Happiness Consultants Won't Stop a Depression
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.
“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. The belief that by thinking about things, by visualizing them, by wanting them, we can make them happen is magical thinking. The purpose, structure and goals of the corporation can never be questioned. To question, to engage in criticism of the corporate collective, is to be obstructive and negative. We can always make more money, meet new quotas and advance our career if we have enough faith. This magical thinking is largely responsible for our economic collapse, since any Cassandra who saw it coming was dismissed as “negative.” This childish belief discredits legitimate concerns and anxieties. It exacerbates despair and passivity. It fosters a state of self-delusion. And it has perverted the way we think about the nation and ourselves.
Corporate employees, like everyone else, are gripped by personal dilemmas, anxieties and troubles. They are not permitted, however, to ask whether the problem is the corporate structure and the corporate state. If they are not happy, there is, they are told, something wrong with them. Real debate, real clashes of opinion, are, in the happy world of corporatism, forbidden. They are considered rude. The corporations enforce a relentless optimism that curtails honest appraisal of reality and preserves hierarchical forms of organization under the guise of “participation.” Corporate culture provides, as Christopher Lasch pointed out, a society dominated by corporate elites with an anti-elitist ideology.
Positive psychology, which claims to be able to engineer happiness and provides the psychological tools for enforcing corporate conformity, is to the corporate state what eugenics was to the Nazis. Positive psychology is a quack science that throws a smoke screen over corporate domination, abuse and greed. Those academics who preach it are awash in corporate grants. They are invited to corporate retreats to assure corporate employees that they can find happiness by sublimating their selves into corporate culture. They hold academic conferences. They publish a Journal of Happiness Studies and a World Database of Happiness. There are more than 100 courses on positive psychology available on college campuses. The University of Pennsylvania offers a master of applied positive psychology program chaired by Martin Seligman, considered the father of the discipline, and author of “Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment.” The School of Behavioral and Organizational Sciences at Claremont Graduate University in California offers doctorate and master’s concentrations on what it calls “the Science of Positive Psychology.” Degree programs are also available at the University of East London and in Milan and Mexico City.
Dr. Tal D. Ben-Shahar, who wrote “Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment,” taught hugely popular courses at Harvard University titled “Positive Psychology” and “The Psychology of Leadership.” He called himself, when he taught there, the “Harvard happiness professor.”
“There is mounting evidence in the psychological literature showing that focusing on cultivating strengths, optimism, gratitude, and a positive perspective can lead to growth during difficult times,” Ben-Shahar has stated.
Positive psychology therapy instructs patients to write a letter of gratitude to someone who has been kind to them. Patients pen little essays called “You at your best” in which they are asked “to write about a time when they were at their best and then to reflect on personal strengths displayed in the story.” They are instructed to “review the story once every day for a week and to reflect on the strengths they had identified.” And the professionals argue that their research shows that many of their patients have “lastingly increased happiness and decreased depressive symptoms.”
Ben-Shahar pumps out the catchy slogans and clichés that color all self-improvement schemes. ”Learn to fail or fail to learn,” he says, and ”not ‘it happened for the best,’ but ‘how can I make the best of what happened?’ “
He argues that if a traumatic episode can result in post-traumatic stress disorder, it may be possible to create the opposite phenomenon with a single glorious, ecstatic experience. This could, he says, dramatically change a person’s life for the better.
Those who fail to exhibit positive attitudes, no matter the external reality, are seen as maladjusted and in need of assistance. Their attitudes need correction. Once we adopt an upbeat vision of reality, positive things will happen. This belief encourages us to flee from reality when reality does not elicit positive feelings. These specialists in “happiness” have formulated something they call the “Law of Attraction.” It argues that we attract those things in life, whether it is money, relationships or employment, which we focus on. Suddenly, abused and battered wives or children, the unemployed, the depressed and mentally ill, the illiterate, the lonely, those grieving for lost loved ones, those crushed by poverty, the terminally ill, those fighting with addictions, those suffering from trauma, those trapped in menial and poorly paid jobs, those whose homes are in foreclosure or who are filing for bankruptcy because they cannot pay their medical bills, are to blame for their negativity. The ideology justifies the cruelty of unfettered capitalism, shifting the blame from the power elite to those they oppress. And many of us have internalized this pernicious message, which in times of difficulty leads to personal despair, passivity and disillusionment.This flight into the collective self-delusion of corporate ideology, especially as we undergo financial collapse and the pillaging of the U.S. Treasury by corporations, is no more helpful in solving our problems than alchemy. But there are university departments and reams of pseudo-scientific scholarship to give an academic patina to the fantasy of happiness and success through positive thinking. The message that we can have everything we want if we dig deep enough inside ourselves, if we truly believe we are exceptional, is pumped out daily over the airwaves in advertisements, through the plot and story lines of television programs and films, and bolstered by the sickeningly cheerful and upbeat banter of well-groomed television hosts. This is the twisted ideological lens through which we view the world.
“From my two years at the company, positive psychology is a euphemism for spin,” Vasquez went on. “They try to spin their employees so much they can’t tell right from left, and in the process they forget they do the work of three people, have no health insurance, and three-quarters of their paycheck goes to rent.”
This ideology condemns all social critics, iconoclasts, dissidents and individualists for failing to seek fulfillment in the collective chant of the corporate herd. It strangles creativity and moral autonomy. It is about being molded and shaped into a compliant and repressed collective. It is not, at its core, about happiness. It is about conformity, a conformity that all totalitarian and authoritarian structures seek to impose on the crowd. Its unrealistic promise of happiness, in fact, probably produces more internal anxiety and feelings of inadequacy than genuine happiness. The nagging undercurrents of alienation, the constant pressure to exhibit a false enthusiasm and buoyancy, the loneliness of a work life in which one must always be about upbeat presentation, the awful feeling that being positive may not in fact work if one is laid off, are buried and suppressed.
There are no gross injustices, no abuses to question, no economic systems to challenge in the land of happy thoughts. In the land of happy thoughts, we are to blame if things go wrong. The corporate state, we are assured, is beneficent and good. It will make us happy and comfortable and prosperous even as it funnels billions of taxpayer dollars into its bank accounts. Mao and Stalin used the same language of harmony and strength through the collective, the same love of spectacles and slogans, the same coercive power of groups and state propaganda, to enslave and impoverish millions of their citizens. And, if we do not free ourselves from the grip of this ideology and the corporate vampires who disseminate it, this is what will happen to us.
Chris Hedges is the author of the new book “Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle.” Chris Hebdon assisted with reporting this story.