I know damned well what would cure this jet lag, I think while sitting in a cramped dorm room on the Royal Holloway campus, some 19 kilometres west of London: a good workout. It is midnight and I have suddenly woken up from a gravol-induced sleep, busying myself by sorting receipts and writing this post. I decide to do back, bis, and some cardio at the university sports centre tomorrow afternoon, skipping those potentially tedious talks about dying English monarchs. Fuck yeah; I cannot wait. It is always exciting to wear new tank tops at a new gym. Plus, like many fitness experts, health care practitioners, and researchers, I believe that physical exertion can solve any problem, from chronic pain to insomnia to political tyranny, both at home and abroad. Maybe not death. But studies show, and personal experience confirms, that exercise improves the mind as well as the body, acting as a mood enhancer, diminishing stress, and turning that frown upside down. How could there be anything wrong with that?
Wait for it: here comes what ABT—love him!—would call my ‘contrarian’ side. Perhaps the pursuit of happiness is actually oppressive; no longer a choice, it is a social imperative. The fitness industry might be part of a gigantic Brave-New-World-soma-like conspiracy to keep us in line, focused on self-improvement and oxygen uptake instead of civil rights and the evils of private property. Yeah baby. Let’s refuse to be cheerful, taking our defiance to the streets. Get stuffed, you dictatorially smiling group ex instructor! Shove that punching bag up your ass, boxing queen with white-strip grin! Instead of measuring my endorphin rushes, I should be participating in anti-austerity protests, like that loud-mouth jackass who sat in front of me on the flight over here. Instead of pondering the state of my adrenal glands or hitting the step mill, I should be analyzing the current political discourse in the United States. [Aside: I have already begun to change my ways, googling ‘Santorum’ to learn from Dan Savage that that the term refers to ‘the frothy mixture of lube and fecal matter that is sometimes the product of anal sex.’ Now that was a better use of my time.]
I became intrigued by the history of cheerfulness last week, after reading some informal student evaluations. Apparently I need to put more effort into my ‘cold bitch’ persona because this year only one adorable youngster encouraged me to ‘smile more.’ Fuck that. Of course. As I have said before, I will not perform emotional labour. I think you have already heard my ‘I am not your psychologist, I am not your cuddle pillow’ rant? Yeah. I liked it too. I remain sincerely puzzled by student expectations of a therapeutic university, and by our therapeutic culture in general. Take the current anti-bullying movement, which ABT and I discussed at length. Are bullies really all that bad? Did they not make us better people, teaching us about the ‘real world,’ encouraging us to develop evasive strategies and understand group dynamics? Did they not alert us to the fact that we are not the centre of the universe, that not everything will always go our way, ultimately developing both our capacity to empathize with the weak, and our ability to distinguish sincerely good people from aggressive braggarts? I cannot help but wonder what I would have become without an older brother who put me in a headlock, shoving my nose into his moist armpit. Who held me under thick sleeping bags, making me breathe in his camping farts. Who grabbed my own hand, formed it into a fist, and then punched me in the face with it. I am sure you will agree that without such powerful experiences, I would not have metamorphosed into the amazing woman that I am today. I would in fact now be an even bigger asshole with an even bigger ego. Yikes. Without these and many other soul-suckingly painful experiences, I might even have become a self-pitying whiner. When I indiscreetly asked ABT about his recent relationships, he succinctly recited: ‘cry baby, cry baby, angry witch, cry baby, cry baby.’ As far as I could tell, he had liked the angry witch best, speaking rather fondly about her.
Back to the topic at hand, namely the tyranny of good cheer. Here is what I learned by reading various scholarly articles about the history of happiness, including a survey by Christina Kotchemidova, published in the Fall 2005 Journal of Social History, which charts how the intensity of emotional experiences has been gradually lowered since the eighteenth century.
-during the early modern period, sadness was rather fashionably linked with the nobility of the soul. Such men as Diderot and Voltaire regularly cried in public to display their spiritual refinement. If they tried that today, admiring adulation would be swiftly replaced by 1) tighty-whiteys forcibly pulled into their butt cracks by bullies, and 2) anti-depressants quickly shoved down their throats by physicians.
-in the so-called ‘Age of Enlightenment,’ moral philosophers promoted the concept of self-love, encouraging people to actively seek happiness and avoid misery. Educated English and American men then learned how to manage their emotions, to adopt a middle class personality and ensure social success.
-the symbolic value of good cheer soon penetrated the business sector, for it promoted both consumption and production. According to Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936), which has sold more than fifteen million copies over the years, cheerfulness is the most effective personal style for business purposes. By the twentieth century, the average American had to construct himself/herself as happy and carefree in order to gain employment. This pressure has only heightened in recent years. Capitalist cartoon translation: think road runner, not coyote.
-the increasing social and economic imperative to be moderately gleeful was most intensely applied to women in the home as well as the workplace. During the nineteenth century, the ethic of cheerfulness was an essential part of Victorian women’s culture; it was another duty owed by a wife to her husband. As women became more prominent in the industrial work place, they were tasked with emotional labour , and by the 1970s, one half of all working women performed emotion management as a condition of holding their job.
I have to say that I found the last point fascinatingly paradoxical: on one hand women are denigrated for supposedly being overly subject to emotions; on the other hand, this emotional facility makes them responsible for interpreting and dealing with the emotions of others, especially men. Which brings me back to that brainwashed student who commanded me to ‘smile more,’ and, more interestingly, to those Hungarian rooster balls so tantalizingly described in the title of this post. Isn’t that what you have been waiting for? Well, during a fantastic Iranian meal the other night in London, the conversation logically turned to the food we had eaten in different restaurants. One woman explained that while at home in Hungary she had been served an aromatic soup, filled with chunks of meat. After draining the bowl, she had asked about the contents of the rich broth. Imagine her surprise when told that they were rooster balls. ‘Oh,’ I interjected, ‘you mean it was ground up rooster meat?’ ‘No,’ she explained, ‘it was the balls, the testicles, the testicles that I had eaten. I almost barfed in my mouth. But then I thought, well, they were delicious. The next day I went back to that restaurant and I ate more balls.’ You can imagine the general merriment. And why am I relating this story to you? Because I am obliged to entertain you, my delightful readers, to cheer you up. So laugh it up, fuzz balls, knowing that you are thereby gender conformist middle class capitalist dupes. Just like me. And now that the gym is finally open, I am off.