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?