Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, February 15, 2021
“Put on a Happy Face” is a song from the musical “Bye Bye Birdie.”
Enough of this optimistic, smiling joyful engagement. Let’s get real and recognize that Armageddon looms just around the corner.
OK, maybe I am a little out there on this, but to reel myself back in, I turned to Mark Ellwood, a freelance reporter who writes about our own well-being and the need to break the habit of FONO, fear of negative outlook in his article titled “Trying to Stay Optimistic is Doing More Harm Than Good” in Bloomberg’s Businessweek. FONO, he writes, is also known as “dismissive positivity,” which expresses itself as an overbearing cheerfulness.
He writes about a neuropsychologist, Judy Ho, who treats entrepreneurs, many of whom are rich, happily married, successful and well regarded in their community. But when one of her patients “felt depressed, and was unable to admit it, he became a small schoolboy and went to the doctor and pretended to be sick so he could get a note and permission to miss school (work).”
She says the entrepreneur was suffering from “a surging contemporary malaise that forced him to constantly demonstrate his worth to people.” I see it in my own coaching clients, and unfortunately, from time to time, with full confession, I see it in myself. All of us publicly project the Rock of Gibraltar while privately sifting sand.
Why is it so hard for the entrepreneur to take a day off, to take a nap, to disappear for an afternoon, rather than promote the image of being available 24/7? This mindset responds to all human anxiety “with uncompromising optimism.” In Ellwood’s piece, Ho tells of companies that start every Zoom meeting with forcing the participants “to share a piece of good news to help keep the mood buoyant amid the gloom.” This strikes me as borderline insanity, denying reality, which is what informs the very essence of being human and living an integrated life.
On the other hand, this behavior response reflects the current stress of the news of the world. And let’s be clear, that anxiety is not imaginary. That is the conundrum. The craziness out there, as well as in your own head, is real. I know those aren’t really aliens landing in the parking lot, but maybe if I squint.
Ellwood reports that the Federal Trade Commission has reported an uptick in Ponzi schemes during the pandemic. And trying to get the vaccine shot has led people to call the Nigerian prince again. We have all become prime targets for hucksters who are “peddling perkiness” or a way to make $40,000 per month working two hours a week, part-time from home. (We are already working from home, just send me the check.)
So what is the appropriate way to engage with the world today?
One way seems to be turning to a mentor or an outside touchstone. Ellwood reports that membership in the International Coaching Federation has seen an increase of 790 percent worldwide since 2001. Same increase as GameStop in six days. Talk about making yourself crazy.
However, there is also a bit of elitist arrogance in this dilemma, in that it is the “successful people who are most likely to fall prey to this way of thinking.” If you are working two jobs, have three kids, a sick parent and are hanging on, then this take a day off and a nap crap is not on your radar. And my own thinking here is that I am all in for that person. I am skeptical of the indulgence of the entrepreneur who is concerned about whether to take the Peloton class before or after the board meeting.
For his article, Ellwood interviewed Naomi Torres-Mackie, a psychologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, who works with patients at the pinnacle of their careers but who are caught in this “achievement treadmill,” where self-doubt and personal reflection are elbowed aside in favor of a “gung-ho spirit.”
Where did this neurotic behavior originate? Is it like some virus? Well, it seems that in 1990s, the American Psychological Association, Ellwood writes, put out a series of papers and recommendations that posited that “pessimism is a learned behavior.” After that, there arose a raft of practitioners who angled us toward optimism. In so doing, they denied the darkness and the fears and the anxiety that are part of being human. Finally, Ho says, “some of the best moments in life are filled with mixed emotions.” Embrace them.
Rule No. 655
This too will pass.