Specious Optimism

Kitsch is the denial of shit. Milan Kundera

There has always been a socially mediated effort to pigeonhole most forms of critical thinking, analysis, and dialectical assessment as a manifestation of negativity, bitterness, and animosity. Even more disconcerting and trendy is the knee-jerk admonishment of constructive criticism as symptomatic of being a “hater” (this odious neologism must swiftly be placed in the same coffin with subprime mortgages and asbestos). However, unless one wants to be known as the proverbial gadfly while spending their weekends alone, congenial accommodation inevitably becomes the kissing cousin of complicity with manufactured mirth. While it’s true that “being in a good mood” can have many positive health benefits, being levelheaded does not mean you are dyspeptic by default. Furthermore, the best way to maintain an auspicious mood is through developing a realistic outlook that will reduce the likelihood of unexpected emotional devastation. Needless to say, I’m not interested in being an apologist, pimp, or court advocate for online trolls who know nothing about being constructive or appropriately critical. Thoughtful commentary and rational discussion are the panaceas for vituperation.

As the political theorist Hannah Arendt reminds us, sometimes the worst dictatorships are benign. Implied conformity with an uncritically optimistic status quo is maintained by the momentum of tradition and reinforced by a silent contract of consensus (i.e., your bad energy is the reason for your shortcomings). For the sake of efficiency and interpersonal effectiveness, the desire to tow the line can be enticing and oftentimes necessary. But as anyone who has lived long enough knows, reality is not always cooperative with forced euphoria, and one cannot pretend to depoliticize what has already been politically deployed. In addition, not admitting disparities in circumstance is naive at best and pathologically dismissive when taken to its unsympathetic conclusion.

The author Barbara Ehrenreich intrepidly examines our cultural obsession with unmitigated cheeriness in her tour de force entitled Bright-Sided: How The Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. Unapologetic in humor and substance, Ehrenreich systematically unpacks the layers of denial that underpin the mechanics of quixotic felicity and proposes a more realistic and refreshingly reliable approach for psychologically navigating the vagaries of existence. Ehrenreich reminds us, before her intellectual skirmish commences, that there’s nothing wrong with measured anticipation and maintaining a pleasant demeanor. However, consistently lying to ourselves about the nature of reality is generally not a sustainable tactic for enduring long-term adversity. While the potential benefits of Positive Psychology are obvious and should require little more than common sense, the tendency to self-righteously blame others for tribulation due to their lack of “positive vibes” is devastatingly unfortunateespecially if what’s being considered “negative” is simply inquiry and informed contemplation. Recurring life problems require hard-won coping skills, and adapting to misfortune demands rational acceptance before strategies for restoration can be constructed. It’s worth emphasizing that unsentimental realism is necessary for the development of resilience, and being observationally astute or honest is not an endorsement of nihilism. After all, it should not be controversial that natural disasters, unfathomable accidents, and unforeseen circumstances are best understood by impartial investigation rather than employing privileged renunciation, suspiciously cheerful assurance, or denial.

Hope doesn’t have to be the most hopeless thing of all, but hope without sensibility is senseless. More importantly, specious optimism is infinitely less practical than evidence-based confidence, and typecasting those who are willing to confront false promises is demonstrably less than positive.