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Austin Cline

What is there to Smile About?

By March 9, 2006

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Are you happy? If so, have you ever thought about why? Smiling is something that people may take for granted, imagining that being happy is biological rather than cultural. In fact, there is an important cultural component. At one time, especially in America, patience and suffering were valued more than happiness and satisfaction.

The Winter 2006 issue of the Wilson Quarterly discusses “From Good Cheer to ‘Drive-By Smiling’: A Social History of Cheerfulness” by Christina Kotchemidova, in Journal of Social History, Fall 2005:

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. ... 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. ... 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.

The cultural shift away from suffering and towards cheerfulness sounds like a pretty good idea, and it probably was — but like all good ideas, it’s possible to take it too far. Not surprisingly, that’s just what has happened in America. Before, people were expected to be patient and endure suffering as part of their spiritual development. Today, people are expected to be cheerful and happy all the time, otherwise something is thought to be wrong with them:

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.

Could it really be that trying to be cheerful could end up making a person more depressed? Initially, at least, that sounds bizarre but in fact it’s not so strange: if you think that you’re supposed to be cheerful and spend a lot of time trying to be happy when that’s not what you’re really feeling, the contradictions between your public face and private emotions can ultimately serve to wear you down and make things worse.

Being depressed can be bad, but having to hide that and pretending to be happy will just make it worse. Often, emotions simply need to be released in an outward display before we can get past them. What can be done about this, though? Is there any way for people to get beyond the enforced standards of cheerfulness and give expression to their less cheerful emotions?

 

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Comments
Believer of Christ(1)

believe in Christ alone, receive christ as personal Lord and Savior, the end of times is very near, all people should follow his Word or else you will be punish and go to hell, this is a reminder, Read the bible and the prophecy. i want to save your soul.

November 24, 2008 at 10:44 am
Todd(2)

What about all the people born in China and India? Do they all go to hell for being unlucky enough to be born outside of Christendom? What if they are good people? Looks like your imaginary sky wizard is condemning MOST of the world’s population to eternal suffering for something that isn’t their fault. Doesn’t it seem unfair to punish people eternally for their 70 year life without your Christ character?

December 2, 2008 at 12:44 pm
Jeremy(3)

Save your finger stamina, Todd. The believer’s comment is not an invitation to thoughtful discussion. It’s simply trolling in the name of god.

December 2, 2008 at 1:08 pm
Joan(4)

Seems to me we’ve all heard “the end is near” from christians several times in the past. Needless to say, it hasn’t happened yet. Can Believer explain that? What does that do to the credibility of christians? Or do we just overlook that? Can’t wait for the rapture of 2012!

December 2, 2008 at 1:38 pm

Fraud and Extortion.

December 2, 2008 at 5:19 pm
jaffray Geddes(6)

Any comment, to a one who holds up the Bible
as the absolute word of God, is of little worth or meaning to such people. It merely
gives them the chance to expound their utter nonsense, ‘End Times’ etc etc.

December 2, 2008 at 6:04 pm
Shiva(7)

Oh ye unbelievers and followers of other books. Tora/Islam/Christos.

No ye that the true believers in the ancient Hindu faith (I.5 billion and mounting)will overwhelm you with the help of Vishnu. Ganash,Krishna, and all the devas and devis.
Your Bible cannot prevail over the Gita.
It’s like the banjo prevailing over the guitar

Yagottalarf.

tomedgar@halent.com.au

December 2, 2008 at 7:51 pm
Rock(8)

blah, blah, blah.
….Seriously??
this is getting very tedious.
Please don’t give these idiots anymore airtime.

December 3, 2008 at 1:12 am
Marc(9)

Then the next time let’s agree to give NO response! That’s what they (whoever they are) want.

December 5, 2008 at 9:01 am
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