"The phenomenal success of the show relies at least in part" Roiphe wrote, "on the thrill of casual vice, on the glamour of spectacularly messy, self-destructive behavior to our relatively staid and enlightened times. As a culture we have moved in the direction of the gym, of the enriching, wholesome pursuit, of the embrace of responsibility, and the furthering of goals, and away from lounging around in the middle of the afternoon with a drink."
Just as the early 60s "smoldered" against 50s repression, so Roiphe sees our own attraction to the "world of excess" in "Mad Men" as a symptom of our own irritation with "the wilier and subtler repression of our own undoubtedly healthier, more upstanding times."
Be Happy Now!
If Roiphe is right, and at least some viewers look with a sort of nostalgic longing on glamorously bad behavior, you have to ask why. Aren't we better off now? Especially when there's never been so much attention paid to happiness?
After all, as Savoj Zizek reminds us, "...over the last decade, the study of happiness has emerged as a scientific discipline of its own: there are now 'professors of happiness' at universities, 'quality of life' institutes attached to them, and numerous research papers; there is even the Journal of Happiness Studies..." (p.44)
If we're not perpetually overjoyed after all this, it may be there are tactical errors in happiness literature. For example, happiness manuals like The Secret (not to mention countless other Positive Mental Attitude books) tend to offer strategies for raising your expectations. Yet, when Danes, reportedly the "happiest people in the world," were studied for their secret, researchers concluded that it was their "modest expectations" (leading to fewer disappointments).
In any case, this sort of happiness scrutiny is a symptom, according to Zizek, of a new social imperative: "happiness as the supreme duty." (44) Hyperbole?
Maybe not. Barbara Ehrenreich's recent Bright-Sided studies U.S. culture's "relentless promotion of positive thinking" and its practices. One of the darker aspects of such thought (aside from the apparently disastrous effects it had on investment strategy) is its application in some types of business management.
"Except in clear cut cases of racial, gender, age, or religious discrimination," Ehrenreich writes, "Americans can be fired for anything, such as failing to generate positive vibes. A computer technician in Minneapolis told me he lost one job for uttering a stray remark that was never identified for him but taken as evidence of sarcasm and a 'negative attitude.' " (54)
The "subtler repression" Roiphe alludes to may be the result of these cultural currents. If our "New Age" happiness is a "duty", it becomes a job like any other. You end up working too hard to have a good time.
And if it comes at the the expense of critical thought, the result may be a sense that there's something missing from this brand of joy. What? The wildness of a little freedom.
A Narcissistic Act
I wrote a poem a few years back that plays with these ideas. And though I'm hesitant to present my own work, happiness therapists the world over tell me I must fight this embarrassment to achieve self-realization. So in the interest of my happiness, the sales of my book Look Slimmer Instantly, and, I hope, your personal enjoyment and self-fulfillment, here it is:
It Was the Night Before Monday
and a good thing too
because if the weekend went on any longer
the populace was in danger of the overwork
it took to have a good time
you could feel the relief in the night air
in every restaurant
around every TV screen
among the crowds pouring out of the Sunday night features
leaving the parks
or in the minds of those obstinate individuals
visiting a last site at their keyboards
you could hear the chatter
arising into the atmosphere like a swarm
people excitedly planning
how they would spend their morning
relaxing in front of a column of figures
or obeying the kind machines that urged them forward
at a more human pace
than the cruel bosses
of the leisure industry
and among those who were tired
(and there were many)
of risking their lives
in order to enjoy them
voices began to cry out
and demand revolutionary action--
some called for a longer work week
supported by a leisure strike
so that the oppression known as entertainment
could be retired forever