Happiness Consultants Won't Stop a Depression

Anthony Vasquez, a student at the
University of California, Berkeley, worked at FedEx Kinkos for about
two years. His store's slogan was: "Yes We Can."

"It meant that if a customer asked us to do a job for them, no matter what it was, we were to say 'Yes We Can!' " he said.

Anthony Vasquez, a student at the
University of California, Berkeley, worked at FedEx Kinkos for about
two years. His store's slogan was: "Yes We Can."

"It meant that if a customer asked us to do a job for them, no matter what it was, we were to say 'Yes We Can!' " he said.

Posters of the slogan were posted on
telephones and in the backroom. Corporate auditors enforced the slogan
by "Yes We Can" call audits. Employees would be punished as a group for
failures, and individuals could be fired. Other slogans at the Santa
Cruz, Calif., FedEx Kinkos included "Winning by engaging the hearts and
minds of every team member" and "I promise to make every FedEx
experience outstanding."

Vasquez worked with a trainee named Sam
until Sam was fired. The store managers didn't announce the dismissal.
They kept Sam on the schedule to make it appear he was skipping work
and then used this as grounds for removal. After two weeks and some
conversations with Sam, Vasquez wrote "Fired" in pencil under Sam's
name on the schedule. It was at that point that Vasquez got a taste of
the ideology of modern corporate management, which uses therapeutic
forms of social control and calls for group harmony to impose rigid

Angela and Nancy, the store managers,
reprimanded Vasquez with a "Positive Discipline Documentation Form."
They charged him with defacing company property.

"The document explained how I had made
'false or malicious statements' against Sam," said Vasquez. "Angela and
Nancy looked at each other, breathed deeply, and asked if I had any
comments. I told them they were being duplicitous and that nothing I
wrote had been false or malicious. I told them that if they wanted to
make 'our organization a success' they could start by paying me a fair
wage. I went on and on until they both threw their hands in the air and
told me to stop being difficult. I told them that I wasn't the one
being difficult. They stared hard at me and said 'We know.' "

Mendez signed the document and left the office.

"It must have been in 2006, the company
was holding another mandatory meeting for team members, which is what
they call us," he said. "I went with a couple of co-workers to Fresno,
where we met a lot of other employees from various stores in Northern
California. ... The meeting took place in this rented room, and the
woman from corporate had all these toys, markers and candy in the
middle of each table. The first thing she had us do was organize
ourselves according to duration of employment at the company. While in
this line, we had to introduce ourselves and say how long we had been
working. The girl on the far end had been hired two months prior, the
man on the other had been with the company for almost 20 years."

Vasquez saw that some of his co-workers
didn't like having to speak about private, potentially embarrassing
information. But the corporate manager tried to pump them up.

"She spun it so hard I felt dizzy," said
Vasquez. " 'Isn't this wonderful?! We have such a wide range of great
team members. This really shows what a great place this is to work, and
how you can make a career here!' she said."

"One man stared at the floor in anger and
embarrassment," Vasquez said. "If he had said anything she would have
e-mailed his center manager and he would have been written up and
probably denied a raise. By the way, raises are 25 cents a year."

"The purpose of the meeting was, her
euphemisms aside, to push merchandise and services onto customers that
they didn't want. I believe it's called upselling," he said. "She
wanted us to talk about our positive customer service experiences. Most
of us struggled with this, as nearly all of our experiences with
customers and the company had been extremely negative and stressful.
But she was all smiles, no matter what we said, and I noticed she was
able to make almost everyone there smile and laugh and have a good
time. She used the toys, the candy, the markers, and activities like
skits and competitions to get people active and involved with each
other. She used the happiness and was able to switch its source from
human interaction to the company. You aren't happy because you are
being social, you are happy because you work for the company."

The driving ideology of corporate culture
is a blind faith in the power and virtue of the corporate collective.
All quotas can be met. All things are possible. Profits can always be
raised. It is only a question of the right attitude. The highest form
of personal happiness, we are told, is when the corporation thrives.
Corporate retreats are built around this idea of merging the self with
the corporate collective. They often have the feel of a religious
revival. They are designed to whip up emotions. Office managers and
sales staffs are given inspirational talks by sports stars, retired
military commanders, billionaires and self-help specialists like Tony
Robbins who tell them, in essence, the impossible is always possible.
And when this proves not to be true it is we who are the problem. We
simply have to try harder.

The belief that by thinking about things,
by visualizing them, by wanting them, we can make them happen is
magical thinking. The purpose, structure and goals of the corporation
can never be questioned. To question, to engage in criticism of the
corporate collective, is to be obstructive and negative. We can always
make more money, meet new quotas and advance our career if we have
enough faith. This magical thinking is largely responsible for our
economic collapse since any Cassandra who saw it coming was dismissed
as "negative." This childish belief discredits legitimate concerns and
anxieties. It exacerbates despair and passivity. It fosters a state of
self-delusion. And it has perverted the way we think about the nation
and ourselves.

Corporate employees, like everyone else,
are gripped by personal dilemmas, anxieties and troubles. They are not
permitted, however, to ask whether the problem is the corporate
structure and the corporate state. If they are not happy there is, they
are told, something wrong with them. Real debate, real clashes of
opinion, are, in the happy world of corporatism, forbidden. They are
considered rude. The corporations enforce a relentless optimism that
curtails honest appraisal of reality and preserves hierarchical forms
of organization under the guise of "participation." Corporate culture
provides, as Christopher Lasch pointed out, a society dominated by corporate elites with an anti-elitist ideology.

Positive psychology, which claims to be
able to engineer happiness and provides the psychological tools for
enforcing corporate conformity, is to the corporate state what eugenics
was to the Nazis. Positive psychology is a quack science that throws a
smoke screen over corporate domination, abuse and greed. Those
academics who preach it are awash in corporate grants. They are invited
to corporate retreats to assure corporate employees that they can find
happiness by sublimating their selves into corporate culture. They hold
academic conferences. They publish a Journal of Happiness Studies and a World Database of Happiness.
There are more than a hundred courses on positive psychology available
on college campuses. The University of Pennsylvania offers a master of
applied positive psychology program chaired by Martin Seligman,
considered the father of the discipline, and author of "Authentic
Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential
for Lasting Fulfillment." The School of Behavioral and Organizational
Sciences at Claremont Graduate University offers a Ph.D. and M.A.
concentrations on what it calls "the Science of Positive Psychology."
Degree programs are also available at the University of East London and
in Milan and Mexico City.

Dr. Tal D. Ben-Shahar,
who wrote "Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting
Fulfillment," taught hugely popular courses at Harvard University
titled "Positive Psychology" and "The Psychology of Leadership." He
called himself, when he taught at Harvard, the "Harvard Happiness

"There is mounting evidence in the
psychological literature showing that focusing on cultivating
strengths, optimism, gratitude, and a positive perspective can lead to
growth during difficult times," Ben-Shahar has stated.

Positive psychology therapy instructs
patients to write a letter of gratitude to someone who has been kind to
them. Patients pen little essays called "You at your best" in which
they are asked "to write about a time when they were at their best and
then to reflect on personal strengths displayed in the story." They are
instructed to "review the story once every day for a week and to
reflect on the strengths they had identified." And the professionals
argue that their research shows that many of their patients have
"lastingly increased happiness and decreased depressive symptoms."

Ben-Shahar pumps out the catchy slogans
and cliches that color all self-improvement schemes. ''Learn to fail or
fail to learn," he says, and ''not 'it happened for the best,' but 'how
can I make the best of what happened?' "

He argues that if a traumatic episode can
result in post-traumatic stress disorder it may be possible to create
the opposite phenomenon with a single glorious, ecstatic experience.
This could, he says, dramatically change a person's life for the better.

Those who fail to exhibit positive
attitudes, no matter the external reality, are seen as maladjusted and
in need of assistance. Their attitudes need correction. Once we adopt
an upbeat vision of reality, positive things will happen. This belief
encourages us to flee from reality when reality does not elicit
positive feelings. These specialists in "happiness" have formulated
something they call the "Law of Attraction." It argues that we attract
those things in life, whether it is money, relationships or employment,
which we focus on. Suddenly, abused and battered wives or children, the
unemployed, the depressed and mentally ill, the illiterate, the lonely,
those grieving for lost loved ones, those crushed by poverty, the
terminally ill, those fighting with addictions, those suffering from
trauma, those trapped in menial and poorly paid jobs, those whose homes
are in foreclosure or who are filing for bankruptcy because they cannot
pay their medical bills, are to blame for their negativity. The
ideology justifies the cruelty of unfettered capitalism, shifting the
blame from the power elite to those they oppress. And many of us have
internalized this pernicious message, which in times of difficulty
leads to personal despair, passivity and disillusionment.

This flight into the collective
self-delusion of corporate ideology, especially as we undergo financial
collapse and the pillaging of the U.S. treasury by corporations, is no
more helpful in solving our problems than alchemy. But there are
university departments and reams of pseudoscientific scholarship to
give an academic patina to the fantasy of happiness and success through
positive thinking. The message that we can have everything we want if
we dig deep enough inside ourselves, if we truly believe we are
exceptional, is pumped out daily over the airwaves in advertisements,
through the plot and story lines of television programs and films, and
bolstered by the sickeningly cheerful and upbeat banter of well-groomed
television hosts. This is the twisted ideological lens through which we
view the world.

"From my two years at the company:
positive psychology is a euphemism for spin," Vasquez went on. "They
try to spin their employees so much they can't tell right from left,
and in the process they forget they do the work of three people, have
no health insurance, and three-quarters of their paycheck goes to rent."

This ideology condemns all social
critics, iconoclasts, dissidents and individualists, for failing to
seek fulfillment in the collective chant of the corporate herd. It
strangles creativity and moral autonomy. It is about being molded and
shaped into a compliant and repressed collective. It is not, at its
core, about happiness. It is about conformity, a conformity that all
totalitarian and authoritarian structures seek to impose on the crowd.
Its unrealistic promise of happiness, in fact, probably produces more
internal anxiety and feelings of inadequacy than genuine happiness. The
nagging undercurrents of alienation, the constant pressure to exhibit a
false enthusiasm and buoyancy, the loneliness of a work life in which
one must always be about upbeat presentation, the awful feeling that
being positive may not in fact work if one is laid off, are buried and

There are no gross injustices, no abuses
to question, no economic systems to challenge in the land of happy
thoughts. In the land of happy thoughts we are to blame if things go
wrong. The corporate state, we are assured, is beneficent and good. It
will make us happy and comfortable and prosperous even as it funnels
billions of taxpayer dollars into its bank accounts. Mao and Stalin
used the same language of harmony and strength through the collective,
the same love of spectacles and slogans, the same coercive power of
groups and state propaganda, to enslave and impoverish millions of
their citizens. And, if we do not free ourselves from the grip of this
ideology and the corporate vampires who disseminate it, this is what
will happen to us.

Chris Hebdon assisted with reporting this story.

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