Exploring the History of Faux Positivity for CR Fashion Book Issue 14


Like a child’s game of make-believe, the positive-focus movement is dictated by a highly unscientific brand of magical thinking: you are the master of your fate and the captain of your soul, and if you don’t march into each day brimming with #goodvibesonly, you are actively courting tragedy, heartbreak, terminal illness, and financial ruin.

In this frighteningly simplistic worldview, it is you who makes the weather, and the only way to guarantee cloudless skies is to beam with sunshine. No less than Jack Canfield, the co-author of America’s #1 warm-and-fuzzy bible, Chicken Soup for the Soul, has stated that: “Successful people maintain a positive focus in life no matter what is going on around them. They stay focused on their past successes rather than their past failures.”

While one could argue that accomplished people are often spurred forward by defeat, the ideal of optimism endures. And its use as a gold standard (rather than a blue-sky aim) can be found—for Americans at least—in the very words that undergird our country’s ethos.

When Thomas Jefferson composed the Declaration of Independence in 1776, he asserted certain inalienable rights, including, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” While “life” may be a given, and “liberty” an appropriate proposition given the nature of the document, “the pursuit of happiness” does give pause. Why happiness? As opposed to, say, justice, adventure, or truth? At the tail end of the 18th century, such sentiment was hardly l’air du temps. Just 17 years earlier, Voltaire wrote the satirical Candide, which scathingly critiqued the notion of a life lived in ignorant bliss by illustrating an increasingly craven world riddled with war, slavery, and cannibalism.

Yet, in an 1825 letter, Jefferson stated that “the object of the Declaration of Independence…was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion.” By eschewing total authorship, Jefferson is foisting his purview onto an imagined populous without consent. English scholar Carol V. Hamilton argues that, in fact, Jefferson likely cribbed his ideas on happiness from Enlightenment philosopher and empiricist John Locke. “Jefferson’s intellectual heroes were Newton, Bacon, and Locke,” writes Hamilton, “and it was actually in Locke that he must have found the phrase… Locke wrote: ‘The necessity of pursuing happiness [is] the foundation of liberty. As therefore the highest perfection of intellectual nature lies in a careful and constant pursuit of true and solid happiness; so the care of ourselves, that we mistake not imaginary for real happiness, is the necessary foundation of our liberty.’”

Alas, for Americans, “imaginary happiness” held an allure too seductive to pass on. Fast forward to the age of advertising, and we see the promise of happiness in a bottle, marketed through pert, polished images found in magazines and newspapers. In a 1925 piece for the Atlantic Monthly, economist Stuart Chase stated: “Advertising…creates a dream world: smiling faces, shining teeth, school girl complexions, cornless feet, perfect fitting union suits…” This was not an accident: the motivational impulses that these dark charms conjured in humans were well understood by the leading psychologists of the age. Led by Sigmund Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays, the self-styled “father of public relations,” psychologists who understood and capitalized on Freud’s pleasure principle—broadly, “the instinctive drive to seek pleasure and avoid pain”—were part and parcel of advertising that was increasingly “dreamed up.”

Perhaps the most infamous of these psychologists was Dr. Ernest Dichter, “the Freud of Madison Avenue,” who held a position at Esquire magazine before becoming the director of psychological research at J. Stirling Getchell’s ad firm. Time magazine quoted Dichter as claiming that “he is the first to apply to advertising really scientific psychology,” and Dichter as imploring an advertiser to “use his leadership to combat the guilt feeling among the American people, to convince them that it is all right to enjoy life.” And like a communicable disease, positivity infected everyone it touched in the 20th century, including the most avant-garde creative minds.

The legendary first encounter between John Lennon and Yoko Ono—in 1966, at a preview of Ono’s exhibition at Indica gallery—finds Lennon climbing a ladder to view a ceiling piece that Ono created, which was so small it required a magnifying glass for viewing. Of the piece, Lennon said, “In tiny little letters it says ‘yes.’ So it was positive. I felt relieved. It’s a great relief when you get up the ladder and you look through the spyglass and it doesn’t say ‘no’ or ‘fuck you’ or something, it said ‘yes.’”

And while there is something undeniably sweet about Lennon’s “yes” fetish, the contemporary iteration of positive focus takes things to the edge of extreme, bedazzling the affirmative in an ill-fitting cloak of timeless truth. In 2006, a film began to make its way into the lives of people looking for a way to exhume the yucky moral guilt that was dampening their happiness. The Secret, created by a modern-day Thomas Jefferson named Rhonda Byrne, promised happiness via “The Law of Attraction”: “the essence of that which is like unto itself, is drawn.” This law, touted as proportional to the law of gravity in its ubiquity, is underscored by the claim that this “secret” was not fluffy New Age mumbo-jumbo, but in fact ancient wisdom created by Hermes Trismegistus, the person or people associated with the hermetic tradition.

Armed with the idea that thinking happy thoughts was not a way to avoid reality but in fact a way to create it, some dreamers of a golden dream took the bull by the horns, and began organizing lifestyles based on the principles of The Secret. Steeped in sound baths and redolent of kombucha, this population is certainly on a healthier path than the typical crash and burns manifested by many whose lives become a never-ending series of setbacks and calamities, as pessimism is not likely to be any more factually accurate than optimism. But reality, for all, is filled with events and circumstances that are not in and of themselves joyful, no matter how wide one’s fake smile gets. As no less than psychoanalyst Carl Jung confirmed: “The more you deliberately seek happiness the more sure you are not to find it. It is therefore far better to take things as they come along, with patience and equanimity.” To say yes to all experiences, to life in its problematic totality, might be the better way to encounter moments of authentic happiness in the pursuit of meaning.

CR Fashion Book Issue 14 is now available on newsstands. To order a copy click here, and sign up for our newsletter for exclusive stories from the new issues.



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