Essay/
Mood and emotion

Photo by B Anthony Stewart/National Geographic/Getty

Against cheerfulness

Practising the Greek virtues of wisdom and courage is one thing. But being cheerful the American way borders on psychosis

Mariana Alessandri

Photo by B Anthony Stewart/National Geographic/Getty

Mariana Alessandri

is assistant professor of philosophy and affiliate faculty in Mexican-American studies and gender and women’s studies at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. Her work has been published in The New York Times and New Philosopher, among others. 

2,200 words

Edited by Sam Dresser

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I once ended up at a Boy Scout ceremony in the northeast United States, where I inhaled the American spirit unfiltered. The boys’ uniforms had Stars-and-Stripes patches sewn on next to their badges. We recited the Pledge of Allegiance in front of an oversize US flag, and we prayed to America’s vague God, giving thanks for this and that, and asking for some strength or protection. The boys recited their Scout Law: to be trustworthy, loyal, helpful, and… cheerful.

As a philosopher influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche, I’d always imagined cheerfulness was a sickly child, born nine months after a Tinder date between Stoicism and Christianity. But that night I learned that cheerfulness was a British orphan smuggled into the US in the early 20th century, and was now making a living spreading itself all over contemporary American kitsch: throw pillows, coffee mugs and slippers. Cheerfulness has planted deep roots in US soil, and the poor Boy Scouts are made to believe she’s a virtue.

The Ancient Greeks named four virtues: temperance, wisdom, courage and justice. Aristotle added more, but cheerfulness wasn’t one of them. The Greek philosophers didn’t seem to care about how we felt compared with how we acted. Aristotle said that we would ideally feel good while acting good, but he didn’t consider pleasure necessary for beautiful action. Acting virtuously meant steering clear of excess and deficiency. But in order to reach his ‘mean’, we need to jettison every action that misses the mark. Most of the time, the mean is incredibly tough to find, but if it came down to a choice between feeling good while acting badly or feeling badly while acting good, Aristotle said to choose good behaviour. He understood that feelings are hard to control, sometimes impossible, but he also knew that positive feelings like to hang around virtuous actions. While we’re waiting for the good feelings to show up, he asked us to get to work on temperance, wisdom, courage and justice. But he never said anything about smiling through it.

The Roman Stoics inched closer to prescribing cheerfulness when they decided that we should pay attention to our feelings. They believed that we could control our attitudes. But even they didn’t champion cheerfulness, despite the American translators who try to poison them with it. For example, Marcus Aurelius, in his Meditations, advised himself to be εὔνους, literally ‘good-minded’. This was translated into English as ‘good-natured’ by Francis Hutcheson and James Moore in 1742 in Scotland, and then as ‘benevolence’ by the British translator George Long in 1862, before returning to ‘good-natured’ in 1916 under the influence of another British translator, C R Haines. In 2003, Gregory Hays, from Indianapolis, translated εὔνους as ‘cheerfulness’. Maybe Hays was a boy scout. Or Christian. Or both.

To the Stoic list of virtues, the Christians added faith, hope and love. These are a gift from God, unlike patience and justice, which can be achieved on our own. Faith is the belief that with God all things are possible; hope is risking that belief in real time; and love is willing to be wrong about it. These three add an undeniably emotional element to the mix of virtues, but even Jesus didn’t ask for cheer. The closest he got was telling the disciples not to look depressed when they fasted. Paul got even closer when he declared that ‘God loves a cheerful giver’. But the original Greek still sounds more like ‘God loves it when you give without needing to be persuaded’ than like the Boy Scout definition of cheerfulness. But Paul also said that Christians should ‘do everything without grumbling and arguing’. The pivot from action to attitude started by the Stoics and egged on by the Christians set the historical stage for Scout Law in the US.

In 1908, the British Lieutenant-General Robert Baden-Powell created (what would become) the worldwide Boy Scouts movement. He intended to instil good old Christian values into good old British boys. Cheerfulness and other newborn virtues soon circled the globe, hitting the US in 1916. Eventually, the Boy Scouts Association in the UK dropped it: they don’t need to be cheerful any more, according to their Scout Law, even though it was their idea. The lifting of mandatory cheerfulness reflects contemporary British culture, just as the policing of cheerfulness in the US reflects ours.

The Boy Scouts of America associate cheerfulness with positivity: a Scout should ‘look for the bright side of life. Cheerfully do tasks that come your way. Try to help others be happy.’ Instead of grumbling while he toils, a cheerful Boy Scout will cultivate a joyful attitude. He will ‘jump at opportunities’ that others won’t, and is more likely to find difficult tasks more enjoyable than others. Finally, a good Boy Scout believes that cheerfulness is infectious and can spread to those around him.

If you have to tell someone to be cheerful, they aren’t feeling it

It’s no surprise that cheerfulness was embraced not only by Boy Scouts but by the greater American culture too: the US is a melting pot of Christianity, Stoicism, cognitive behavioural therapy, capitalism and Buddhism, all of which hold, to varying degrees, that we are responsible for our attitudes and, ultimately, for our happiness. A quick browse through the self-help section of any US bookstore announces that lots of Americans are desperate to bootstrap their way to the bright side. Texts on embracing life’s miserable condition don’t exactly fly off the shelves. However, books on how optimism can be learned make millionaires out of their authors. They tell us that the key to happiness is positivity, and that the key to positivity is cheerfulness. The aorta of the US economy pumps out optimism, positivity and cheerfulness while various veins carry back US dollars naively invested in schemes designed to get rich quick, emotionally speaking.

Socrates was right in the Symposium when he said that we are attracted to what we are not, and the psychologists behind production and marketing know better than we do the ubiquity of US anxiety, depression and restlessness. Many of us who might not be cheerful by nature get pressured to smile by the reigning notion that we alone are responsible for our happiness. Window-shop in any middle-class city and you will discover a consumer culture desperate to live up to the adage ‘Think like a proton: always positive!’ Homeware stores are filled with reminders of how happy we could be if only we’d listen to our kitschy teacups with printed pseudo-philosophical adages such as ‘Continuous cheerfulness is a sign of wisdom,’ except that teacups don’t know the first thing about cheerfulness or wisdom, or whether they relate to happiness. Look at Denmark: the Danish are not particularly cheerful but, if the statistics are to be believed, they are happier than most. I’ve been to Denmark, and it’s not defiled with messages to ‘Keep calm and focus on cheerfulness.’

If you have to tell someone to be cheerful, they aren’t feeling it. Cheerfulness spontaneously felt and freely given is brilliant, but it is no more virtuous than acting courageously when one isn’t scared. Aristotle insisted that virtuous action be independent of, and sometimes contrary to, our feelings. In other words, virtuous action must be deliberate to count as virtue.

Baden-Powell knew this, and in 1908 he reminded his Boy Scouts that, when something annoying happens:

you should force yourself to smile at once and then whistle a tune, and you will be all right. A scout goes about with a smile on and whistling. It cheers him and cheers other people, especially in time of danger, for he keeps it up then all the same.

Baden-Powell’s words had the power to coerce a generation of boys to pretend that life is good when it isn’t. Cheerfulness advocates still find virtue in this charade. America’s unchecked faith in cheer abounds in our proverbs: ‘You catch more flies with honey,’ ‘Think happy thoughts,’ ‘Life is good,’ ‘Don’t worry, be happy,’ and ‘Laughter is the best medicine’ are all cheer-filled variations on Baden-Powell’s theme of forced bright-sidedness. ‘Minnesota nice’ captures the twisted Midwestern dedication to white-knuckling a positive attitude.

There is a fundamental difference between practising the Greek virtues of patience, justice or courage, and practising the American virtue of cheerfulness, which borders on psychosis. Patience asks us to change our behaviour, but it neither asks us to feel differently nor to pretend to feel differently. Granted, Aristotle believed that practising patience over a length of time would naturally make us more patient, but pretence was never part of the deal. You can act patient while feeling impatient, and it’s no lie. But when you fake cheerfulness, you are telling someone else that you feel fine when you don’t. This encourages the most maddening American T-shirts and aprons that say: ‘Smile! Happiness looks gorgeous on you!’

Cheerfulness conceived as a virtue – à la Boy Scout Law – instead of a spontaneous feeling is a pretence. It’s not an action but it is an act. Whistling while you work might be worth defending, but forcing yourself to smile when you don’t feel like it amounts to lying to the people around you. ‘Fake it till you make it’ has brutal consequences when applied to the emotions. When conceived as the attempt to trick others into thinking that you feel cheery, cheerfulness is far from a virtue. It’s a vice. It falls on the deficiency end of the spectrum of trust. Too much trust is called naïveté, and is a vice of excess. But cheerfulness is just as bad. It confesses: I don’t trust you with my darkest feelings; I don’t think you are responsible enough to handle my inner life. Forced cheerfulness is a denial of life. All experiences taste different, and if we force a smile through the sour ones, we are not living honestly. We might want to lock out certain people from our fragile hearts, but cheerfulness is an equal-opportunity vice; it keeps even my loved ones out of reach. Whoever gets our cheery selves does not get our true selves.

If we stop masking our disappointments with cheer, we’d be free to cue into others’ sadness

Cheerfulness also unwittingly cancels out the Christian virtue of faith. It says: you can’t handle the expression of my feelings, and I deny you the chance to prove me right. Since it is built on the certainty that others will disappoint, cheerfulness lacks faith. It denies possibility. In real life, others probably will disappoint us. If we show them what we are really feeling, they will probably screw it up. But given the emphasis on cheerfulness in the US, as etched into Boy Scout Law, it’s no wonder that they screw it up. Still, a botched attempt at compassion is better than being denied the chance to fail. Here’s an anti-cheerful but virtuous attitude: expect others to fail but give them the chance. Also, recognise when someone is giving you a chance to fail them. Vulnerability is a risk and a gift.

This newest virtue could be given the old name of honesty. Instead of a smile, if we could find it in ourselves to wear our natural expression – the one that the US TV personality Mister Fred Rogers called the ‘best kind of expression’ – we would be better for it. Wearing our natural expression would be a sign that we are saying yes instead of no to life’s kumquats, to sadness, anxiety, illness, grief, depression, loneliness and anger, among other so-called ‘negative’ emotions. These affirmations of life’s sourness might just make frowning – or wincing, or crying – easier. In turn, these newly sanctioned expressions of negativity might make talking easier, honestly discussing hardships. Our newly vulnerable selves would get to see the corresponding vulnerabilities of our close and distant neighbours. This exchange of fragility could possibly be the key to empathy. If we agreed to stop wasting emotional energy masking our disappointments with cheer, then we’d be free to cue into other people’s sadness. The Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno saw expressions of pain exchanged between two people as the great equaliser of humankind. He believed that deeper connections could be made in wreckage than prosperity.

But deep connections come at a cost. Cheerfulness isn’t just an American phenomenon, but it is uniquely built into the nation’s identity as invincible, and it’s not clear that we are ready to part with it yet. To become flesh-and-bone, Americans would first have to give up the idea that happiness is a matter of attitude. This challenges not only the history of the Boy Scouts but, more broadly, the reigning image of the self-made American, the single individual who keeps his chin up and never lets them see him sweat. This narrative was vital in birthing the US and then making it the superpower it is today.

Giving up a commitment to cheerfulness would mean risking judgment for being ordinary, human, mortal. If, however, we could learn to share in the misery of others without trying to cheer them up and send them packing, and if they could do the same for us, then we’d have a shot at true fraternity, the kind that Aristotle prescribed when he said we should live with our friends. The kind that the Boy Scouts crave, and that Baden-Powell thought he was cultivating when he prescribed cheerfulness. Profound human connection and communion – in other words, love – has no use for forced cheer, and is often sabotaged by false faces. If we want to love better and seek true happiness and friendship, it’s time to cultivate honesty instead of cheer.

Mariana Alessandri

is assistant professor of philosophy and affiliate faculty in Mexican-American studies and gender and women’s studies at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. Her work has been published in The New York Times and New Philosopher, among others. 

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