There’s an extract from the Daily Show that has been stuck in my head for years. In 2010, Jon Stewart started his interview with Barbara Ehrenreich with a cheerful “What’s up, grumpy?”. Ehrenreich, author of several bestsellers focused on the paradoxes of contemporary American society, was at the time promoting her new book “Bright-sided: how the relentless promotion of positive thinking has undermined America” (2010), where she expatiates on the source of positive thinking and its economic implications.
The motivation to investigate this issue came to her after being diagnosed with breast cancer. Back then, the author sought support and empathy among those who suffered from the same disease, having been confronted with a community of doctors and patients that motivated her to be more positive. Cancer was presented to her as an opportunity for growth, for personal valorization and as an obstacle that would make her stronger when she got over it. When faced with a serious illness, a person is continually advised to recite positive affirmations that are supposed to reinforce her immune system and work her attitude. But, how are fears and real obstacles validated in this society? That was the question raised by the journalist when she realized that none of that positivism was helping her deal with her problem.
I sure do understand this point of view. When I was seven I flew off a carousel at the Feira Popular (Lisbon Amusement Park) that resulted in an exposed fracture. Thirteen years later, the car where I was driving rolled over and my right hand suffered the consequences. I got 4 reconstructive surgeries and still, to this day they tell me I “was extremely lucky”. The truth is that all the scars are visible on my skin. And the greatest luck would have been for me not to go through any of these experiences. They did not make me a better person, they did not teach me how to overcome obstacles, the were not opportunities to grow. They only hurt me in ways words cannot describe. And telling me how lucky I was, is to steal from the pain the meaning it had for me and force me to fit it into some conformity that blocks it. Why should I feel I failed just because I don’t feel optimistic about my suffering?
Let’s go back to well-being.
Ehrenreich noted that the emphasis placed on optimism and individual responsibility, apart from an iron discipline, nullified the excuses for failure. She started an analysis of the market based on what se verified through her experience. The journalist found that the destruction of the middle class as we know feeds an industry of life coaches and gurus, DVDs and self-help books, that aim to stimulate positive thinking in response to the loss of ability to deal with obstacles and negative results. And, clearly, also boosts a booming industry of antidepressants. If “all things are possible through mental effort” (Einrereich, 2010:33), what is the excuse for failure, illness, unemployment and the crisis? From Ehrenreich point of view, we must prepare ourselves for obstacles and not be afraid of our emotions.
To blame those who do not feel happy requires a shallow exercise of the conditions that led to the problems and turn us into narcissists, exposes us to hyper-individuality and feeds an industry of happiness that does not play in our favor. On the contrary, it stimulates social control, drives an extremely profitable business and hold us accountable for the injustices that institutions and markets create. Worse: it reduces our emotions to standards, happiness to responsibility, sadness to a burden and empathy for the problems of others (since each one must take care of himself first) to a utopia. We do not need cheerleaders, but realism.
But we can dig deeper. The new selfcare (excuse me, #selfcare) trend associated with a resilience and a community of people who are learning to “like themselves” unfolds into products and services duly framed in global marketing and social networks. But, there is a story behind this newly discovered novel, that follows the need to not only like ourselves, but to also show others that we do. If, in these days selfcare was entitled to a rebranding (a kind of soul botox), fifty years ago it served as a motto for marginalized communities to reinforce their value in the face of socio-economic adversities with which they were confronted. It was a political symbol of resistance to oppression, not a filter-laden photography and hashtags of a smoothie with twenty superfoods and 250,000 likes. And much less equated to a morning routine that begins with water lemon, followed by three mantras and meditation. I mean, at least not here at home. Here we begin by taking care of others, namely by turning off the alarm clock in a hurry, with our ‘boogers eyes’ and injecting insulin into a cat while he eats distractedly.
As Kisner puts it, these popular online behaviors isolate us. The taking care routine is ripped from the original sense, our anxieties are detached from the conditions that created them and they compel us to focus on our individual dramas. Therefore, empathy and real sense of community are broken, instead of collectively finding ways to change the institutions responsible for the problems. In other words, divide to conquer.
Maybe connecting to the self and taking care of ourselves first has more than it says. Maybe not everything is a miracle or a blessing from the universe. Maybe my mantras do not attract good health or money. Maybe I’m not totally responsible for my problems. And, maybe I do not want to be happy and drink from the same source of well-being as most. I may want to take care of others first or just let my scars tell us less happy stories and not mask pain with good vibes. Maybe I’m not able to find the good in all situations because there are some that are just unfair and bad.
Or, who knows, Jon Stewart was right when he asked Ehrenreich at the end of the interview: “Do you think there will be a happiness crash?”.
This post was originally written in Portuguese. Click here for the original text.
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