03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Art of Branding Emotions

Whatever the economy may be doing to certain financial sectors, the "Emotions-as-a-Disease" business is thriving.

I just can't watch a commercial for prescription drugs without thinking I need a cab to Bellevue ASAP, or at the very least, I need to "talk to my doctor" about whether the benefits of this or that drug outweigh the possible side effects.

If you are taking a medication for high blood pressure, low blood pressure, changeable blood pressure, post nasal drip or acne you should not take Cheer-up-o-zine. If you experience instant death, stop taking Cheer-up-o-zine and contact your doctor immediately. People with a history of eating or breathing should not take Cheer-up-o-zine. In some case, spontaneous combustion has been reported.

Did this obsession with feeling good all the time start with the sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll generation? Do we really believe that anyone who is not a walking smiley button is a deviant? Is optimism the only socially acceptable emotion on the spectrum?

In her new book, Bright-sided: How Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America", Barbara Ehrenreich argues that the obsession with positive thinking is not only at times delusional but sometimes it can be downright dangerous. When someone is irrationally optimistic and happy, despite alarming life conditions and discouraging events, do you consider them mentally healthy? A lot of these happy pills actually weaken our emotional immune system, which eventually makes it harder to deal with anything challenging.

Why can't we be depressed or feel sad anymore without being sent on a trip to the psychotropics? The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration says nearly 7 million Americans currently abuse prescription drugs. An increasing number of people are becoming convinced that they are sick when they are actually feeling exactly that which makes them human.

Emotions across the entire range are what distinguish us from other species. There is a rainbow of emotions available to us and they all serve a purpose in our growth and expansion. Actually, the only people who are said to not feel emotions are psychopaths and the dead.

Sooner or later, if you squelch all of your negative emotions, you will begin to automatically monitor all of your emotions to see whether they pass muster, at which point what remains is no longer emotions, but a sort of a mask, a smiley mask, dead behind the eyes.

Foucault once said that once you give a name to something, it becomes real, even if it was only a concept before you named it. Maybe that is the difference between a disease and one's individual slice of the human condition. Whereas the Existentialists had to write a novel to express it, now we give it a name, and poof, it's a disease. Presumably, if Sartre had been properly diagnosed and medicated, "No Exit" would have been "What Color is Your Door?"

Talking about diagnosis, in a recent article in the Atlantic, author Joshua Shenk explains that Lincoln fought clinical depression all his life and that if he were diagnosed today, he would certainly be disqualified for leadership. What a loss to the country this could have been! Joshua shenk argues that "what needs 'treatment' is our own narrow ideas -- of depression as an exclusively medical ailment that must be, and will be, squashed; of therapy as a thing dispensed only by professionals and measured only by a reduction of pain."

Some of the emotions that are considered dark are the very ones that help us build our emotional muscle and resilience. We are capable of being strong when dealing with challenging situations if we confront the reality, not when we hide from it. The more we learn to deal with issues, the stronger we become as human beings. Instead, we are encouraged to become crippled emotionally, incapable of feeling anything unpleasant or dealing with anything in the future realistically. Being "realistic" is treated by the smiley-bots as though it is a pathetic delusion.

And it's even more alarming in the case of young children. One of my very young nieces was diagnosed with ADD a few months ago because she could not focus during one of her classes. She was going to be prescribed one of the available drugs. As it turns out, nothing was wrong with her though, she just had zero interest in the subject that was being taught. Of course, since the teacher was completely convinced of his own brilliance (taking his Cheer-o-zine, no doubt) he astutely spotted the signs of her disorder and encouraged the parents to seek the help of a psychiatrist. Fortunately, sane heads prevailed, and my niece was not turned into a zombie.

Now let me clarify that I am not attacking prescription drugs use, but rather it's abuse and the addictions that result. Some have been able to use psychotropic medications on their path to recovery and that is wonderful. The problem arises when the standard solution to every uncomfortable emotion is to make it go away, with no regard to the collateral damage.

One danger with a lot of the prescription drugs is the myth that they are safe or they would not be sold. But just because something is packaged in a colorful box and sold by a pharmacist does not make it safer than drugs that can be found on street corners. I still haven't heard about anyone dying from pot, but I certainly couldn't say the same about prescription drugs. According to statistics from the National Drug control policy, prescription drug abuse has killed more than 8500 Americans in 2005. FDA-approved medications given to people who don't need them can create more harm than the symptoms they are supposed to be curing.

Experiencing emotions fully and expressing them, even if they might make us seem less attractive or powerful, is a sign of strength, not a sign of weakness. It takes strength and courage to fully embrace what we are feeling instead of rushing to the latest numbing pill or philosophy to flatline our feelings.

By the way, have you noticed that in the operating room, a flat line on the machine is bad news. It means "dead". The sign of life is when that line is going up and down.