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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.