The Perpetual Optimists

Find the complete essay in A Book to Free the Soul

The Happy Face is the mirror reflection of the shallow and bland optimism spawned in the heyday of Capitalism1: a beatific icon for the mirage of infinite increase based on finite resources. Soon, it imposed itself as the symbol of a new, motivational pop-philosophy, and a mask for the countless laborers who toil in the superorganism.

From office receptionists to bus drivers, many have voluntarily enrolled in the cheerfulness police to officiate as the proud agents of a transformative idea for the common man. The flat yellow face is their badge, and they insist the ills of society could be remedied if only the disaffected and the disillusioned would hang a smile on their jaws and think happy thoughts. But show me a creative genius who wasn’t morose or conflicted! You will find none.

The perpetual optimists, however, question nothing, being under the ruling imperative to curate happy faces and dispel any suspicious little cloud. Meanwhile, the rulers of the hive cultivate a methodical “shock-and-awe” strategy of merriment—mass entertainments, sweet political promises, “the American dream,” the Law of Attraction and whatnot—to preserve a state of blissful hope and status quo. We are not suffering from an epidemic of pessimism; we are infected with a recurrent virus of unhinged enthusiasm and confidence. Why else would we persist in trusting the same ideas and powers that historically failed us? All forms of optimism unchecked by a lucid sense have a potential for tragic results. Smiley is the noonday sun that promises the light and delivers scorching heat. Our makeshift wings keep us afloat on the winds of elation, but as we near the zenith, the wax that hold the feathers is melting, and we are bound to be precipitated into the sea of uncertainty whence we came.

an image, picture, painting of Icarus the youthful tragic hero of Greek mythology
Galileo Chini, Icarus, 1907

1 For the origins and history of Smiley the happy face, see this article in the Smithsonian Magazine.

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