kenny hodgart

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How the positivity industry prefers us to worry

This blog post can also be read at SCMP.COM –

I’ve been receiving a torrent of communications from the positive thinking brigade lately. I don’t know what prompted it. Maybe it was something I googled. Or something I wrote on here: maybe I create such an impression of charlatanry that I’ve been fingered for susceptibility to charlatanry in general. Reader, how should I know?

At any rate, the email invites have been coming thick and fast: from mind coaches and self-belief gurus, character educators and positivity activators. They wish to show me the way, they say, to unbridled confidence, success, happiness. Some merely offer to help me build my “personal brand”.

As described in The Happiness Industry: How the Government and Big Business Sold Us Well-being, a recent book by a chap named William Davies, this is all very lucrative stuff. Vast operations are at work nowadays to benefit from making us worry – about how optimally engaged we are in our jobs; how fulfilled and confident we are in ourselves; in short, how brilliantly we’re doing. I doubt very much if the sum of human happiness is increased at all.

According to Davies some occupational psychologists are keen on companies sacking workers who do not show the proper enthusiasm for their advances. The Maoist tenor of that approach might sound a little extreme, but it does seem to chime with my experience on the handful of occasions when I have been forced by employers to attend motivational workshops and the like.

What I have noticed, see, is that for everyone in these situations who instinctively gets it, for everyone who has his or her self-belief calibrated the way the psychologists might desire, others are there out of fear: fear of not getting ahead; worse, of being left behind. Often they appear to have been ambushed by the notion that being bumptious and insufferable is the only way to get where they want to be.

Perhaps the idea that most frightens such people, then, is this: that self-belief and self-promotion may not in fact be enough, on their own, to guarantee making it to the top, that no matter how good your personal brand or your CV, unfortunately other factors, such as ability and, yes, connections, also come into play.

As an aside, a couple of years ago the veteran Washington Post writer Gene Weingarten published a memorable, if somewhat canting, riposte to a young journalist who had asked him how he’d built his personal brand. The main lesson was never to intimate that a columnist might be a self-publicist. However, Weingarten also railed, righteously, against the internet generation’s preoccupation with “eyeballs” and against that weasel thing “content” (which, lexicography being satire’s carousel, must – I submit – be ripe for replacement by the equally nebulous “ingredients”).

The point, sort of, is that brands are essentially shallow constructs – no matter how they’re dressed up in marketing’s “Vision, Mission, Values” b***cks. Online, though, everyone’s at it: the imperative is to demonstrate how fascinating and fabulous you are. Problem is, a world full of shiny, happy, self-confident people doesn’t ring all that true. No matter what the “science” of positive thinking says, and no matter how much we fake it, we can’t all be winners all of the time, can we?

Maybe it’s partly a question of upbringing: I was always taught not to bang on about myself, not to brag. If nothing else, socially it’s a killer – nobody’s really interested in people who are full of themselves; it’s the listeners and the empathisers who tend to make the best friends. And the same must go, I suppose, for the super-engaged and the super-motivated – the grown teacher’s pets who spend every waking moment composing work emails. How do they have lives?

We ought to worry, I think, for the future mental health of those toddlers we keep hearing about who have four-page CVs and are being put through kindergarten interviews. For most people, I imagine, the knowledge that the world does not revolve around oneself arrives as a blessed relief. Unfortunately, the plainest truths often run against the cultural grain.