Can You Be Too Cheerful?

I cringe in the face of unrelenting good cheer.

Posted Apr 23, 2011

On the way home from work the other day, I listened to an interesting NPR story about conspicuous conservation, a play on Thorstein Veblen's (1899) notion of conspicuous consumption. In case you need reminding, conspicuous consumption refers to over-the-top and blatant materialism undertaken to show others how well off you might be (even if you are not). In parallel, conspicuous conservation refers to over-the-top ecologically relevant actions undertaken to show others how green you might be (even if you are not). A definition of conspicuous conservation that I like is being frugal in high style.

An example from the NPR story that stuck in my mind was people who put solar panels on the front of their house, not on the roof, because neighbors might not see them otherwise, even though the panels would do much more good on the roof where the sun would actually hit them.

I started to think about the positive psychology equivalent of conspicuous consumption and conspicuous conservation. Keeping with the theme of alliteration, I dub this equivalent conspicuous cheerfulness, strident satisfaction, eternal ebullience, or glaring glee. You get the idea: People who evidence a relentlessly positive stance, not because it is sincere but because it signifies to other people how positive they are. Maybe I'm a somber, skeptical, or cynical kind of guy, but I find relentless good cheer a bit forced, at least when I am on the receiving end of it.

"How are you doing?" I might ask someone.

"Great! Unbelievable! I'm walking on sunshine!" is the constant response of the conspicuously cheerful person.

And I cringe, at least when I suspect this is not an honest answer to the question.

Maybe I should not complain. With the growing popularity of positive psychology, people have learned that happiness and satisfaction are not only attractive but also markers of doing well in life. That is probably an improvement over the not-too-distant past in which cheerfulness was seen as a sign of stupidity or denial.

But it seems to me that appropriate cheerfulness should be our goal, and that involves taking into account who is on the receiving end of our expressed emotions, not to mention the fidelity of what we say about our moods. Also, some variation in cheerfulness is probably a good idea as well, lest a lack of credibility be invited. We should be cheerful about good things but not about bad things. I hate to break it to you relentlessly cheerful folks, but good things and bad things happen, to you and certainly to the rest of us. Indeed, appropriate discontent with the status quo has likely led to almost everything that has improved the world.

Is positive psychology to blame for conspicuous cheerfulness? Maybe yes, maybe no. But I do know that a gathering of positive psychologists is rather overwhelming, with all the hugs and the nonstop expressions of satisfaction and success. Ugh.

What's my point? Sincerity trumps satisfaction, and positive psychology as I understand it does not urge us to be insincere and certainly not to be promiscuously positive. We will have a better world when we figure out what really is good and what really is bad, and when we work to make the good more likely than the bad. Conspicuous and constant cheerfulness works against this action plan.

Reference

Veblen, T. (1899). Theory of the leisure class: An economic study in the evolution of institutions. New York: Macmillan

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