Vicki Haddock, Insight Staff Writer
Sunday, March 5, 2006
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Wipe that smile off your face and consider this: Being cheerful might not be such a good thing. Listen to the Podcast: The only thing we have to fear is cheer itself
Granted, it's been described as the grease on the axles of American culture.
Cheerfulness is as American as Norman Vincent Peale, who penned the bestseller "The Power of Positive Thinking" in 1952 with an exhortation that everyone make it "a habit to be happy."
And graphic artist Harvey Ball, who in 1963 created the ubiquitous yellow "smiley face" that would become an icon.
And marketers Murray and Bernard Spain, who in 1970 trademarked the phrase "Have a nice day!"
And Carnegie Mellon Professor Scott Fahlman, who in 1982 invented the most pervasive computer emoticon :-)
Our national urge to perkiness is evidenced by the smiley faces found on a grassy hillside near Palo Alto, in Fourth of July fireworks above New York, on the buttons of Wal-Mart employees -- even on U.S. postage stamps. Peoria Girl Scouts distributed hundreds of construction paper "hands" for citizens to dangle from their rear view mirrors on "Smile and Wave" day. Florida activists endeavored to enforce "grump-free zones" by flashing cardboard happy faces at passing motorists, labeling their practice "drive-by smiling."
But underneath the superficial symbols lies something quite serious: the expectation that everyone should join the glee club. Even in the throes of the Great Depression, Little Orphan Annie was never fully dressed without a smile.
Today, a few hardy curmudgeons exist, but Americans tend to see that lack of cheer as a flaw, an offense. Our ethos of cheer can strike outsiders as slightly bizarre.
Is it admirable -- a way of creating our own euphoric contentment despite circumstance? Or is it a cheap tranquilizer -- a suffocation of true emotion and feeling?
In an article in the Journal of Social History, scholar Christina Kotchemidova assesses the cult of cheerfulness and why it has become what she calls "the main emotional norm of 20th century America."
Kotchemidova decided to research the topic after immigrating to New York and being taken aback by the smiles, friendliness and cheer that effused social interactions between New Yorkers. Yes, New Yorkers. It may be useful here to note that she grew up in Bulgaria, where a mayoral candidate in the capital city of Sofia came under withering criticism for smiling -- a sign to Bulgarians that he wasn't sufficiently serious about their concerns.
"I do come from a very different emotional culture," said Kotchemidova, now an assistant professor of mass communications at Spring Hill College in Alabama, where the locals are considered more affable and jovial than New Yorkers. At work on a book titled "The Culture of Cheerfulness," she posits that someone with her perspective may be uniquely situated to research American cheerfulness, because it's so pervasive here that domestic social scientists overlook its impact by presuming it is merely natural behavior.
Her work traces the trajectory of the American spirit -- she calls it "a major emotionological shift" -- from fashionable European melancholy in Colonial days to chirpy effervescence today.
As but one example, look at historical portraiture and notice the austere countenances -- the only people depicted grinning, much less smiling, are idiots and peasants and Huckleberry Finn. Following the tradition of European portraiture, no American president smiled in his official White House portrait for the country's first 200 years. It was jocular actor/ad man turned politician Ronald Reagan who broke the smile barrier -- epitomizing his winning political slogan "It's morning in America." (The majority embraced the clarion call, although the minority reacted much in the way of Bill Maher, who observed "But I'm not a morning person.")
Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, who similarly displayed their pearly whites in official portraits, successfully campaigned as jocular optimists. The gallery of presidential wannabes is lined with losers who seemed, by comparison, simply too somber.
The standard is the same outside politics. The first photo portrait studio in London told sitters to say "prunes" as a way of capturing the correct puckery pose -- but as Americans developed snapshot photography for the masses, everybody learned to say "cheese" just this side of in vitro.
In the first century of U.S. history, foreigners who came here helped cement the stereotype of Americans as can-do optimists following their constitutionally guaranteed "pursuit of happiness." With a blind eye to some glaring exceptions -- notably slavery -- observers wrote in their diaries and letters about the inexplicable good cheer of Americans, attributing it to national character, the precepts of democracy, and the lack of a caste system that would otherwise foster sneering resentment among the poor and cold hauteur among the wealthy.
As the country developed, capitalists and moralists seized upon the ethos of cheer to tame the labor force and the restlessness of those with less power, such as laborers and housewives.
When there was only one miller or grocer in town, politeness was optional -- but as competition increased, companies saw the competitive advantage and promotional value of niceness on cue. A hit ditty advised even soldiers to "pack up your troubles in your old kit bag and smile, smile, smile!"
In the 1930s, the railroads began sending employees through "smile school." Factories instituted psychological tests that helped identify employees with positive attitudes as ripe for promotion. By the 1950s, phone companies were using a "phone power" training program that instructed businesspeople to smile when talking on the phone because even though their faces were unseen, the person on the other end of the line could "hear" the smile in their voice. And in her treatise "The Managed Heart," UC Berkeley Professor of sociology Arlie Hochschild explored the human toll when workers must always adapt their emotions to commercial aims -- when flight attendants must always smile "from the inside out."
By the dawn of the 21st century, other entrepreneurs were inspired by financial adviser Charles Schwab's claim that his smile was worth a million dollars. Colin Powell insisted that "perpetual optimism is a force multiplier." And the governor of California, a beaming Arnold Schwarzenegger, strode into office promising to positively "pump up" California.
What became reality in the American work world was mirrored at home.
In the 1800s, wifely manuals began instructing women to fill their parlors with gay embroidery and cheery chat. A husband, one guide said, must be able to rely on his wife's "never-tiring cheerfulness." Advertising in the 20th century only reinforced and exaggerated the expectation, and the Archdiocese of New York warned women never to "present her husband with a tired mind and body at a time when he looks forward to cheerful encouragement. ..."
Betty Friedan theoretically put a feminist blasting cap to that attitude with "The Feminine Mystique" -- but the covers of women's magazines today continue touting the utility of smiling to snare a mate.
In 2006, a bumper sticker admonishes "If you're not outraged, you're not paying attention." But confronted with the mounting death toll in Iraq, job outsourcing, a failing health care system and spiraling debt, the American attitude is better summed up by the credo "Don't Worry -- Be Happy." Hundreds of Web sites extol the virtues of a cheerful smile and offer inspirational happy-thoughts. "If you can't see the bright side," says one, "polish the dull side."
Americans are proud of their upbeat reputation, and there are reasons why they should be.
For one, there is hard scientific truth in the adage that you can make yourself happy just by smiling. The psychologist William James was among the first to argue the point: "Actions seem to follow feeling, but really action and feeling go together, and by regulating the action ... we can indirectly regulate the feeling," he said. "The sovereign voluntary path to cheerfulness, if cheerfulness be lost, is to sit up cheerfully and to act and speak as if cheerfulness were already there."
Medical studies have demonstrated biological benefits from a positive
attitude: Some studies suggest it can bolster the immune system and speed healing.
And the social rewards are real: Smile and the world smiles with you -- cry and you cry alone. Americans learn that a smiling countenance and an upbeat attitude can help land them the job, the sale, the big tip, the hot date, the favor, and of course, a likely smile in return. By lubricating the roughness of all kinds of social friction, cheerfulness works.
So what could possibly be the problem? Must the United States -- already assailed as too materialistic, too imperialistic, too paternalistic -- now be made to feel guilty because its people are too gosh-darned cheerful?
Kotchemidova sees her role more as cultural observer than critic of our dominant national emotion, but she does note some potential drawbacks.
The most obvious: The pressure to be cheerful is, for some, emotionally exhausting.
Another consequence is the potential for miscommunication. People from other countries may dismiss Americans as frivolous and insincere -- and Americans may eschew them as aloof and cold -- because the emotional norms are so different.
Still others blame the cult of cheerfulness for complacency, counterfeit feeling, and a superficiality that prizes bubbly "friendliness" over something deeper and richer, "friendship."
And it is possible that depression is over-diagnosed precisely because of our unrealistically high expectation for merriment.
A 2002 analysis in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry titled "The Tyranny of the Positive Attitude" even asked: "Could it then be that the pressure itself to be happy and optimistic contributes to at least some forms of unhappiness?" Various researchers contributed examples of how the negative can be positive. Complaining can trigger reform, after all, and even the depths of despair can be plumbed for creative inspiration.
Some psychologists have begun to call for a revolt against the national emphasis on "positive psychology," which risks isolating nonconformists in their misery. Julie Norem, a psychology professor at Wellesley College, authored "The Positive Power of Negative Thinking" after her research led her to conclude that optimists are about as successful as pessimists.
It's time to stop guilt-tripping people who feel bad, argues Barbara Held, a psychology professor at Bowdoin College and author of "Stop Smiling, Start
Kvetching: A 5-Step Guide to Creative Complaining."
So smile! Or not. And have a nice day -- unless you already have other plans.