While I was watching the news the other day, it struck me that I need a gloom-reduction strategy.
I recently reviewed a number of fitness applications, some of which were quite good, so this set me to wondering, Is there an app for that? An app that claims it can reduce your gloom, cheer you up? A quick Internet search for "apps for cheering you up" revealed a long list of offerings.
Sadly, though, most of these "cheerfulness" apps did not satisfy my needs. For starters, they confuse being cheerful or cheered up with cheerleading. I was hoping to have my mood lifted, my mind distracted into positive thoughts away from the gloomy news. I was not signing up to do "cheer work."
An example is the Cheers app , which was launched a couple of years ago. A social-network-like "positivity app," Cheers allows one to share images of things that are mood improving. Others can view and "like" your offerings, and thus you build a "cheerfluence" rating.
Sound familiar? Images plus a social-sharing platform plus the ability to like things plus a competitive score or rating. This is the current Internet's formulaic reduction of human sociality. Easy to implement and familiar to engage with, this formula is the irresistible go-to place for unimaginative development roadmaps and business models.
That said, experiences such as those provided by the Cheers app are somewhat amusing and potentially uplifting.
But are humans really that simple? Is a picture of a puppy and approval in the form of a thumbs-up all it takes to create a positive outlook, a "sunny" disposition? This seems like eating a gummy bear when you are hungry, rather than something nourishing and sustaining. And is gaining a high cheerfluence rating really so meaningful that it will turn my day around? Am I being cynical in thinking that the engineering of our mental health probably does not reduce to this one-size-fits-all formula? I'll wager that being gamified into being your own and everyone else's cheerleader, if it works at all, has limited impact.
To quell my curiosity, I asked about 30 of my friends to participate in a non-scientific poll. The question I posed to them: "What cheers you up?'" Answers included family, chatting with friends, good coffee, shopping, Sudoku, chess, reggae, dancing, eating good food, running, going to an art gallery, walking in nature, and flowers. Suggestions fell into the following categories: observations (e.g., children laughing), immersive experiences (e.g., exercise, games, and events), emotionally supportive and/or embracing settings (e.g., the company of friends and family), milestones sought or achieved (e.g., a degree completed or a marathon run) and sensual experiences (food, smells, sounds, touch). A certain amount of "freudenfreude" (the antonym of schadenfreude, freudenfreude is the joy felt at others' successes) was present—but not one person said "posting pictures on social media and getting a thumbs-up." Technology did appear, but only as a conduit to potentially cheering experiences: I love Skype because I can see my family who are far away.
The delightful reveries and reflections I heard from my friends were much more like the lyrics of one of my favorite musical earworms: "Reasons to be Cheerful, Part 3," by Ian Dury and the Blockheads. On this single released in the U.K. in July 1979, Dury offers his very personal list of things that make him cheerful. The list is random and ridiculous and wonderful. It includes summer, Buddy Holly, carrot juice, parrot smiles (whatever those are), yellow socks, John Coltrane's soprano saxophone, and generosity and politeness. Dury's list, like those of my friends, is the polar opposite of cheeriness as expressed in the Cheers app. Dury's list is personal, idiosyncratic. It requires no attention from anyone else, no agreement, and no approval. It is not open for comment; it invites no questions and offers no explanations. It is a meta-level meditation, reflecting a joy and celebration of existence and experience. Luxuriating in everyday things, we are invited to hear his individual life-appreciation selection. His "shopping" list is the antithesis of product advertising, where imagined happiness feeds on latent fear, salved only by the acquisition of an artifact.
The Cheers app is an excellent example of how to "perform" or prove cheer. Cheer as performance, as reportage, is not the same as cheer as experience. Presenting oneself as cheerful is very different from constructing one's life to make room for cheer, from luxuriating in thoughts of things one finds uplifting.
Cheers is certainly not the only platform available for doing such "cheer work" should we feel impelled to do so. Increasingly I see articles on how feeling the pressure to effectively perform a positive outlook on social platforms like Facebook is an exhausting and depressing experience. For those caught in the cheerfulness trap, the gulf between feeling and presenting is inauthentic and apparently exacerbates loneliness, anxiety, and gloominess. The pressure to capitulate to the cheerfulness trap is culturally tuned. In her excellent article on the cultural construction of cheerfulness, Christina Kotchemidova reminds us that different cultures and historical periods have required very different levels and forms of expressions of cheer. In America, for example, there is a high premium placed on presenting oneself as cheerful on dating sites, in job applications, and in everyday life . In my experience, this is less the case in many European countries. Indeed, sometimes it increases one's social standing if one is positively negative.
Having spent some time talking about this topic, I conclude that cheerfulness tactics have nothing to do with personal improvement, nor about proving something to oneself or to others. I also realize I took a misstep at the very beginning of this "research project." I started with my review of fitness applications. I started with the wrong foundation, the wrong guiding assumption. Fitness in popular contemporary constructions has "objective" measures associated with it; it can be reduced to metrics; and it can (for some, at least) be encouraged and cajoled through competition. Well-being is very personal, perhaps even private, and is not subject to approval and competition. Performed cheeriness is to experienced cheerfulness as fitness is to well-being. Just as you can be fit without having a sense of well-being, you can perform cheerfulness without feeling positive about the world.
So aside from limiting your consumption of gloomy things (in my case reducing my consumption of grim news), unless you enjoy a bit of schadenfreude or revel in catastrophic thinking (everyone has their quirks, after all), dump the app, avoid performative and/or competitive cheer rituals, resist gamification, and avoid all cheer tactics that require social approval. Be your own cheer-finder, make time for idle appreciative reflection, and chart your path with your own "positivity" compass.
Elizabeth Churchill is director of human-computer interaction at eBay Research Labs in San Jose, CA. She also serves as vice president of ACM SIGCHI. firstname.lastname@example.org
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