top of page

Chris Hedges : The Illusion of Happiness

Dernière mise à jour : 17 mai 2023

Extract from :

Chris Hedges

Empire of Illusion

The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle

The Illusion of Happiness

“And that,” put in the Director sententiously, “that is the secret of happiness and virtue — liking what you’ve got to do. All conditioning aims at that: making people like their unescapable social destiny.”


“Feeling blue ? Doctors now say you can lie yourself into happiness. By creating self-deceptions, no matter how negative your problem, it can be turned into a positive and you’ll have greater happiness.”


DAVID COOPERRIDER, a professor from Case Western Reserve University, is a plump, balding man in a shapeless black suit and checkered tie. He stands in the center of the stage in the high-ceilinged lecture hall of Claremont Graduate University before some six hundred people. The spotlight illuminates his head. “What would it mean to create an entire change theory around strengths ?” he asks.

Such a theory, he asserts, exists. It is called “Transformational Positivity.” And to understand it, people need to shift their thinking, much like Einstein, whom he quotes as saying, “No problem can be solved from the same level ofconsciousness that created it. We must learn to see the world anew.”

Positive thinking, which is delivered to the culture in a variety of forms, has its academic equivalent in positive psychology. Cooperrider touts what he calls Transformational Positivity. Transformational Positivity, he says, is the future of organizational change. Optimism can and must become a permanent state of mind. He has designed a corporate workshop that promises to bring about this change. It is called “Appreciative Inquiry.”

Appreciative Inquiry, he assures the audience, will spread happiness around the world.

Appreciative Inquiry promises to transform organizations into “Positive Institutions.” “It’s almost like fusion energy,” Cooperrider explains. “Fusion is where two positive atoms come together, and there is an incredible energy that is released.” His clients include the U.S. Navy, Wal-Mart, Hewlett-Packard, United Way, Boeing, the American Red Cross, the Carter Center, and the United Nations.

Celebrities such as Goldie Hawn also promote positive psychology, designing workshops and curriculums for children and corporate workers. And Appreciative Inquiry, which is supposed to make workers into a happy, harmonious whole, is advertised as a way to increase profits.

Cooperrider, excited and at times sputtering, stands before a Power-Point demonstration. He slips into obscure and often incomprehensible jargon:

“Positive Institutions are organizations, including groups, families, and communities, designed and managed for the elevation and the engagement of signature strengths, the connected and combined magnification of strengths, and ultimately, the coherent cross-level refraction of our highest human strengths outward into society and our world”.

He compares Appreciative Inquiry to a solar concentrator. Happiness, Cooperrider explains, is achieved through “a progressive concentration and release of positivity—a ‘concrescence’ or growing together — whereby persons are ‘enlarged,’ and organizational or mutual strengths, resources, and positive-potentials are connected and magnified, where both (person and organization) become agents of the greater good beyond them. “In other words,” he continues, “institutions can be a vehicle for bringing more courage into the world, for amplifying love in the world, for amplifying temperance and justice, and so on.”

He ends by saying that this generation — presumably his — is the most privileged generation in human history. It is a generation that will channel positive emotions through corporations and spread them throughout the culture. The moral and ethical issues of corporatism, from the toxic assets they may have amassed, to predatory lending, to legislation they may author to destroy regulation and oversight, even to the actual products they may produce, from weapons systems to crushing credit-card debt, appear to be irrelevant. There presumably could have been a “positive” Dutch East Indies Company just as there can be a “positive” Halliburton, J. P. Morgan Chase, Xe (formerly Blackwater), or Raytheon.

Corporate harmony means all quotas can be met. All things are possible. Profits can always increase. All we need is the right attitude. The highest form of personal happiness comes, people like Cooperrider insist, when the corporation thrives. Corporate retreats are built around this idea of merging the self with the corporate collective. They often have the feel, as this conference does, of a religious revival. They are designed to whip up emotions.

In their inspirational talks, sports stars, retired military commanders, billionaires, and self-help specialists such as Tony Robbins or Cooperrider claim that the impossible is possible. By thinking about things, by visualizing them, by wanting them, we can make them happen. It is a trick worthy of the con artist “Professor” Harold Hill in The Music Man who insists he can teach children to play instruments by getting them to think about the melody.

The purpose and goals of the corporation are never questioned. To question them, to engage in criticism of the goals of the collective, is to be obstructive and negative. The corporations are the powers that determine identity. The corporations tell us who we are and what we can become. And the corporations offer the only route to personal fulfillment and salvation. If we are not happy there is something wrong with us. Debate and criticism, especially about the goals and structure of the corporation, are condemned as negative and “counterproductive.”

Positive psychology is to the corporate state what eugenics was to the Nazis. Positive psychology — at least, as applied so broadly and unquestioningly to corporate relations — is a quack science. It throws a smokescreen over corporate domination, abuse, and greed. Those who preach it serve the corporate leviathan. They 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. And the movement has sought and found academic legitimacy.

There are more than a hundred courses on positive psychology available on college campuses. (...) Dr. Tal D. Ben-Shahar, who wrote Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment, taught hugely popular courses at Harvard University on “Positive Psychology” and “The Psychology of Leadership.” He called himself, when he taught at Harvard, 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 has its own therapy techniques to achieve happiness. It instructs patients to write a letter of gratitude to someone who had been kind to them. Patients are instructed to pen “You at your best” essays 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 “last ingly increased happiness and decreased depressive symptoms.”

Ben-Shahar pumps out the catchy slogans and clichés that color all cheap 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 in some ways ill. Their attitudes, like those of recalcitrant Chinese during the Cultural Revolution, need correction.

Once we adopt a positive mind, positive things will always happen. This belief, like all the other illusions peddled in the culture, encourages people to flee from reality when reality is frightening or depressing. These academic specialists in “happiness” have formulated the “Law of Attraction.” It argues that we attract the good things in life, whether it is money, relationships, or employment, when we focus on what we desire. The gimmick of visualizing what we want and believing we can achieve it is no different from praying to a god or Jesus who we are told wants to make us wealthy and successful.

For those who run into the hard walls of reality, the ideology has the pernicious effect of forcing the victim to blame him or herself for his or her pain or suffering. Abused and battered wives or children, the unemployed, the depressed, the 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 facing foreclosure or bankruptcy because they cannot pay their medical bills, need only overcome their negativity.

“I think positive emotions are available to everybody,” says Barbara Frederickson, the Kenan Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and director of that university’s Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Lab, in the May 2009 issue of The Sun. She also speaks at the Claremont conference.

“There’s been research done with people in slums across the globe and with prostitutes, looking at their well-being and satisfaction with life. The data suggest that positive emotions have less to do with material resources than we might think; it’s really about your attitude and approach to your circumstances.”

This flight into self-delusion is no more helpful in solving real problems than alchemy. But it is very effective in keeping people from questioning the structures around them that are responsible for their misery. Positive Psychology gives an academic patina to fantasy.


* * *


PayPal ButtonPayPal Button
bottom of page