Smile and maybe they won’t notice the apocalypse

Why yes that is Comic Sans MS! How good of you to notice.

I am not by nature a positive person. Chemical imbalance in the brain, what they tell us is the cause of both major and recurrent depression, is to blame for that; personally, I blame puberty but that’s a whole separate discussion. That fact that I am also judged to be “not a positive person” has more to do with unrealistic expectations on the part of society, and particularly the “look at me” society of illusion we seem to be encouraging these days, than with how I actually behave.

When presented with an idea I tend to think ahead, to try to anticipate roadblocks to achieving whatever the stated goal might be. Some of this is directly due to my upbringing – my mother never liked to be caught unprepared for a contingency and raised me to have the same attitude – and some of it is because I am rather goal oriented and I dislike failing to achieve a goal for a preventable reason. In this age of positive psychology and awards for participation, asking questions up front about whether or not we have the resources to achieve a goal, or if we manifestly don’t how we plan on getting them, or whether or not we’re willing to scale back what we want to match the resources we do have is seen as negative, as being “a drag.”

When you combine that brain-depression with all the things that go with it, like insomnia, which exacerbates circular, catastrophic thinking which exacerbates the depression, rinse and repeat, with a training and bent that wants to anticipate obstacles every now and then what you get is a really bad mood. But in an optimism fueled, can-do, think positive, nothing is actually a failure and all you have to do is apologize or play the victim and you can be redeemed world, bad moods are unacceptable. And no where is this more evident than in the world of social networks.

Social networks, for those who have managed to live under a rock for the past three years and have avoided all the media spunk over how this new way of relating is going to change the world and kill privacy, connect you to a vast array of people either by: 1) scraping your address book and sending messages, with or without your permission, to the folks therein, 2) by allowing you to form voluntary connections suggested by previous life events like the school you attended or the presence of a fan page or group that you’ve joined, 3) by looking at your online behavior, like sending e-mail, and just automatically connecting you to the people you already communicate with frequently, or 3) by allowing you to search topics and interests and follow the posts of people you are intrigued by whether they follow your posts or not. These are the connections models for these networks are in order: 1) Quechup (among other spam social networks); 2) Facebook; 3) Google Buzz; and 4) Twitter.

You are directly rewarded for your participation in these networks with recognition from your “friends” who either give you some sort of “like” or a comment on your current status – Michelle is having a relaxing Sunday afternoon; Kim is going jogging for the first time since the baby was born – or most recent posting. Lack of response to something you’ve posted on a social network is the equivalent of sitting down at table in the high school cafeteria and having everyone else get up and move. It is shunning: we don’t like what you have to say so we’re going to ignore you.

And while that may be human nature, after all the axiom that there is no such thing as bad publicity (just ask Tiger Woods) exists for a reason, to ignore the things that we just want to go away, what does it say when we have our media effectively encouraging us to shun our depressed, fat, or lonely friends because these emotions are contagious and might cause us to feel the same thing?

What does this do but force those of us who aren’t always cheerful, who aren’t “having a relaxing Sunday,” to pretend that we are thereby denying genuine human emotion?

I understand that someone who is constantly negative can be a drag, but maybe we need to pay more attention to frequency and a little bit less attention to content. Maybe, just maybe, we need to relearn that the purpose of grouping together into this wonderful thing we call “society” is to create an environment in which all of us don’t have to be strong at the same time. Or maybe we need to grow the fuck up and realize that life isn’t always pretty and happy and that by expecting it, and everyone in it, to be thus we set an unreasonable bar for happiness that turns us into pleasure junkies who have to constantly search for bigger, greater, more joyful experiences just to get any pleasure out of life at all.


  1. I hate Comic Sans, but I really enjoy your thoughtful writing. When I would get grumpy, my ex used to say, “But you’re the happy one” — which was infuriating. You’re right: we need space to feel all our emotions, even the negative ones (still working on this one myself). Well written!

  2. I’m a recovering pessimist 🙂 In my 20’s I was pretty miserable but over the years my state of mind has shifted. However, I think there’s real optimism and the fake stuff that covers everything these days like algae on a stagnant pond. Real optimism can only come from a firm grounding in reality. That means being willing to look at and deal with all the negatives – not just brush them aside.

    It’s also worth mentioning that the unintelligent optimism that simply ignores reality (and gets away with it for awhile) also irresponsibly shifts the burden of facing that reality on to other folks.

  3. If I want to know how you’re doing, I will do one of two things:

    One, if we’re both at work at the same time, I’ll ask you by email or IM.

    Two, if I’m at home – say, watching the curling – I’ll use my imagination. “I’ll just bet that woodstock fist-pumped that excellent draw shot,” I will think to myself. How much better is it that I can imagine that scenario in my mind and then, later, discuss this with you, rather than log onto your MyFaceTweetBook in real time to find out that you’ve robbed me of Monday morning conversation by posting ‘woodstock is fist-pumping at that excellent draw shot’?

  4. I am a total optimist. I’ve even been told — affectionately — that I’m annoyingly optimistic. But there is a difference between that and the pop psychology positivity that’s so prevalent these days. I too get annoyed when my not-so-happy moods are met by cries of “Cheer up!” or “It can’t be that bad!” from casual acquaintances. The day I got the news my last grandparent had died, I had to go to work. A then-co-worker asked the ritual “And how are you today?” My response was “Terrible.” He laughed. Almost as if he couldn’t imagine that someone might actually be having a bad day. And it’s not the first time my honest answer to that not-at-all-sincere question has prompted the same response.
    As Susan said in her comment, real optimism doesn’t dismiss those kinds of feelings or ignore reality. It simply always believes that no matter how bad things get, they will get better at some point. And that it usually requires effort and/or honest reflection.
    And yeah, social networks are overwhelmingly geared towards the shiny, superficial, happy, funny, flirty types of comments. But I have seen plenty of people putting their bad days and grumpy moods out there. And I think that’s a good trend. Even if people don’t always know what to say in response.

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