Blagetty Blogetty Bragitee!

My Photo
Location: United Kingdom

Some people know me as OrangeBlossomer because that's me on Twitter. This blog is a random collection of daily musings about life and stuff I love, such as journalism, dog (sadly my dog died in 2010 so probably no more), women, love and lack of love, boobs (only seldom but it does get me extra online traffic), taichi (I practise) and spirituality (should practise more). I have a day job as a jetsetting publishing foreign rights manager but I am also an NCTJ-qualified journalist and a writer/columnist at heart. Writing is my opium.

Sunday, 17 January 2010

The not-so-sunny side of positive thinking

I have always believed in the power of positive thinking as a propelling force in life. But Andrew Marr's interview on Radio 4 with an anti-positive thinking writer last week made me stop in my tracks and review my position on where to draw the line between healthy optimism and sheer delusion.

Barbara Ehrenreich (above), author of Smile or Die: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America ('Bright-Sided' in US edition) argues the ever so profitable positive thinking industry in America (remember The Secret?) has created such a deeply ingrained culture that 'positive' became "not only normal but normative – the way you should be," as Janice Harayda says in her excellent One-Minute Book Reviews.

Lucy Ellmann, in her Guardian review, says:
"Americans aren't happy, they're just trained to look as if they are. It's fake orgasm on a grand scale, and we're almost deafened by the din."
Barbara's journey
When diagnosed with breast cancer in 2001, Ehrenreich was appalled by "the constant exhortations to be positive, to be optimistic at all times to the point of embracing the disease as a gift." The sites she found while searching for in
formation about the cancer referred to it as an almost spiritual experience, at the end of which one would come out more "evolved", a better person even.

The associated implication was that:
"if you didn't get better, you weren't a positive thinker"
even though subsequent studies could establish no connection between a patient's attitude and mentality and cancer survival rates.
"It's not some kind of harmless encouragement. This seems like a burden."
she says on Marr's programme. On top of having to deal with the stress of the treatments, patients have the double burden of feeling pressured to think positively and have only themselves to blame for in case treatment was unsuccessful.

For the full version of Barbara Ehrenreich's fascinating interview on Radio 4, listen to the podcast below: (Ehrenreich comes on at about 11 min):

Kehoe's Mind Power
The same logic can be applied to the unemployed during the current economic downturn. If anyone is made redundant or the job they have been positively "visualising" didn't materialise itself, are they to blame for their failure to eschew 'negative' thoughts?

I too have often fed a few quid into that multi-million-dollar feel-good industry by purchasing self-help books, videos, workshops and talks, hoping against hope that if I can manage to will my mind to think only thoughts of health, wealth and success, I may just about land that dream job, which will fulfill my professional aspirations, banish all 'red' figures from my bank balance and fill my life with such joy I will boast abundant health forever.

When I took my four-week Mind Power course last September, which advertised itself with the tagline "Transform Your Life", I was told by the tutor: "You will get out of it exactly what you put in it." Every week he reminded us: "You must do the mind power exercises every single day." "Persevere." "Remember: stop reacting to external circumstances, you must create your own reality."

Mind Power, as a form of enforced positive thinking, can be exhausting in that its exercises are like drills one does when learning a foreign language, repetition being the key to mastery. I was utterly terrified of missing my exercises and spoiling my "breakthrough moment", as John Kehoe, the founder, calls it.

Although the drills temporarily lifted my mood, I could not help but feel a pang of guilt when I failed to get a job I had been interviewed for before Christmas, and about which I had done hundreds of daily positive affirmations. Had I not done enough? Did I let self-doubt seep in and cancel my positive thoughts? I must have brought it upon myself, was my thinking.

To be honest, after more than a year out of work, I really didn't need another reason to feel demoralised.

God is capitalist

In Smile or Die, Ehrenreich goes as far as suggesting that the positive thinking culture was responsible for the recent collapse of American banks – a result of Wall Street bankers following the "prosperity gospel" of "God wants you to be rich", the title of one of the chapters in her book.

In fact, while doing my own motivational course, my tutor said we should "seed" (=feel within) the vibration of success, and if we didn't know what that felt like, we should "go sit at the lobby of the Hilton Hotel", which supposedly was brimming with the right type of vibes.

What disturbed me was the assumption that success can only be achieved through material wealth, that the lifestyle of guests at four and five-star hotels was to be emulated. There is nothing wrong with the desire to own money – I do like money and comfort myself but I disagree with that perception that happy = rich. Did we import that concept from America too, or is it a natural product of our capitalist society?

If positive thinking is as effective as the gurus say, why do Americans – voracious consumers of that culture – need to "consume two-thirds of the world's antidepressants" in order to have a nice day? asks Christopher Hart in The Sunday Times.

Creating my reality
After the course I purchased Kehoe's Money, Success and You. With Christmas coming up, I was feel
ing decidedly poor, with job applications disappearing into black holes and my bank account nearly overdrawn. I wanted to create a new reality in which there was a secure job and no more financial worries.

I found the first half of the book inspirational, especially the chapter where Kehoe says with every 'no' we hear, we are one step close to a 'yes'. To a desperate jobseeker like myself, those words felt like a soothing balm. Unfortunately, the latter half read like a business manual for salespeople: the 'a-ha' moment of successful entrepreneurs, how to get your customers to buy from you, how to keep their loyalty... All very well for a man who made his millions on the back of his positive thinking parlance, but not all professions are about selling, and not all success can be measured in monetary terms.

If we can realise all our dreams just through thinking about them everyday for half an hour, we can all be masters of our destiny. That's what positive schools of thinking claim you can do. But then is there no room for serendipity in this life, for twists of fate and unexpected happy endings that were not written in your own script but turns out to be a more suitable outcome than the one you had envisaged?

Ironically, not knowing what tomorrow may bring is at once our most feared uncertainty and the most treasured joie de vivre.

Charlotte's choice
But surely there are moments and people for whom positive may not be an option? The words Haiti and earthquake come to mind...

On Saturday I read the story of Charlotte Raven (Charlotte Raven: Should I take my own life?), who seems to fit that profile. The 40-year-old Raven has tested positive for the incurable and degenerative Huntington's disease. In the Guardian weekend magazine Raven courageously talks about the shock of her diagnosis four years ago, her contemplation of suicide and an early end at Dignitas, and how that would affect her husband and young child.

Astonished to find out that as much as three quarters of people with HD did not choose to end their lives but carried on, she travels to a fishing village in Venezuela where Huntington's had become endemic, seeking answers, meeting HD carers and patients in advanced stages of the disease, only to choose life in the end. This despite the knowledge of the suffering and indignity, which will inevitably come one day. Raven concludes:
"Registering the discomfort of existence, I felt a great wave of self-pity, the first since my diagnosis. I felt worthy of being cherished and knew I'd do whatever it took to survive. [...] Suicide is rhetoric. Life is life."

The discomfort of existence

A couple of weeks ago, as I walked my dog in the local snow-clad park, observing the white landscape, noticing the profound silence everywhere interrupted only by the low squeak of my boots, I was overcome with an overwhelming feeling of peace. Absence of colours and absence of sound: peace could not have been more complete.

I could not bring myself to practise my positive affirmations nor entertain morbid thoughts on unemployment and poverty. Strangely, my thoughts, inside a brain that is normally a chatterbox, came to a complete halt. It was like going into a meditative state, finally reaching a place of complete stillness and comforting knowledge that everything will be all right.

Charlotte Raven must also have found her inner peace in the midst of pain and chaos. Her total acceptance of the now, whatever that may be, brought her the strength to embrace life for what it actually is: a delicate blend of dark and light.

Maybe then positive is not all about refuting negatives and aiming for an opulent lifestyle, not even enjoying perfect health all the time. Maybe a more lasting positiveness can be achieved through learning to tap into that magic space, where thoughts, and therefore emotional reactions and judgment, cease to exist.

René Descartes
said "I think therefore, I am." But does our existence dependent on our thinking all the time? My own view is that there is a thinking self and a knowing self, but the latter can hardly ever get a word in edgeways because the former is so loud.

If we debated less frequently with ourselves, if we actually stopped using our minds to label every circumstance in life as positive or negative, wouldn't life become altogether more tolerable, and as a result more positive? And yet, in a world where so few are enlightened enough to live that way, perhaps positive thinking techniques needs to remain, for the foreseeable future, a necessary evil, an opium of modern society.

Here's an excellent video of Ms Ehrenreich giving a talk about her book:

Related links:
If you are interested in finding out more about Smile or Die, read the following:

Labels: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Hyperlocal 2010: a roundup of predictions

New Year is here. Media pundits have been busily trying to forecast the future of print news and paywalls as journalism struggles to survive the worst recession of all times.

I have been reading up all year on one of my favourite topics –
hyperlocal initiatives – and would love to know where that is heading towards.

The need for community-level reporting platforms seem to become increasingly evident with every new local newspaper that shuts down. But do they have any commercial viability in the long run? And is there a workable model of mutual collaboration with mainstream media?

Here is a roundup of what journalists and bloggers have been foreseeing with their crystal balls for 2010 and beyond.

The cash factor
Jo Wadsworth
@BrightonArgusJo), web editor of the Brighton Argus, well-known for her work with community reporters, predicted in a Q&A on Jon Slattery's blog that in 2010 hyperlocals will start making money.

Patrick Smith (
@psmith), on reporting about the AOP's Microlocal Media Forum in paidContent:UK, came to a less sanguine conclusion...
"Whether anyone will be making a real living from [hyperlocal] – as a mainstream publisher or a start-up – seems unlikely in the near future..."
And yet, Philip John (@philpjohn), the technical geek behind the Lichfield Blog, believes it is possible for hyperlocal sites to make money and even blogged a list of suggestions.

Birmingham City University lecturer and Help Me Investigate founder Paul Bradshaw (@paulbradshaw) thinks new models require new (financial) strategies. He was reported by paidContent:UK as having said:
Are we expecting margins online that are coloured by our print experience? Why are we expecting to make as much money?”
The problem is that many consider 'hyperlocal' synonymous with amateur enterprise and hyperlocal blogging as "comment" as opposed to a journalist's "news". Matt Wardman (
@mattwardman), who is compliling a directory of ultralocal blogs, says on his website:
"This is a ludicrous position to take, bearing in mind the extent to which news and opinion are mixed in the local (and especially the national) media, and also the miraculous range of howlers and planted stories which appear regularly."
Any hyperblogger approaching the managing director of Newsquest's digitial division, Roger Green, about possible partnering in the near future, can expect to be met with total scepticism. As the
Press Gazette reported, Green didn't mince words in making his views known at the AOP Forum:
"You should sit in on some of the joke meetings I’ve been in with people from no-name start-ups who say we should help them start their business and pay them for the privilege."
The journalist-over-citizen bias
On the positive side, however, Walsall Council's Dan Slee (@danslee), has started calling for other local government press offices to treat local bloggers with the same respect as they would journalists from traditional media and vice-versa.

Slee deserves much credit for the initiative because, as Sarah Hartley (
@foodiesarah) wrote in The Guardian about the TalkAboutLocal's first 'unconference' in Stoke-on-Trent, the National Association of Local Councils (NALC) "looks unlikely to change the definition of who gets treated as a journalist". The Guardian quotes an NALC spokeswoman:
"We can say anecdotally that we would encourage councils to treat only accredited journalists as journalists. And treat citizen journalists as citizens."
One more reason why a change of attitude to accept local bloggers filling in market gaps "needs to come from the top", as Philip John commented on Sarah's personal blog.

The synergetic view

I have a huge respect for the opinions of multimedia journalist Adam Westbrook (@AdamWestbrook). He is the type of progressive-thinking mentor the next generation of young journalists can only benefit from.

On the News: Rewired site (he is one of the speakers at the
event on 14th January), Westbrook identified three ways to be an entrepreneurial journalist, the first of which is to match needs of the market with what you can offer in the same way "James Dyson [...] realised people were tired of bags in vacuum cleaners".
"Hyperlocal websites which start up in areas well served by mainstream media will struggle, because they’ll be trying to offer an alternative to a market which is quite content."
In Westbrook's vision, mainstream giants co-exist symbiotically with hyperlocal businesses:
"The future of journalism landscape still has the BBC, the Guardian, the Telegraph, BSkyB and all the other big names in it – just with other, smaller, businesses around it. They will be complimented [sic] – not threatened – by start-ups."
Alas, the backlash
Of course not all share that view, particularly the change-averse, stick-in-the-mud old-schoolers.

Software developer Dave Winer (
@davewiner), compared the rise of citizen journalists to the arrival of "amateur skiers" at professional ski slopes but says, seemingly with regret, that "the exclusivity is gone".
"The pros have to share the slopes with people who don't take the sport as seriously as they do."
As I wrote in my comment to his blog, should saving professional skiers by keeping the "amateurs" out take precedence over saving skiing as a sport by embracing the positive aspects "amateurs" can bring into it?

My personal hope is that, just like ethnic profiling for anti-terrorism scanning at airports is causing an outrage now, one day linking words starting with "citizen" and "hyperlocal" with incompetency will be taboo and a thing of the past.

And what does your crystal ball say about hyperlocal? Add your views below.

Labels: , , , , , , , ,