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Happiness Consultants Won’t Stop a Depression

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Posted on Jul 27, 2009
AP / Mark Lennihan

By Chris Hedges

Anthony Vasquez, a student at the University of California, Berkeley, worked at FedEx Kinkos for about two years. His store’s slogan was: “Yes we can.”

“It meant that if a customer asked us to do a job for them, no matter what it was, we were to say ‘Yes we can!’ ” he said.

Posters of the slogan were posted on telephones and in the backroom. Corporate auditors enforced the slogan by “Yes we can” call audits. Employees would be punished as a group for failures, and individuals could be fired. Other slogans at the Santa Cruz, Calif., FedEx Kinkos included “Winning by engaging the hearts and minds of every team member” and “I promise to make every FedEx experience outstanding.”

Vasquez worked with a trainee named Sam until Sam was fired. The store managers didn’t announce the dismissal. They kept Sam on the schedule to make it appear he was skipping work and then used this as grounds for removal. After two weeks and some conversations with Sam, Vasquez wrote “Fired” in pencil under Sam’s name on the schedule. It was at that point that Vasquez got a taste of the ideology of modern corporate management, which uses therapeutic forms of social control and calls for group harmony to impose rigid conformity.

Angela and Nancy, the store managers, reprimanded Vasquez with a “positive discipline documentation form.” They charged him with defacing company property.

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“The document explained how I had made ‘false or malicious statements’ against Sam,” said Vasquez. “Angela and Nancy looked at each other, breathed deeply, and asked if I had any comments. I told them they were being duplicitous and that nothing I wrote had been false or malicious. I told them that if they wanted to make our organization a success, they could start by paying me a fair wage. I went on and on until they both threw their hands in the air and told me to stop being difficult. I told them that I wasn’t the one being difficult. They stared hard at me and said, ‘We know.’ ”

Vasquez signed the document and left the office.

“It must have been in 2006, the company was holding another mandatory meeting for team members, which is what they call us,” he said. “I went with a couple of co-workers to Fresno, where we met a lot of other employees from various stores in Northern California. ... The meeting took place in this rented room, and the woman from corporate had all these toys, markers and candy in the middle of each table. The first thing she had us do was organize ourselves according to duration of employment at the company. While in this line, we had to introduce ourselves and say how long we had been working. The girl on the far end had been hired two months prior, the man on the other had been with the company for almost 20 years.”

Vasquez saw that some of his co-workers didn’t like having to speak about private, potentially embarrassing information. But the corporate manager tried to pump them up.

“She spun it so hard I felt dizzy,” said Vasquez. “ ‘Isn’t this wonderful? We have such a wide range of great team members. This really shows what a great place this is to work, and how you can make a career here!’ she said.”

“One man stared at the floor in anger and embarrassment,” Vasquez said. “If he had said anything, she would have e-mailed his center manager and he would have been written up and probably denied a raise. By the way, raises are 25 cents a year.”

“The purpose of the meeting was, her euphemisms aside, to push merchandise and services onto customers that they didn’t want. I believe it’s called upselling,” he said. “She wanted us to talk about our positive customer service experiences. Most of us struggled with this, as nearly all of our experiences with customers and the company had been extremely negative and stressful. But she was all smiles, no matter what we said, and I noticed she was able to make almost everyone there smile and laugh and have a good time. She used the toys, the candy, the markers, and activities like skits and competitions to get people active and involved with each other. She used the happiness and was able to switch its source from human interaction to the company. You aren’t happy because you are being social, you are happy because you work for the company.”

The driving ideology of corporate culture is a blind faith in the power and virtue of the corporate collective. All quotas can be met. All things are possible. Profits can always be raised. It is only a question of the right attitude. The highest form of personal happiness, we are told, is when the corporation thrives. Corporate retreats are built around this idea of merging the self with the corporate collective. They often have the feel of a religious revival. They are designed to whip up emotions. Office managers and sales staffs are given inspirational talks by sports stars, retired military commanders, billionaires and self-help specialists like Tony Robbins who tell them, in essence, the impossible is always possible. And when this proves not to be true, it is we who are the problem. We simply have to try harder.


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By Roberto, July 27, 2009 at 9:21 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Although Hedges is by far the best truthdig has to offer he can be off from time to time. This is one of those times. I do agree with his view of the coorporate ideology and their collective thinking, the company as your god and sole benefactor and those awful cult like company retreats where everything is so tongue in cheek and cynical. The only things that come out of those things is a waste of presentation paper and rolls of good tape and getting drunk and finally sleepin with that co-worker you’ve been trying to nail since you started the job or getting too drunk and sleepin with the whale of your dept -neither is a good thing. Usually the presenters and group leaders don’t even work for the company they are hired from another company and are professional cheerleaders who hold those degrees that Hedges mentioned.
But i totally agree with patrick jones that to marry “academic discipline of Positive Psychology directly to a delusional corporate ideology is probably irresponsible of the author.” How is it not obvious that you’ll do better at any thing if you have good thoughts about it and that a better outlook on life, even in the real bad times, is a better frame of mind to work through it. Come on Hedges, don’t diss hope say yes we can!

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By felicity, July 27, 2009 at 9:20 am Link to this comment

During the Reagan era, appropriately, I was required to attend a day-long seminar on what was basically how management can exploit workers and get away with it - in other words, how to get away with paying labor less so its cost cuts less into the profit margin. 

Eight hours listening to someone preaching the rightness and basic goodness of exploiting other human beings to their disadvantage left me, well, numb.

Much of Hedges’ post reminds me of the age-old belief that people who are rich are good people and god has rewarded them accordingly, while the poor are bad people and god has punished them by making them poor. The belief is no longer voiced, as it once was, but its perniciousness continues to not only infest the very rich but to justify all that they did to get rich and all they do to stay rich.

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By GW=MCHammered, July 27, 2009 at 9:06 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Happiness Consultants bed Corporatism or…
Borderline Narcissistic meets Histrionic Personality Disorder

FROM:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Histrionic_personality_disorder

A mnemonic that can be used to remember the criteria for histrionic personality disorder is PRAISE ME:

P - provocative (or seductive) behavior
R - relationships, considered more intimate than they are
A - attention, must be at center of
I - influenced easily
S - speech (style) - wants to impress, lacks detail
E - emotional lability, shallowness
M - make-up - physical appearance used to draw attention to self
E - exaggerated emotions - theatrical

The HPD is highly reactive. If there is another major disorder present, such as delusional disorder, then emotional intensity will create anger, rage, abuse and distance in relationships.

———————————————————-

“Empire of Illusion, The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle” is right, Mr. Hedges.

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By Rhuen Phreed, July 27, 2009 at 8:55 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Thank you Chris,

I must admit, your ability to get to the crux of these systemic problems is quite amazing. And the unbridled passion to wake people up, well, great.

I do regret that many times I tend to cancel out the part of your work, that is so insightful, because many times I sense a kind of very sophisticated evangelical-izing, embedded throughout you work, more of the post reformation sort. But please consider, I am not prejudice, having done some time at seminary and various zen centers, questing for some approximation of the truth, perhaps, but rather, like you seem to be, I am concerned about the vulnerability of people to be brainwashed,, blackmailed so by threats against their livelihoods, threats to their, economic or social needs/standing, etc..

I am unable to avoid praising you for this article.
Yes, “no drama”, has become synonymous with “no freedom”. And this positive psychology culture stuff, is the most insidious and egregious means of subverting the natural inclination to question imbalance, to live through stages of true personal growth, so that the proper confidence in the citizenry is not suppressed and/or culled.

In Boston, people put in their ads, to seek out/acquire apartment roommates, “no drama please”. I will speak to just about anyone, and I find that many young people, get somewhat frightened when the conversation “deviates” from, “how is the weather”, or “what is your dog’s name”. I do not think they are aware they have come to believe that anything that is not of this “positive” stuff, well, that less than shinny thoughts will negatively effect their bottom line or social standing.

Its all become very subtle this “attitude genocide”, and yes, furthermore, the “social eugenics” that are being practiced on the neighborhood levels, fostered by, as you astutely pointed out, by the workplace environment,,, enforced by corresponding local policing tactics implemented by this new era of local political leaders morphing into chief financial officers.

The psychological/psychiatric professions have much to answer for, as they have merged their fortunes to that of corporate culture, and the doctrine of the positive creates the emphasis on “production”, at any cost, and away from “dysfunction” which of course now implies a negative means of achieving personal happiness satisfaction.

I am a writer by necessity. Do you notice that what you have been writing, and for instance, your new book, well, that there is now some opening for people to hear and understand. I will use this crevice in this decades old madness to start putting some stuff out, but in the meantime I do appreciate you have.

When I studied some economics, back in the day, well, it was pretty clear that systems like ours needed “depressions”, and the pain of admitting there was one, together with the hard would needed to emerge from one, well, this was a good thing, a necessary thing. Just as this “economic depression” has been thwarted, in the sense of being referenced and defined by “positive economics”, so to has the American psyche been thwarted from reacting appropriately to this disaster.

The U.S. citizenry’s ability to inquiry deeply, into the causes of their current insecurity & rage, has been suppressed by the emphasis on “positive based psychology” and “positive based sociology” that created the mindless drone workers of the last 20 years. (and lets not forget how the survival of the fittest delusion plays into this positive illusion, perhaps another time though)

Sure pain stinks, but the lack of options reeks. And this is what “positive economics” does, takes away options, limits reactions, and damages the endurance of a population to consider alternatives to the problems they encounter. 

I do think the time is ripe for a few to wake up from their “positive slumber”. Boy are they going to be negative about this realization?

Rhuen Phreed
11 Marlborough Street
Boston, Ma

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By Kay Johnson, July 27, 2009 at 8:52 am Link to this comment

Recently, I wrote to a friend of mine, via e-mail, a therapist/counselor, with a masters degree, and pointed out some issues I have with the business of psychology in the United States. Issue 1: Blurring the lines between reality and fantasy—what is, and isn’t possible.

I am disgusted that so many professionals tell their clients that “your life is up to you,” and “you can’t blame society.” “Put on a Happy Face” and always exhibit a “positive attitude.” I have actually heard some of these “positive-thinking” TV gurus, some of whom have a raft of credentials, actually tell people to tune out the news, etc. I went on to tell my friend that a therapist/counselor/psychologist might be more helpful to a client if he or she taught their clients to advocate for themselves. For instance, the client’s discretionary income might have just been eaten by added credit/debit card fees and escalated interest charges, or a variable interest rate payment on their mortgage. Few people actually know that the usury laws were dismantled during Jimmy Carter’s administration, and that congress is doing little to rein in the banks. Maybe, those clients should form a group and march, write letters or start a petition. Maybe, someone should tell them that it’s not all in their head. Policies passed and enacted by our elected officials do make a difference in our lives, and those facts should be considered during therapy.

Finally, I asked my friend if she thought that someone who knows nothing about the real job market could possibly be helpful to someone who is out of work. Without an understanding of the economy, can a counselor be helpful? Having a positive attitude is not enough if there are no jobs available in a particular field of expertise, regardless of your education level.

In addition, though, until I read Mr. Hedges’ article this morning, I hadn’t connected two other points of issue—1) “positive psychology” and 2) the business of teaching strengths, abstractly. My friend advertises “positive psychology” and focuses on “strengths.”

Barbara Ehrenreich wrote an excellent book on the subject—BAIT AND SWITCH, about professionals looking for work. As usual, Ms. Ehrenreich incorporates her own brand of humor into the book, as she points out the absolutely absurd “positive” advice given to the jobless professionals by employment counselors.   

When I lost my job a little over two years ago, one of my NYC friends scolded me as we walked together, telling me that the reason I hadn’t found a job was that I wasn’t “positive enough.” At that time, she was completely invested in “The Secret.” And, she was a believer. I’ll admit to a having a natural streak of cynicism—more than once, during my life, my sharp tongue has allowed me to cut through the crap, broken the tension, and allowed me to laugh at myself. This friend told me my humor was negative and that was my problem—possible employers were picking up on my negativity. Of course, I wasn’t trotting off to interviews and auditioning for a comedy show. I do have some idea about what to say and when to say it. Although I was stunned by her response to my situation, I did not go out and buy THE SECRET or any of the other positive-thinking books she recommended. 

A few months ago, I watched the BBC documentary, THE CENTURY OF THE SELF, which illuminates the blurring of the lines between the field of psychology and public relations. Edward Bernays, the nephew of Sigmund Freud, understood the “mind of the crowd” and how to control the “dangerous forces lying beneath the surface.” That would be us—“we the people.”

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By chris, July 27, 2009 at 8:18 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Your article brought back memories.  I was employed by FEDEX, pre-Kinko’s, during the Reagan years.  The positive psychology you talk about permeated every aspect of employment there.  This was the era of “In Search of Excellence” when all good corporate functionaries were thinking “outside of the box” to better meet customer needs.  The Company deliberately understaffed our operation and had us working a lot of over time hours, many double shifts, moving incredible amounts of freight in facilities that had not been designed for the volume.  There were numerous accidents and injuries caused by the heavy workload and sleep deprivation.  As we drones labored we were treated to many mandatory meetings where we were made to “present” to other “team members” and bombarded with company videos and presentations loaded with the kind of nonsense that you detail in your piece.  The same happy smiley “up with people” burbling was accompanied by minuscule raises and horrendous cutbacks of our benefits.

And the cutesy gimmicks! For a while the management took to wearing lapel pins shaped like sunglasses.
Why?  Because as the Regional Manager enthusiastically shouted at one meeting

“The Future’s so Bright We Gotta Wear Shades!”

and then had us listen to the Timbuk3 song(which is actually really ironic) while he and the other bosses bobbed their heads in time to the music and smiled at us.

I left the company around the time they adopted:
“Don’t Worry Be Happy”

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By seekimgee, July 27, 2009 at 7:53 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Right on, Chris!  My company’s national sales conference is in two weeks where we have to endure an endless stream of this psycho-babble.  Even during our weekly meetings, our managers will tell us two conflicting things and expect us to believe both!

I commend you for continuing to speak out against the wars and for the poor and the disadvantaged. You are truly the voice of the people.

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By glider, July 27, 2009 at 7:41 am Link to this comment

Now now Chris this bad attitude of yours is not good for your career!

Seriously, a great article that reminds me of why I retired early, when these types turned a great job into a circus with this kind of crap.  I would like to see a bit of a timeline on when this infiltrated corporate culture.  I really noticed it strongly about 10-12 years ago.  Thanks for this piece!

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By howie bledsoe, July 27, 2009 at 7:39 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

great article! If I were your McManager I´d give you a gold star!

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By Jon, July 27, 2009 at 7:35 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

What’s additionally tragic is how this ‘rah rah’ b.s. has become the norm for very underpaid low level employees without a true stake in the company they work for other than that small bi-weekly check, and used at these employment levels, it’s really intimidating.  Sales organizations, where huge bonuses and other rewards are possible, have used the ‘smile, be happy’ technique forever, but to see it used as described in this article is just wrong, because beneath it is no respect for the person, only the desire to propagandize to those who have no stake in the company.  The rise of the “HR” department is partly responsible for this—-a department most likely staffed with 20-somethings who’ve never worked in those basement jobs they are recruiting for,but who go to ‘team building’ seminars and who have budgets to bring in consultants such as mentioned in the article.  The immaturity level of the typical HR department is stunningly poor, and this too is very bad for employees; and the older employees I imagine are truly embarrassed by the lack of social awareness of their managers and HR people.  When will this stop?

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By m, July 27, 2009 at 7:31 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Dibs on the espresso maker! Thanks Chris, maybe next time one in plain English for the working class?

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By patrick jones, July 27, 2009 at 7:31 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

In this case, marrying the academic discipline of Positive Psychology directly to a delusional corporate ideology is probably irresponsible of the author.

If one were to open the cover of Seligman’s “Authentic Happiness,”  you might find numerous examples that are far deeper and much more profound than base slogans and profit-driven psyche tricks used in a conformist corporate climate. 

Please, try again Mr. Hedges.

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By Krassen Dimitrov kr, July 27, 2009 at 4:06 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Fantastic read! Congratulations!

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