The Genteel
March 9, 2021



Here we are again. That time of year when the daylight thins out, and the darkness arrives more quickly - steady, silent, strong. It's a dense and crippling season caught in a brisk holding pattern of chill and thaw. Each year the changes seem more beautiful because we're older, wiser, and hopefully better off, but each winter seems to come back even harder; you hate it more and you hide inside, throwing around not-so-cute-anymore references to "hibernation." We - and the marketing powers of the world - have also become prone to over-using words like SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder). Words that make you question how you feel/should feel, words that reinforce the need for optimism in these supposed "darkest days," even if it's not the winter of our discontent. Either the season really affects our mood, or we really do want to feel better about feeling crappy. To borrow from one of the most cheerful phrases I know: "Come on, get happy!"

I've always viewed optimism that way - as the thing that pleas with pessimism to keep us climbing Maslow's pyramid.

A hearty feature on the very topic of optimism appeared in this month's issue of Psychology Today. According to new research, optimism and pessimism go hand-in-hand, each vital in navigating life's circumstances and its tough decisions. But I've always viewed optimism that way - as the thing that pleas with pessimism to keep us climbing Maslow's pyramid. Yet some editor, in a national publication, even dared to call the findings "striking." Is it striking that each emotion has a ying to its yang? Or is it striking because of all the other research mapping the battle of happy versus sad that basically say the same thing? Indeed, it appears that "psychologists are even daring to challenge the preeminence of optimism as our most sought-after state of mind." The title of the piece isn't anything more than "Optimism." A steady, strong, silent word that's bursting at the seams with connotations and possibilities. And that sells. The cover line is a particularly precious packaging of a concept exploited to make us feel better about ourselves (and bad if we don't): "How to tap it. How to wield it…or withhold it." (Cover photo: a woman taking a bite out of a happy face. Yum.) It's trickery - and it certainly caught my attention. I mean, that's the beauty about this brand of optimism, it's often packaged with happiness. A two-for-one deal. The big special. The PT piece is especially interesting, and worth the read, because it dissects the apparent North American ideal of a "happy" life - and why it's still primarily a Western obsession. Depending on the person and the day, the need for optimism and happiness as part of a well-rounded life is the biggest first world problem there is. The University of Minnesota's Aaron Sackett puts it perfectly: "In America, optimism has become almost like a cult." Well, of course. It's the only drug left that's potent enough to cure what ails you - spiritually, psychologically and emotionally.

At least that's what they - the economists, specialists and hopeful soul-searchers - keep telling us. It's been feeling like our "darkest days" for a while now, and things have been appearing a little more bleak than usual. It seems as though there's always someone unwell in my extended network at any given moment, and that every news story comes across as critical and crucial. Because each day, a new, crushing, devastating thing happens that hits too close to home or loops constantly on Twitter and Facebook and in small talk, mostly out of necessity for education and awareness. And I'm still thinking too much about Didion's themes and her apparent ability to toil through the bleak. (Using a verb like "work" would make examining topics like grief and gloom sound too straightforward, too easy for what Didion does.) And yet, her solace always returns to a place of magical thinking - a place sprouting from the very seeds of optimism itself.'s not hard to deduct that the Western conceptualization of happiness is nothing short of an aspirational jack-in-the-box.

It's infectious - the idea that any one book could hold the promise of a life change, or that I could be that real-life story of a girl test-driving "happiness experiences" and then penning a book-cum-blog about them. (Uh, no thanks.) Through blogs, "inspirational" self-help-meets-personal journalism and watching the Disney Channel, it's not hard to deduct that the Western conceptualization of happiness is nothing short of an aspirational jack-in-the-box. It can be confusing and alienating, winding yourself up with promises and projects, swelling from repeated self-assurance - until you pop and you freak because that translates into weakness or failure, and you have to start all over again with new solutions that trick you in new ways. But my own search isn't determined by what the media is feeding me. For me, this wading through Western ideals of happiness - the "search" - was never about a life change or the need to find happiness or to love the optimist in me; it was about my right to explore pessimism for a moment, to wallow in confusion and poke at my usually-sedated self-doubt. (And, generally, isn't a person in his or her mid-twenties legitimately allowed to be confused and anxious about the future?)

I constantly ask myself questions about positive thinking and, more often than not, it's all-or-nothing ultimatums - and when we'll begin to legislate this elusive emotion. Gretchen Rubin is still doing her thing while the so-called "happiness movement" marches on. According to an item in the Huffington Post that appeared this spring, "a growing band of economists, politicians and academics thinks so - and is putting theory into practice by starting a 'mass movement for a happier society.'" What they're referring to is the Action for Happiness movement, founded in part by a professor at the London School of Economics, that calls for "hugging, meditation and random acts of kindness." Of course, the point is that happiness is a "serious issue," as we've all been contemplating it for the better part of our post-pubescent lives. And the irony of an economist championing happiness isn't lost in the proverbial Money & Love story, or the more apt 2011 remake, Money & Markets. And the endless parades for optimism continue, too. Given fiscal climates and the general consensus on the state of worldly affairs (sigh, Penn State), it makes sense that governments want to increase the contentment quotient, and the media can sell stories about the reports of studies and initiatives aiming to find/create the happiest places on earth, like a recent one initiated by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. (The Danish, always the Danish.) Let's not even mention all the how-to's designed to help decipher all the love/hate feelings mixing dangerously like beer and liquor in your brain.

The effect of optimism and its place on our sociological agenda also impacts the things we produce culturally, with recurrent themes that seem to circulate and reverberate through different mediums. These expressions of hope are what prove to us that there are parts of our lives that don't always have to remain - or feel, at least - so somber. Creative minds in fields like fashion, music, and art have traditionally thrived in periods where there is a struggle for something better, where faith must be both resorted and rallied. Movements like Occupy spring wholeheartedly out of the deep corners of optimism (not only pessimism), both states-of-mind working in tandem to create something from nothing and right a wrong that will hopefully lead to increased individual glee. Last week in New York, young British artist Matthew Stone opened a mixed media solo show called "Optimism as a Cultural Rebellion," with a message that the New York Times suggests is interesting in a world that needs no more political agitation. What's more compelling about Stone's show is the gallery news release (also cited in the mini-review) that describes optimism as "the vital force that entangles itself with and then shapes the future." And if economic headlines can be constructed to incorporate phrases like "cautious optimism" (much in the way that it seems fashion has been doing for the last two-plus years), I'd say optimism isn't going out of "vogue" anytime soon. Don't forget to smile, though - we're all in this together.



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