In her popular essay for Aeon, Mariana Alessandri argues that the American virtue of cheerfulness is fundamentally dishonest, preventing individuals from dealing with their negative feelings. But who says honesty can’t co-exist with good cheer?
Cheerfulness conceived as a virtue – à la Boy Scout Law – instead of a spontaneous feeling is a pretence.
Mariana Alessandri is an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. And she’s not a big fan of cheerfulness. This much is obvious from the popular essay she wrote for Aeon in May 2019, ‘Against cheerfulness‘ – an essay in which she took roughly 2.000 words to minutely excoriate one of America’s most beloved values.
Cheerfulness is “fake,” she argues, a “sickly child between Stoicism and Christianity”. Imported from the UK through the Boy Scouts’ honor code, it has become a national virtue (think of those inspirational wallpapers you can find a dime a dozen), even though none of the major religious and philosophical texts depict it as a virtue in the first place. Cheerfulness is “dishonest” at heart, and by choosing to adopt a positive attitude in spite of hardship, Americans risk worsening their emotional pain.
Alessandri’s argument is not new, and she makes very good points. Her article focuses on the negative consequences of compulsory cheerfulness (or “forced bright-sidedness”). Throughout her essay, she also aims to criticize a culture (as well as a profitable self-help industry) that demands optimism and exuberance even when one is performing tedious tasks, or feeling downright miserable.
Many of us who might not be cheerful by nature get pressured to smile by the reigning notion that we alone are responsible for our happiness. Window-shop in any middle-class city and you will discover a consumer culture desperate to live up to the adage ‘Think like a proton: always positive!’ Homeware stores are filled with reminders of how happy we could be if only we’d listen to our kitschy teacups with printed pseudo-philosophical adages such as ‘Continuous cheerfulness is a sign of wisdom,’ except that teacups don’t know the first thing about cheerfulness or wisdom, or whether they relate to happiness.
I agree that forced cheerfulness can be harmful in certain contexts, especially when you’re trying to avoid inconvenient truths or painful emotions. Constantly putting up a happy smile when you feel like you’re dying inside isn’t helpful. Being pressured to do so can be soul-destroying.
But such reasoning could be held for virtually any trait – including patience, self-confidence, or love. Of course there can be too much of a good thing. This doesn’t imply that the thing itself is intrinsically bad. The issue with Alessandri’s essay is that she confuses cheerfulness itself with the negative repercussions of cheerfulness in excess. Meanwhile, there is no mention whatsoever in her piece of the potentially positive impacts that a perky attitude can bring about (yes, even the compulsory kind). Her essay echoes the larger backlash against positive thinking that has cropped up on the web in recent years – a backlash that, while far from unreasonable, seems a bit too keen on throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
After all, what is cheerfulness? According to our old friend the Oxford Dictionary, it’s the “quality of being noticeably happy and optimistic,” or “the quality of causing happiness”. Acting happy and optimistic – or causing happiness in others – is hardly a vice. People tend to gravitate towards sunny personalities, and with good reason: we usually prefer our upbeat colleague to the grumpy one who keeps complaining about public transportation. There’s a reason warmth is considered a key component of charisma. Fictional characters like the acerbic Dr House are beloved on TV shows, but they probably wouldn’t have many fans in real life.
However, what takes center-stage in Alessandri’s critique of cheerfulness (an element crucially missing from its technical definition) is the notion of ‘pretense’. A joyful attitude doesn’t have to be fake in and of itself. What she disapproves of is the specific idea that one should fake a positive attitude when feeling depressed – that we should try to force joy at all. “If you have to tell someone to be cheerful,” she writes, “they aren’t feeling it”.
Obviously. In the same vein, if you have to tell someone to calm down when they’re being nervous and irrational, they are most likely not being calm. Does it imply we should let them erupt into full-blown panic?
Cheerfulness conceived as a virtue – à la Boy Scout Law – instead of a spontaneous feeling is a pretence. It’s not an action but it is an act. Whistling while you work might be worth defending, but forcing yourself to smile when you don’t feel like it amounts to lying to the people around you. ‘Fake it till you make it’ has brutal consequences when applied to the emotions. When conceived as the attempt to trick others into thinking that you feel cheery, cheerfulness is far from a virtue. It’s a vice.
What’s odd here is the idea that we shouldn’t force ourselves to display a certain behavior, when forcing ourselves to display certain behaviors is the only way we have to improve. A procrastinator has to force himself to work. An angry person has to force herself to chill. A chronically anxious person has to force herself to calm down. All of it is fake. None of it is wrong. Virtuous behavior is notoriously hard to engage in, while laziness comes easy. Those who haven’t been bestowed with certain skills from the onset (be it self-discipline or social skills) will have to practice them regularly to acquire them. We change through effort and repeated action. Anyone attempting to change their mindset and attitude for the better will therefore have to ‘fake it till they make it‘. There’s no cheat code for improvement.
To her credit, Alessandri acknowledges this point. However, she insists that faking cheerfulness is radically different from faking other virtues:
There is a fundamental difference between practising the Greek virtues of patience, justice or courage, and practising the American virtue of cheerfulness, which borders on psychosis. Patience asks us to change our behaviour, but it neither asks us to feel differently nor to pretend to feel differently. Granted, Aristotle believed that practising patience over a length of time would naturally make us more patient, but pretence was never part of the deal. You can act patient while feeling impatient, and it’s no lie. But when you fake cheerfulness, you are telling someone else that you feel fine when you don’t.
I fail to see how acting cheerful in spite of sadness is a lie, but acting patient in spite of stress isn’t? Displaying a calm demeanor while screaming inside is just as dishonest as giggling when you’d rather cry.
This superficial opposition between cheerfulness and other, supposedly superior qualities like patience brings us to a fundamental question. Why, exactly, should practicing cheerfulness be a more trivial pursuit than practicing other virtues? Striving to see the bright side in the face of adversity can be a very valuable life skill. While there’s definitely such a thing as too much positivity, the fact remains that we are capable of controlling our own attitudes to an extent – the Stoics weren’t wrong about this. Just as there’s value in purposefully adopting a calm attitude, there’s value in purposefully adopting a cheerful demeanor. It’s not a bad idea to go out and deliberately laugh with our friends instead of wallowing in our misery. ‘Fake it till you make it’ does work in certain contexts – it’s been a staple of cognitive behavioral therapies for a while. As journalist Oliver Burkeman notes in one of his many excellent columns for The Guardian:
Before a public talk or similarly daunting situation, if I remember to stand up straight and broaden my chest, I feel more confident. (Try it now. Unslouch – because you were slouching, weren’t you? – and see if you notice a mood shift.) Likewise, making myself smile usually brings a small improvement; it’s no cure for depression, but the difference is detectable. There’s a reason people have been saying “fake it till you make it” for decades: experience shows it’s true.
If we have the possibility to try and act happy in order to lift ourselves out of a sullen mood – even a tiny bit – why not do so? No matter how irritating the societal pressure to smile can seem, the fact is that sometimes (often) (very often) we are being excessively negative for dubious reasons, and we all know a grouchy someone who could use a bit of cheerfulness once in a while. Sometimes (often) (very often) negativity is very much a choice, and we’re clinging onto our rotten moods as though they were vital components of our identities – for far longer than necessary.
Besides, practicing cheerfulness has another potential benefit, one mentioned by the very Boy Scout code that Alessandri decries in her essay:
Cheerfulness is infections – the smile on your face can lift the spirits of those around you.
Lifting the spirits of those around you seems to me like a very noble pursuit. I’ve had otherwise gloomy days instantly brightened by friends or colleagues who greeted me with happy smiles and funny conversations: sometimes, others acting warm and perky is all it takes to improve our mood.
(Quick note: as someone who has lived in Paris for a while, I can assure you that I find American cheerfulness very uplifting indeed).
The virtue Alessandri would have us embrace, in the end, is complete honesty. We should wear our hearts on our sleeves, displaying our scars for all the world to see. Rather than force ourselves to smile and laugh at people’s jokes, we should not hesitate to show them the true depths of our inner turmoil:
Wearing our natural expression would be a sign that we are saying yes instead of no to life’s kumquats, to sadness, anxiety, illness, grief, depression, loneliness and anger, among other so-called ‘negative’ emotions. These affirmations of life’s sourness might just make frowning – or wincing, or crying – easier. In turn, these newly sanctioned expressions of negativity might make talking easier, honestly discussing hardships. Our newly vulnerable selves would get to see the corresponding vulnerabilities of our close and distant neighbours. This exchange of fragility could possibly be the key to empathy. If we agreed to stop wasting emotional energy masking our disappointments with cheer, then we’d be free to cue into other people’s sadness.
Believe it or not, I feel very comfortable putting on a cheerful mask in front of acquaintances when I’m hurting inside. First, because my issues are none of their business, second, because I’d never want to impose such awkwardness. I’d rather talk about my problems with my friends, my family or my therapist, who are about seven times more qualified to respond than my clueless neighbor. People have their own lives to live; they are under no obligation to solve strangers’ dilemmas. How could they? What could they offer beyond empty platitudes? Not to belittle anyone’s capacity for empathy, of course. But comforting people you don’t know very well is hard. Yes, there are exceptions, but exceptions don’t make the rules. I have no desire to open up about my deepest wounds to my flatmate’s girlfriend when she asks about my day – I suspect she feels the same.
Faking a cheerful demeanor in front of acquaintances (even friends and family) isn’t a problem as long as we’re dealing with our issues appropriately. Sometimes we just don’t need to talk, or maybe not right now. Sharing our pain matters, but that doesn’t mean we should do it invariably with everyone we meet. Practising cheerfulness and being mindful of our own emotions aren’t mutually exclusive concepts.
In fact, a close friend of mine is one of the most cheerful, positive persons I’ve ever met. Her smile is truly infectious: people warm up to her as soon as they meet her, and she has no issues making friends or chatting up to strangers. She’s also very straightforward and speaks of her doubts and fears without filter. Her gaiety doesn’t prevent her from acknowledging her pain or asking her loved ones for help when she needs it.
I understand the author’s point of view. I very much agree that faking joy to deny or repress negative emotions is a recipe for disaster. But that’s no reason to do away with joy altogether. Facing the darkness within may be a necessary step, but at some point, you gotta perk up. No one will do it for you.
The potential downsides to relentless positivity shouldn’t suggest that cultivating a positive outlook, or feigning cheer in certain circumstances, is harmful. Nor does it mean than positivity can’t co-exist with sincerity. Whether we’re sincere or not, self-accepting or not, there’s no need to be constantly moaning about our vulnerabilities – no matter how much Alessandri thinks it would improve our relationships:
If we want to love better and seek true happiness and friendship, it’s time to cultivate honesty instead of cheer.
I see no reason why we couldn’t do both.