THE BLOG
11/03/2008 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Happy Smiley Day

You may not know it, but today, Friday October 3, 2008 is World Smile Day. And it arrives not a moment too soon, given our current anxieties and predicaments.

World Smile Day serves to commemorate the invention of the Smiley Face, which has humble origins when a Worcester, Massachusetts insurance company, State Mutual, merged with another company in 1963. The change had a deleterious effect on staff morale. In order to get employees to, if not actually be happy, than at least to project it, State Mutual launched a "friendship campaign." A local designer, Harvey Ball, was hired, and he drew up the smiley face image -- the yellow, smiling face -- in about ten minutes. Printed on buttons, the Smiley Face was an instant sensation. State Mutual was soon distributing Smiley Face buttons in the tens of thousands to customers and agents.

A few years later, Bernard and Murray Spain, two brothers known for launching fads, got a hold of the Smiley Button, copyrighted it, and added the crucial words "Have a nice day." Soon Smiley was everywhere -- on buttons, posters, t-shirts, bumper stickers, and key chains. By 1971 more than 50 million buttons were sold and Smiley became one of the iconic images of the 1970s and beyond. "Mr. Speaker, there are few symbols which so fully represent the American spirit of friendship, happiness and peace as the smiley face," U.S. Representative Jim McGovern said in the Congressional Record in celebrating first annual World Smile Day on October 1, 1999.

Along with the Smiley Face, there is other evidence that we now pursue our happiness in America with a high degree of self-consciousness. There is a burgeoning new academic discipline of "Happiness Studies," or the "Study of Subjective Well-Being" as its more exacting practitioners call it. There are "professors of happiness" at universities, "quality of life" institutes and a new academic journal, The Journal of Happiness Studies. In Southampton, New York -- a place where it easier than most to be happy -- there exists a Happiness Foundation, whose mission is to inspire and enable people to make others happy.

But here's the rub. I think the Smiley Face is a symptom, albeit a benign and whimsical one, of something that is actually quite unsettling. All this focus on happiness reflects a certain dark urgency -- an unhealthy pressure -- that makes us believe that we, as Americans, must be happy, if not all the time, then at least most of the time. This is a fine enough sentiment, but the inconvenient fact is the many of the conditions of life -- and today's headlines -- are not always conducive to positive emotions. Most people over the centuries have actually thought that life was brutish, nasty and short. But in our characteristic American optimism and impatience, we have a hard time accepting this. As the historian Richard Hofstadter put it, "A great part of both the strength and weakness or our national existence lies in the fact that Americans do not abide very quietly the evils of life. We are forever restlessly pitting ourselves against them, demanding changes, improvement, remedies, but not often with sufficient sense of the limits that the human condition will in the end insistently impose on us."

The flip-side of this pressure is that we assume there is something wrong with us when we are unhappy. Not happy? Perhaps I have a disorder of some kind -- of Major Depression, of Social Anxiety, of PTSD, of Seasonal Affective Disorder. (All legitimate and very serious conditions, requiring treatment, but all too frequently used as labels for people with far lesser problems.) It is this medicalization of everyday troubles that has contributed to the massive usage of antidepressants in America. In 2007, 230 million prescriptions for antidepressants were dispensed, more than for any other class of medication.

Walker Percy, the author of The Moviegoer, asked that we look at normal sadness in a different way. Perhaps if one is feeling sad and mildly depressed, Percy wrote, there is something right with you, rather than something wrong with you. Perhaps you are merely a thinking and feeling being, sensitive to an at times deranged world.

And, the Smiley Face notwithstanding, there is something liberating about accepting that life is hard. "Life is difficult" was the emancipating and rather un-American first line of M. Scott Peck's best-selling self-help book The Road Less Traveled. When I was on a book tour this winter, a Swedish woman in the audience said: "In Sweden, when you ask other people how they're doing, they say: 'terrible, awful, miserable.' Then you get to know them and find out they're doing fine. In America, you ask how people are doing, and they say: 'wonderful, great, fantastic.' Then you get to know them, and they're all depressed and messed up.'"

My personal and perhaps churlish retort to the Smiley Face/Have a Nice Day phenomenon is that if we really want to be happy, being self-conscious about its attainment is not always the best way to go about it. Orwell wrote that "men can only be happy when they do not assume that the object of life is happiness." "Happiness is a mystery, like religion, and should never be rationalized," added G.K. Chesterton.

That's the thing -- the best aspects of the human experience are shrouded in mysticism, wonderment, and doubt. As soon as you try to put your finger on them, define them, capture them, put them on a button, they're gone.

Charles Barber is the author most recently of "Comfortably Numb: How Psychiatry is Medicating a Nation", published by Pantheon in 2008. He is a lecturer in psychiatry at Yale Medical School. His website is www.charlesbarberwriting.com.