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Joshua FoustBack to OpinionJoshua Foust

The tyranny of happiness

Last week, Kansas City hosted a TEDx conference, where exciting people spoke about exciting ideas. One speaker who stood out for several reasons was Jenn Lim, the “chief happiness officer” of a company called Delivering Happiness. One participant, inspired by her talk, wondered, “what if we made the good stuff more visible and showed just how much more frequent and pervasive peace and happiness are then we may at first realize?”

It is a powerful thought: If only we could realize just how good everything really is — if we could be as optimistic as we should be — then we wouldn’t be so sad about the world, and as a result we’d work harder, do better and get sick less. This sort of “positive thinking” has become a hallmark of the Dr. Phil set, as people try desperately to make lemonade out of life’s lemons.

But such a focus on positive thinking is a bit of nonsense. In his brilliant 1921 novel “We,” Yevgeny Zamyatin used a future totalitarian society — modeled on the Bolshevik revolution — to highlight how tyrannical an obsession with happiness can be. For Zamyatin, the totalitarian One State defines freedom and happiness at first as opposites: man can choose to be free, or he can give up his freedom for happiness. While Zemyatin eventually resolves this conflict, his imagined future society values a narrowly defined idea of happiness above all other considerations, including freedom, love and choice. The result, as any fan of Orwell or Huxley can imagine, is a nightmare.

In America, the happiness industry became militarized when the legendary guru of positive thinking, Martin Seligman, helped found a $145 million Pentagon program in 2008 to teach optimistic thinking to veterans returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This soon resulted in a $31 million no-bid contract Seligman won last year, where he is to conduct “resilience training” for soldiers – that is, to help them think happy thoughts about the trauma they experienced in combat.

America’s relentless focus on happiness was the subject of Barbara Ehrenreich’s 2010 book, “Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World.” In it, she describes the pervasive cultural push to think happy thoughts requires “deliberate self-deception,” since if the world really was as wonderful as the positive thinking advocates say it is, then we shouldn’t have to try so hard to think happily about it.

Ehrenreich wrote “Smile or Die” in the aftermath of her battle with breast cancer, where she was urged by her doctors, friends and family members to look at her illness optimistically. She refused, and found, through careful study of medical journals, that optimism actually has no bearing on the survival rate of breast cancer victims. Optimism might have its own value psychologically — most people would probably prefer to be chipper and happy — but it has very little bearing on the outcome of most events.

Positive thinking can have destructive consequences. While probably not part of a deliberate effort to “think happy,” the Bush administration engaged in the worst sort of “positive thinking” when it chose to invade Iraq. Declarations that the Iraqi people would welcome American soldiers with flowers and happiness were met, in very short order, with a brutal insurgency that killed nearly a hundred thousand people in just a few years. In Afghanistan, the government’s rose-colored outlook blinded it to the rise of the Taliban in 2004 and 2005, and misguided optimism about the war’s trajectory prevents radically altering any war policies even now in 2011.

In Libya, positive thinking threatens to blind us to the very serious challenges remaining both for the rebels and for the international community’s relationship with them. While a number of voices are urging caution and planning, just as many are both celebrating the euphoria of throwing off a hated tyrant and denigrating any who suggest a calm consideration of what happens next. Libya was a war fought without a strategy; now, the optimism of assuming the rebels will somehow get everything right once they occupy Tripoli could blind planners to any negative outcomes of the political transition.

Indeed, when it comes to national security, pessimism and cynicism are often better facilitators of sober, forward-thinking policy than optimism and credulity. Assuming that a policy will turn out poorly allows policymakers to consider the most dire consequences of action, allowing the double benefit of rarely being surprised by disastrous blowback, and always being happily surprised when things work as planned.

Thinking more pessimistically about the war in Iraq from the beginning would have sooner revealed the desperate need to deal with an insurgency opposing the occupation of Baghdad. Cynicism about the people of Afghanistan would have prevented the years of skillful manipulation of well-meaning cash-addled American commanders by cunning thugs who have transferred billions in reconstruction dollars to their villas in Dubai. Just a tiny bit of wariness about America’s involvement in supporting, sponsoring, arming and now recognizing the Libyan rebel movement might have opened the door to real contingency planning should, say, a deadly Iraq-style insurgency led by pro-Gaddhafi loyalists springs up around Tripoli.

In other words, pessimism spurs better decision making. “Hope for the best and plan for the worst” is a cliché, but it is also sound advice that Washington ignores far more often than it heeds. Many of the foreign policy missteps America has made in the last decade have resulted from far too much positive — some would say magical — thinking and far too little skepticism. Rather than spending hundreds of millions of dollars trying to teach soldiers to think happier, the Pentagon should think instead about the disastrous decisions that create the need for happy thought.


  • danielet

    After WWII I was a refugee for about a decade until I reached Paris, a decade later I came to the US. Frankly, from a small child I was taught that discipline, not optimism, would see me through. Why? Because no one dared predict the next minute. Listening to my parents’ refugee friends throughout the refuge and after, I thought that life is like Homeric tales of heroes where those who never gave up never lost. As I got older I realized that 90% of us “refugees” never made it. And surely they had been as disciplined, if not more, as us. Now, a bio-scientist, I came to realize how important, not only to our lives, but to the evolution of life itself, is dumb-luck.

    Here I saw God used as a partisan of Americans, certain that they’ll win because God is on their side. The only time Americans claimed to have done it on their own is when they had come up with a venture capital business gimmick based on premise that there’s a sucker born every minute. Indeed, Americans are the most generous people in small change and the most predatory in $$$. But we had also become killers for we go to “save” people and then destroy them because our altruistic propaganda soon turns into asking “what’s in it for us?”

    We went to get alQaeda but turned that into expeditionary control of Mideast & Central Asian oil through killing. “ain’t my kid going to war” permits Americans to feel “disconnected” now so that they can tolerate sending our kids out to kill. We do our duty our duty and give them to best weapons money can buy to kill everyone of “that” that doesn’t appreciate our expeditionary force. Behind the simple Christians against Evil narrative is a theft of the wealth of others and the theft of our wealth by the likes of Petraeus for whom a surge means more cash for the Pentagon. Now they fear defeat because our enemy is willing to die killing us while we’re only willing to die killing them so that we can live. With preemption at the lowest level we’re a Holocaust machine just like the Israelis.

    The positive thinking is not for real. If it we’re we’d all enlist. It is just a way of avoiding dealing with the dumb horror stupidly done in our name by Bush and Obama. We trained ourselves to be duped by as men as if they were anesthesiologists. We’re optimistic because we can because we swallow the bull about the omnipotence of our weapons industry and military. But like our capitalists they are proving to be rather mediocre people for our best and brightest go into making money. Defeat economically and militarily by our own mediocrity covered up by omnipotence ads, we suffer repeat Santayanian moments repeating all the dumb things of the past because we never introspect. We look forward, like the pundits thinking they can make a good living as bloggers, thinking that America is where anything can happen. We can think that way because we are blind and “disconnected” from our fellow citizens, the mass majority for whom “entrepreneurship”– French for the evil taker in the middle– did nothing. America is a Ponzi scheme of illusory hope, each of us hopeful that we’ll some day be as well off as those well off because the rest of us as those suckers born every minute.

  • TL

    It appears that there is conflation of a lot of conflicting ideas and ideologies all based on a fundamental misunderstanding about what happiness is and is not. Happiness is only possible through giving up on being self-centered. It is that simple and difficult. When we focus on ourselves and what we possess, we are constantly comparing, obsessing, acquiring. None of this will lead to happiness.

    Resilience comes from being realistic about what is and is not and acknowledging that we can’t know the future. It is as delusional to assume the worst as it is to expect the best. Being resilient is assessing what is, training against your weakness, never giving up and accepting incremental successes. 

    Neither happiness nor resilience has anything to do with coercing, manipulating or exploiting either ourselves or others. It is the result of compassion and wisdom. I know this because I know truly happy people whose happiness depends on what they control (their own minds).not what they can’t (everything else).

    It is my goal to be happy. As a very young child, I was happy. Then I became a miserable and hostile person for about 35 years. Then I realized that I could change and so I have for the last 20 year. I’m not as happy as my role models but I am happy more of the time than not and I continue to make progress.