is especially recommended for commuters.

Over at Make Wealth History, the ever-thoughtful Jeremy Williams has written a very good overview of a little-known book by one of nef‘s major heroes, the pioneering economist E.F. Schumacher. Good Work is about harnessing the ‘potential capabilities’ and ‘initiative, imagination, and brainpower’ of human beings, before we become over-reliant on technology. We need not become arch-Luddites in order to see that, as Schumacher recognised, technology is not ‘ideologically neutral’. I’ve heard it said that our society fosters a “prosthetic culture”, a culture in which we purchase objects or machines to stand in the place of our own abilities and capacities. And as anyone who relies on a prosthesis will know, they can be helpful, but you’re much freer if you can do without them in the first place.

Another good critique of technological fixes comes from Merrick Godhaven, commenting on the climate change solutions presented in the Guardian’s Manchester Report. Echoing nef policy director Andrew Simms’ contribution to the Report, Godhaven points out that no amount of technological solutions will change the fact that we need ‘radical economic and social transformation’, the need to move towards a high well-being, low carbon economy that has deprioritised or abandoned the need for growth,  and the reality that current levels of consumption, at least in the rich world, cannot continue. Well worth a look.

Finally, I recommend reading Chris Goodall’s article ‘The human brain is made for environmental complacency‘ at openDemocracy. While it initially seems depressing that our species is evolutionary unequipped for what is undoubtedly the biggest challenge we’ve ever faced, I realised while that making people aware of this fact might, perversely, help them to take action. It’s a bit like being made aware of what psychologists call ‘the by-stander effect‘: once you realise that it’s possible for a group of people to completely ignore someone in dire need or great danger because each of the group assumes that one of the others will do the helping, then you become aware of it in your daily life, and make sure you actively help someone in need no matter who else is around. Knowing that we are biologically pre-disposed to ignore or play down climate change might make sceptics see that their strong convictions aren’t as unbiased as they’d like to think.


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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.