The Tyranny of Cheer

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2m 43sec

the source: “From Good Cheer to ‘Drive-By Smiling’: A Social History of Cheerfulness” by Christina Kotchemidova, in Journal of Social History, Fall 2005.

Forget the eagle. America’s national symbol should be that yellow smiley face reproduced on everything from T-shirts to Wal-Mart billboards. As an outgrowth of its capitalist emphasis on individual self-worth, America has developed a national ethic of cheerfulness, writes Christina Kotchemidova, a culture and communication instructor at New York University.

We didn’t always walk around with smiles on our faces. Early in American history melancholy prevailed, just as it did in Europe. Traditional Christianity promoted suffering as a path to spiritual refinement. Patience was definitely a virtue—especially since little could be done about perceived injustices in the early-modern Anglo-Saxon world.

But with the rise of the American middle class in the 18th century came a new emphasis on human agency and individualism, and on the necessity of managing one’s emotions in order to succeed. Economic ruin was often associated with a lack of moral and emotional control. “Moderns developed an impatience with helplessness, which was accompanied by a distaste for grief and later trans­lated into male aversion to tears,” writes Kotchemidova. “Since cultural meanings form by opposition, the opposite emotion to sadness—cheerfulness—began to serve as a symbol for virtue.”

In the New World, European courtesy was being displaced by “a new, casteless nicety . . . based on friendliness.” Among the first Europeans to note the trait was British journalist William Cobbett, a 1792 émigré who repeatedly commented on “the good humour of Americans” and wished English laborers were as happy. Other Europeans linked good humor to egalitarianism and saw it variously as admir­able or rude.

In the 19th century, Victorian women’s culture redefined the home as a cheer-filled refuge from the world. Most strong emotions lauded in centuries past—romantic love, “healthy” fear, grief, motherly love,  and so forth—came to be seen in the early 20th century as signs of immaturity. Individualism dictated cheerfulness as the most beneficial emotion, since it served the self, and the cheerfulness ethic insinuated itself into the workplace. By the 1920s, many companies—often helmed by managers raised in homes steeped in Victorian women’s culture—were attempting to engineer a cheerful, anger-free, and thus more productive workplace. Popular writers spread cheerfulness as the gold standard through self-help books such as A Little Book of Smiles and Joy and Sunshine (1911) and Enjoy Living (1939). Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936), which praised the ever-smiling salesman, sold like hotcakes.

Today, want ads even for paralegal assistants and mortgage originators stipulate a cheerful personality, and advertisers insist that their products will make consumers smile. But all this cheerfulness has its price. Depression is much more prevalent in the West than it is elsewhere, Kotchemidova notes. Perhaps more people are diagnosed as depressed because cheerfulness is deemed the norm; but it could also be that people experience greater mental distress because they work so hard to manage their emotions. “Emotion labor”—nowhere more evident than on the faces of flight attendants—“takes its toll on the individual and often results in burnout, drug use, or alcoholism.” In 2003, Delta Airlines, for instance, spent $9 million on antidepressants for employees and their dependents.

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