In America, when friends get together or colleagues meet in the office, one greets “how are you doing?” and the other would often reply “great!” or “fantastic.” It is a common greeting. The reply is almost automatic. Nobody thinks too much about it, at least in the United States.
But do you ever wonder, when you reply “Great” or “Fantastic”, is that your true feeling? What if you are not feeling it? Would you say something like “Thank you, but I am not feeling great today”?
Recently, I watched the movie “Moneyball” on Netflix again. It was adapted from the book by Michael Lewis “Moneyball — the Art of Winning an Unfair Game”, documenting the football team Oakland Athletics trying a different player selection method to give them a competitive advantage. At the time, Oakland Athletics just came off a terrible season in 2001, losing 3 key players. Oakland A’s manager Billy Beane (played by Brad Pitt) was trying desperately to find new players with a shoestring budget. He knew if he didn’t turn around the performance in the coming season, he would lose his job and his sense of pride (He gave up a college scholarship to Stanford to play professional baseball). There was a scene when Billy went to visit Cleveland Indian’s manager Mark Shapiro (played by Reed Diamond), trying to trade players. Mark greeted Billy, “How are you doing?” Billy paused for a second, then said “I am great. Actually, fantastic”. The two men exchanged an awkward look, both knowing that Billy was faking it. But neither wanted to say what was on their mind. Would Billy have said “I am not feeling great”? Never. It was the truth, but probably not culturally acceptable.
Culturally, in America, most of us are conditioned to project a happy and upbeat persona in personal and professional situations. That’s the role we are supposed to play and the image we want to believe about ourselves.
On Facebook and Instagram, we share images of ourselves being happy, with many “keep up with the Jones” material possessions, and we consistently “like” similar images posted by our friends. But the truth is many of us feel depressed and lonely. Studies have found that about 40-50% of adults feel lonely, isolated, left out, or without meaningful relationships. Do we share that feeling with others? Probably not.
I wonder how this need to appear happy despite our true feelings does to our emotional well-being? I am not suggesting we should share our anxiety and struggles openly because I believe everyone is responsible for resolving their own problems or conflicts. I simply hope we don’t add to our stress by faking happiness or being “just fine” in front of others.
This need to project a happy and upbeat persona is perhaps somewhat unique to Americans. In other cultures, it’s more acceptable to appear your normal self. Recently, I have been watching the Netflix original show “Emily in Paris”. It shows a clear difference between American and French culture in the need to project “happiness”. In the story, Emily, an American working in an advertising company in Chicago, was sent to Paris by her company to work with a French advertising agency they recently acquired. Emily barely speaks any French, but she is hardworking, straightforward, and seems to be always happy, despite the embarrassment and challenges of adjusting to a new culture. Emily’s French boss Silvie is smart, elegant, although she is openly bitter sometimes. It’s obvious that Emily and Silvie don’t like each other. But Emily has this need to be “liked” so she put on a brave face even when Silvie was criticizing her openly. Silvie, very frustrated, told Emily in her face, “Why are you so happy all the time?”.
Having worked in America all my life, I am more used to being like Emily at work.
Watching the “Emily in Paris” show, I feel for Emily, who is trying very hard to project a strong and optimistic work persona among her Parisian colleagues, but I can also see clearly that Emily’s persona is an outlier in that French office. Watching the show, I admire Emily’s 24/7 work ethics and not taking no for an answer mentality, which has helped to improve the business. Having worked in America all my life, I am more used to being like Emily at work. If I had watched this show 20 years ago, I would be a big fan of Emily. But now, as I have accumulated my own experience of working 24/7, with a brave and upbeat face, I am actually a bit bothered by Emily’s always on “Happiness” persona. To be honest, I actually prefer seeing the subdued anger, or indifference among her Parisian colleagues. Moreover, I feel a little bit sorry for Emily, for having to pretend being happy and upbeat all the time.
Perhaps as I have grown older, I am tired of faking “happiness” or “optimism”. Life is full of conflict and challenges. I know I am responsible for solving my own problems, but I don’t want to pretend everything is fine. Saying everything is “just fine” is not being true to yourself. It is something others want you to say, pleasing others or lying to yourself. I don’t want to do either.
Contemporary spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle wrote the book “A New Earth – Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose”. In that book, he says that most people are playing the role of “happiness” without their knowledge. Underneath that façade, there is a great deal of pain. According to Tolle, “Just fine” is a role the ego plays more commonly in America than in certain other countries where being and looking miserable is almost the norm and therefore more socially acceptable.
Perhaps as I have grown older, I have become more conscious of my own being, less driven by ego. For that, I am truly doing great.