Mandatory Optimism

You can fake a smile. You can fake a laugh. You can even fake an orgasm; just ask Meg Ryan. She was nominated for an Oscar for her role in the 1989 movie When Harry Met Sally in which she faked an orgasm with such gusto it virtually cemented her place in popular culture.

Western culture has a love-hate relationship with faking it. On one hand we are told to “fake it until we make it.” On the other hand we are told, “be real; be true to yourself.” Despite the contradiction, it is generally agreed that happiness and optimism are desirable traits. If you’re not positive, if you’re not an optimist, there must be something wrong with you.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the workplace. To lack enthusiasm is to risk being ostracized by your co-workers. Worse, a soporific demeanor can seriously limit your opportunities for career advancement. If you want to move up the ladder, you had better learn how to turn that frown upside down. The rewards of a cheery, optimistic attitude are clear. Researchers Ron Kaniel, Cade Massey and David T. Robinson studied the effect of an optimistic disposition on MBA students’ job searches and then promotions. They found that optimistic people were more likely to have higher starting salaries and were more likely to be promoted within their first two years on the job. Even those people who were less naturally optimistic could benefit by pretending to be. Walking around the office with a smile on your face and a skip in your step might be the best way to get a raise, or even that corner office everyone is vying for.

The media reinforces excitement as the penultimate human emotion. Public figures feigning – or at the very least exaggerating – excitement are front and centre in the popular press. A professional athlete touts his excitement at being traded to a small-market team; a CEO in a black turtleneck talks about how thrilled he is to announce a new, smaller MP3 player; a Hollywood actress declares her pleasure working with “such a talented cast.” Everyone is smiling. Everyone is thinking positively.

Is there no place in this world for pessimism? Does being excited and enthusiastic make us better workers, better spouses, and better human beings? Science might have the answer. Psychologists are beginning to challenge the idea that optimism is the ideal state of mind; however suggesting that pessimism might serve an important function is almost heresy in a culture obsessed by optimism. “In America, optimism has become almost like a cult,” says Aaron Sackett, a psychologist at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis. To be labeled a pessimist is to risk being alienated and marginalized by co-workers. However, new research suggests that a balance between optimistic and pessimistic thinking may offer a more effective means of making smart decisions.  In her article The Uses and Abuses of Optimism and Pessimism, author Annie Murphy Paul says:

Successful people often employ pessimism in a strategic way to motivate and prepare themselves for the future. It’s simply not the case that optimism is “good” and pessimism is “bad”—although that’s how we’ve been encouraged to think about them. Rather, both are functional. And both have value.

Pessimism is an important counterbalance to optimism. The drawback of suppressing it is well exampled by the great recession of 2008. In a culture that celebrates the excitement of optimism, and all things delightful, who in their right mind would dare risk dissention? Anyone brave enough to question the wisdom of sub-prime mortgages, faced the prospect of being labeled a pessimist, a worrywart or even a fear monger.

Despite the proven benefits of balanced thinking, public perception is hard to change. Excitement and positive thinking are virtually mandatory in modern society. It’s no wonder that people try so hard to appear positive; they are motivated by the attainment of happiness, but as William Bennett noted: “Happiness is like a cat, if you try to coax it or call it, it will avoid you; it will never come. But if you pay no attention to it and go about your business, you’ll find it rubbing against your legs and jumping into your lap.”

Society propagates an illusion that is both unhealthy and dangerous when it limits peoples’ ability to speak truthfully. Allowing for the possibility that bad things really do happen, and that life isn’t a perpetual amusement park ride, we need to allow people the freedom to acknowledge it. Sometimes your job sucks. Sometimes you have a bad day. Sometimes life is tedious. Life is made up of highs and lows, but if we whitewash the world with unrealistic optimism and feigned enthusiasm, we risk losing touch with what makes life worth living: genuine happiness.


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