Yesterday, superstar actor Will Smith shared a video on his Facebook page. In the video, entitled “Why I Got Rid of Most of My Friends”, Youtube personality Prince Ea discusses why everyone should cut certain people out of their lives.
“Ever wonder why you’re feeling negative or angry?” he rhetorically asks, to some eerie sci-fi background music. “Every day we allow, and even encourage, people to dump garbage into our minds and into our lives… These people are toxic; they drain you, they complain, they remind you of your mistakes, they tear you down… And some of these people are even in your family!”
Negative people are trapped, he says, but that’s their problem, not yours. Keep hanging out with losers, and you’ll become one too. You deserve to be happy, you deserve to be you, and the way to become you is to banish doubt and negative thoughts from your life and your surroundings.
This line of reasoning falls well within the modern tradition of individualist literature and philosophy. Anyone remember The Secret? We are becoming, it seems, a culture that worships our own personal happiness, success and self-promotion, with little room for nuances or critical thinking that challenges our own ideas.
We need only look at social media. A commonly accepted yardstick for success is how many friends we have on Facebook, how many ‘likes’ our holiday snaps receive, how many followers we’ve gained on Instagram.
And we work hard for our apparent successes. It is not a coincidence that one of the best-selling Christmas presents last year was the selfie-stick, the ingenious invention of a telescopic pole that lets us take perfect group pictures from afar to post on social media. Buying ‘likes’ for Facebook pages is also a thing now, to the extent that it has become the core business of so-called click-farms in India. For a going rate of one rupee per ‘like’, politicians, celebrities, and artists can purchase up to 15,000 clicks per day.
Why do we have this craving for appearing successful, strong and happy in the eyes of others, rather than actually living these things for ourselves in private? Why do so many of us jump through hoops to showcase our happiness to friends and acquaintances on the internet?
In their new book “The Wellness Syndrome”, Carl Cederström and André Spicer argue that our society’s obsession with physical wellness, personal advancement and individual happiness has become an ideology in itself. It glorifies our bodies and our “quantified selves”, while eliminating any need for real thought or political engagement. This ideology, they say, has developed from the psychological movement of positive thinking. Positive thinking is the theory that if you are positive and work hard, you can literally become anything you want. Ergo, if for any reason you do not achieve your goal, it is because you are either too lazy or not positive enough.
The ideology of personal hapiness and wellness has also started to take hold in workplaces. In the U.S., companies such as Google now employ a Chief Happiness Officer (CHO) or equivalent. The book “Delivering Happiness” by Tony Hsieh, the CEO of online retailer Zappos, became a New York Times best seller by describing strategies for improving corporate culture by cultivating employee happiness.
“I think a lot of companies have the assumption that work has to be un-enjoyable”, Hsieh told Time.com. “This also leads to this whole notion of work-life separation, or work-life balance… Here, we really think of it in terms of work-life integration. At the end of the day, it’s all just your life.”
Would most of us welcome such an integration of our working lives and social lives? Personally, I’m not so sure. And what happens to privacy and respect for individual personality differences if your boss starts questioning why you are not positive enough, or happy enough, rather than looking at your professional contribution?
This brings me back to a couple of years ago, when I had dinner in London with an old school acquaintance. We hadn’t seen each other for a very long time, and the conversation inevitably drifted to people we knew back in the day. I was surprised to hear that she had fallen out with one of her previously close friends. “What happened?,” I asked. “She didn’t believe in my dream,” she responded resolutely. “She questioned what I wanted to do. So, I had to let her go”.
This comment stuck with me. For some, it seems mere questions about their visions or goals are seen not as points to listen to, think about, and then agree or disagree with, but rather as a source of negative energy that must be immediately eradicated. Friendships then seize to be real relationships based on freedom of thought and an inherent potential for differences of opinion, and instead become empty tools for self-affirmation, ego boosting and, frankly, ass-kissing. Nobody likes a Negative Nancy, but surely emotional maturity means being able to accept others’ viewpoints while not taking criticism to heart if you feel it’s unjust.
If we constantly look for errors or negativity in each other’s personalities, is that not exactly what we will find? What does it say about the value we place on each other if we are so quick to cut friends off based on their lack of usefulness to us? If we automatically refuse to listen to questions or comments that we may perceive as negative, are we not doing ourselves a disservice by limiting our exposure to potentially useful feedback?
In the words of John Donne, no man is an island. And none of us are perfect.