A Nation of Can-Do Optimists

A brief history of American cheerfulness

When I traveled through Asia and Europe as a teenager, I had a hard time convincing the people I met that I was American. Locals and fellow travelers took me for Canadian, Middle Eastern, southern European. They took me for Mexican, South American, Russian. They took me for anything but what I am: U.S. North American—at least three generations on each side.

“You're too quiet to be an American,” they told me. “You're not friendly enough,” they insisted. “Americans are such a cheery lot.”

And on the whole, we are. Historians of emotion actually note a major shift in the American mood that took place more than two hundred years ago as the whole culture went from melancholy to merry.

Back in colonial days, sadness was cool. Very Euro. Tears signified a noble character. A long face showed that you were sensible and compassionate. British and American diarists alike portrayed themselves as mournful souls—men grieving and women crying. Christians understood suffering as a path to virtue. Puritans asked God to help them stay humble. From New England to Georgia, good Americans wept.

But then something funny happened. Folks hardly noticed it at first, but within a generation everything had changed. Only in hindsight was it obvious: with American independence, sadness started to fall out of fashion. Pessimism was for the weak. The Revolutionary War might have been rather unpleasant for the people fighting it, but the winners walked with a new spring in their step. Good cheer became a marker of self- sufficiency. Who needs England, anyway?

Thomas Jefferson wrote “the pursuit of happiness” into the Declaration of Independence as an inalienable right. He explained to his daughter Patsy that it was part of the American character “to consider nothing as desperate; to surmount every difficulty by resolution and contrivance, to find means within ourselves and not to lean on others.” A smile meant that you were surmounting hard times like the good, strong kid you were. If you were bummed out, maybe you were just a needy good-for-nothing. Women's rights advocates and early abolitionists were told to be patient when it came to their own inalienable rights, but the whole population became notably perky. European visitors commented on “the good humour of Americans.” Bizarrely, even child factory workers were described as “cheerful and healthy.” Self-determination may not have been a part of these kids' American experience, but they were told that with hard work and perseverance it might become their American reality. It was all about pursuit. Chin up!

The “American Dream” promised every broke orphan selling flowers on the street corner a shot at the big time. A classless society! Step right up and become upwardly mobile!

The saying “you create your own reality” was unheard of, but we can see its roots clearly in all these early American notions about success and independence. Business failures were explained away by lack of moral and emotional control. As early as 1793, when a Philadelphia epidemic of yellow fever killed more poor people than affluent, a lot of folks concluded that the disease tended to strike “weak minds.” I guess they didn't notice that most of the rich kids in Philly fled—and even those who stayed behind had better access to clean water.

With the rise of the American middle class came even more good cheer. Part of the class identity, after all, was based on learning to manage our emotions. The modern middle-class mind-set called for keeping our spirits up even in the face of adversity. Displays of happiness came to be seen as status symbols—a sign of prosperity even when there was no prosperity to speak of. In her paper “From Good Cheer to ‘Drive-By Smiling': A Social History of Cheerfulness,” the communication theorist Christina Kotchemidova writes that “the symbolic value of good cheer rose as it became a necessary part of attaining status in capitalism.” Taking it further, she writes, “Moderns developed an impatience with helplessness, which was accompanied by a distaste for grief and later translated into male aversion to tears.”

In 1837, the journalist Francis Joseph Grund noted that the average American seldom complained because “the sympathy he might create in his friends would rather injure than benefit him.”

In a nation built on the assumption that everyone ought to pursue happiness, failure to achieve that happiness meant you were a loser. Cheerfulness abounded, and “no one dared to show himself an exception to the rule.”


As Americans' worldwide reputation for friendliness took hold, we ladies became responsible for a particular brand of happiness on demand.

A woman “owes it to her husband and to the world, to be cheerful,” William Alcott told us in his 1837 book The Young Wife.

Women authors agreed. If you studied the art of housekeeping in 1869, you might have learned it from Catharine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe's classic, The American Woman's Home:

"There is nothing which has a more abiding influence on the happiness of a family than the preservation of equable and cheerful temper and tones in the housekeeper. A woman who is habitually gentle, sympathizing, forbearing, and cheerful, carries an atmosphere about her which imparts a soothing and sustaining influence, and renders it easier for all to do right, under her administration, than in any other situation. The writer has known families where the mother's presence seemed the sunshine of the circle around her; imparting a cheering and vivifying power, scarcely realized till it was withdrawn. Every one, without thinking of it, or knowing why it was so, experienced a peaceful and invigorating influence as soon as he entered the sphere illumined by her smile, and sustained by her cheering kindness and sympathy. On the contrary, many a good housekeeper, (good in every respect but this), by wearing a countenance of anxiety and dissatisfaction, and by indulging in the frequent use of sharp and reprehensive tones, more than destroys all the comfort which otherwise would result from her system, neatness, and economy."

Who wouldn't want to be “the sunshine of the circle around her”? But what might that mean, to “more than destroy all the comfort”? Our failure to be that smiling sunshine didn't just mean we were bad housekeepers—it was worse than that.

The Victorian days brought not only the rise of the “expert” and all these advice books but also a strange epidemic of “nervous disorders” among women. Diaries from the time give us hundreds of examples of women falling into what would now be diagnosed as chronic fatigue or depression. Doctors called it “neurasthenia” or “Americanitis,” “nervous prostration,” “hyperesthesia,” “melancholia,” or the infamous “hysteria.”

Good old Hippocrates, the Greek “father of medicine,” coined that term—“hysteria”—and it was used to describe pretty much anything that ailed a woman's heart or mind. It included symptoms like anxiety, weakness, headaches, cold legs, muscle aches, water retention, menstrual problems, indigestion, grumpiness, troublemaking, and, my favorite, gnashing of teeth.

What caused this strange medical-emotional condition?

The uterus, of course.

Seeing it as the dominant organ in a woman's body, experts claimed that if we let that little womb of ours get “discontented and angry,” it might just start wandering around our body in search of children. The cure? Hippocrates suggested marriage. By the late nineteenth century, the diagnosis had become as common as corsets. The preferred cure of the era was pelvic massage and “hysterical paroxysm”—otherwise known as orgasm.

The diagnosis and treatment of women became big business.

Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, the so-called greatest nerve specialist in the country, earned more than sixty thousand dollars a year (the equivalent of well over a million in today's economy), but, alas, some of those Victorian “nerve specialists” didn't enjoy the tedious task of massaging their patients to climax. And so it was, in the 1870s, perhaps the only good to come of all these bizarre and long-held medical theories, the invention of the vibrator. A great time-saving device for doctors, the first known electro-mechanical vibrator was used at a French asylum in 1873—for the treatment of hysteria.

Ah, to be a woman at any moment in Western history.


At the turn of the twentieth century, when the advertising industry as we know it really started taking shape, there was a curious shift in marketing strategy from the “warning ad” that convinced us, for example, to buy mouthwash because bad breath might lead to lifelong spinsterhood, to the “product satisfaction ad” that promised leisure and happiness if we just purchased this one particular mouthwash or insurance plan.

Advertisers learned to accentuate the positive, and the idea that success bloomed from optimism kept growing strong.

Despite its European imagery, The Secret, the 2006 believe-and-achieve bestselling book and DVD, was directly inspired by a 1910 book only an American could have written: The Science of Getting Rich by Wallace D. Wattles.

As the century progressed, scholars and historians of emotion would notice that in America, virtually all sentiments except cheerfulness started to get a bad rap. Christina Kotchemidova breaks it down like this:

"Romantic love became a subject of ridicule with the liberalization of the body and the sexualization of desire. Anger came to be seen as “aggressiveness,” which civilization had made inadmissible. Fear was found to be traumatizing and was minimized in the school exam system. Grief was tuned down with the rise of social care and the hospitalization of death. Mother love was said to produce “Mama's boys” and to incapacitate children. Jealousy became a sign of weakness and with the rise of individual freedom, was socially sanctioned as a form of “possessiveness,” and so forth . . . The American etiquette obliged everyone to be nice and “niceness” excluded strong emotionality. Emotional restraint was advocated across the board amounting to what Peter Stearns has called “American cool.”

Joy was practically the only discrete emotion that remained positive."

But we didn't want to be too joyful. We were still good Puritans. The goal was not to get swept up in happiness but to exude good cheer, to be pleasant, and to smile. Always smile.

Don't have a college education? If you're cheerful enough, you might not need one. The sunshine spirit of the ideal Victorian wife soon found its way into the workplace. To beat the competition, salesmen had to learn to be pleasant. “Smile school” was introduced on American railroads in the 1930s. Dale Carnegie's 1936 classic, How to Win Friends and Influence People, taught that smiles and kindness were the best tools in both business and social life. Over the years, the book sold more than fifteen million copies.

The radio dramas in the 1940s brought with them a uniquely American invention: the laugh track. Amusement was important and, apparently, we had to be instructed when and where to express it. The laugh track would be an integral part of American television in the 1950s. In his article “A Short History of the Laugh Track,” Ben Glenn II waxes nostalgic: “Over the years, having watched rerun after rerun, we all have come to know and love those nameless laughers whose voices we recognize, and who can always be counted on to assure our amusement.” The funny thing is that in the drama of television, no other emotion seems to need to be assured. There are no cry tracks.

In the early 1950s, the Christian minister Norman Vincent Peale penned a little book called The Power of Positive Thinking. Americans ate it up. It stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for more than three and a half years, sold some twenty million copies, and was ultimately translated into dozens of languages. Peale encouraged us all to make it “a habit to be happy.” He advocated repeated self-hypnosis—or affirmation—as the key to harnessing divine power. No more negative thinking for you.

Easier said than done, perhaps, but the good minister made it sound simple. He co-founded Guideposts, a monthly magazine full of inspirational stories. More than half a century later, it's one of the largest paid-circulation magazines in the country.

“Empty pockets never held anyone back,” Peale insisted. “Only empty heads and empty hearts can do that.”

A survey of 1950s women's magazines reminds us that women were expected to be the cheeriest of the cheerful. Betty Friedan chronicled the media image of that happy smiling housewife in The Feminine Mystique. The message from the media was simple: no matter what's going on in your life or in the world, the answer is always cheer up.

And then there is that most American of icons, the yellow smiley face. The year was 1963, and State Mutual Life Assurance in Worcester, Massachusetts, had a little problem. A company merger had hurt employee morale. So managers came up with an idea—they'd start a “friendship campaign” and encourage workers to smile more. They hired the graphic designer Harvey Ball and paid him forty-five dollars to design a logo. He drew a simple smile with two eyes and made the background a cheery sunshine yellow. Ball might have become a rich man if he'd thought to trademark his work. In 1970, the brothers Murray and Bernard Spain added the phrase “Have a happy day,” copyrighted the words and image, and made millions selling buttons, cards, key chains, and cookie jars emblazoned with the smiley face.

In her study of airline culture first published in the early 1980s, Arlie Russell Hochschild describes the “relax and smile training” that had become a part of the professional education.

Delta Airlines trained flight attendants to cheer up one another as well as the passengers. Like the old Victorian marriage guides, training manuals encouraged flight attendants to cultivate a smile that shone “from the inside out.” According to Johni Smith, author of How to Be a Flight Stewardess or Steward, “The best part of a flight attendant's job is sharing her enthusiasm with new-found friends.”

Today, a quick keyword search for “cheerful” on any number of Internet job sites turns up hundreds of positions—from line cook to dental assistant to bank teller to school portrait photographer. A smile gets the job done.

The International Student Federation at Saint Louis University actually cautions foreign students about American friendliness in a cultural primer, saying, “If an American seems friendly it does not necessarily mean that she/he has developed a friendship with you.” It's sort of heartbreaking to imagine the kinds of misunderstandings that inspired the warning. The pamphlet goes on: “As is probably true in your culture, friendships are developed over a period of time. Although Americans may refer to classmates as friends, often they are acquaintances rather than true friends.”

So, what's the harm in a little cheerful friendliness, even if we don't really mean it? Hochschild wonders about the false self we create when we turn happiness on and off like a light, when we use emotion as a commodity in the workplace. As women, we were taught to use our emotions at home, too, as a service to our families. We were taught that a cheerful, nurturing mother-wife would make our loved ones feel safe. True happiness and love were preferable, of course, but we were trained to set the emotional mood even if that meant ignoring our genuine feelings.

But here's the trouble: the manufacture of happiness actually leads to emotional burnout. There's an ironic correlation between forced cheerfulness and depression. And when cheerfulness is considered the rule, even ordinary sadness or frustration—feelings that would be considered normal in many other cultures and at many other times in history—can easily be interpreted as illness.

Delta Airlines, which institutionalized positive emotional management in the 1970s, now spends nine million dollars a year paying for antidepressants for its employees and their dependents.

Hochschild writes, “When the product—the thing to be engineered, mass-produced, and subjected to speed-up and slow down—is a smile, a mood, a feeling, or a relationship, it comes to belong to the organization and less to the self. And so in the country that most publicly celebrates the individual, more people privately wonder, without tracing the question to its deepest social root: What do I really feel?”

In his short story “Love Is a Thing on Sale for More Money Than There Exists,” the New York writer Tao Lin imagines a scenario not too far from plausible: “The president brought out graphs on TV, pointed at them. He reminded the people that he was not an evil man, that he, of course, come on now—he just wanted everyone to be happy! In bed, he contemplated the abolition of both anger and unhappiness, the outlawing of them. Could he do that? Did he have the resources? Why hadn't he thought of this before?”

As Americans, we've been taught that it is our right—in fact our duty—to pursue happiness. Our attainment of happiness has been used to measure our success and personal worth. As women, we've been conditioned to see it as our job to set the emotional tone in our families, our relationships, our workplaces, and our sporting arenas. We've been told by a thousand doctors, psychologists, advertisers, and career coaches what we should do if we want to be happy. Failing that, we've learned how to look happy.

Excerpted from Bluebird: Women and the New Psychology of Happiness (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2010)


America, Economics, History, Global and Local


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Also in this Issue

The Long Look Back

Pursuing the Science of Happiness

Love Thy Neighbor (Sometimes)

A Nation of Can-Do Optimists

How Courtenay Got Her Funny Back

Laughing Into the Abyss

Funny Is All I Got