Comfort. To feel better. Do not worry Be Happy. Smile more. As an emotion, cheerfulness has an amazing range. At best, it’s a style of kindness we extend to others, a balm during difficult times, and a way to deal with trauma and despair. At worst, joy can be a dishonest, on-demand feeling that we can project to get what we want. It can also be a burden, especially for women and people of color, many of whom feel compelled to be constantly optimistic.

When it comes to moving votes and capturing the public’s attention, the strongest and most negative emotions come to mind: anger, hate, fear, resentment. But Timothy Hampton is lively new cultural history of cheerfulness is a compelling argument that modest sentiments matter too, even (or especially) as democracy shrivels and the planet overheats. Cheer, which Hampton describes as a “temporary levity, moderate mood lift”, turns out to have a captivating backstory; it has helped people build communities, get along, and move on since at least the Middle Ages.

Hampton would like us to see cheerfulness as a rich moral feeling, not just a fleeting psychological gimmick. Yet what he has really done, brilliantly if inadvertently, is to reveal the dark side of joy: the way it makes us value surfaces over substance, the particular degree to which it can be warded off and wielded at will, and ultimately how it so easily serves and protects those in power.


Joy, according to Hampton, is no longer what it used to be. The cheap version we know today, a ploy to sell beer and breakfast cereals and political candidates, was the result of mass consumption. In his account, “modern marketing culture” has ruined cheerfulness and turned it into a flimsy commodity. Yet joy was once an emotion with genuine spiritual significance as well as intellectual weight, suggests Hampton, gently but decisively shaping the history of Western modernity.

When joy made her first appearance in English sometime in the 14th century, however, she had not yet acquired these powers. From the old French word Dear (and possibly Spanish cara), it originally meant “face” or “contenance”, the face or impression one offers to the world. In this neutral sense, well done usually need an adjective to accompany it. At Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Talesfor example, knights were described as kneeling with “humble chere” or galloping into battle with “hardy cheare and face”.

During the religious tumult of the 16th and 17th centuries, gaiety took on a more positive aspect. For Protestant reformers such as John Calvin, brilliant positivity became a sign of Christian charity, virtue and identity. Over time, joy has become more of a secular good than a spiritual good. A powerful force transforming European political and intellectual life in the early modern period, after all, was sociability: gathering in drawing rooms and cafes to do business and discuss bold new ideas about what was true and what should govern. A lighthearted demeanor and upbeat personality made it all easier and more enjoyable. As Enlightenment philosopher David Hume explained, the “real wisdom” was found in the “cheerful talk” of light conversation, rather than “the formal reasoning of the schools”. Joy also fueled the growth of capitalism by boosting productivity (economist Adam Smith identified a virtuous circle in which higher wages lead to cheerfulness and therefore more diligent work) and fueling the consumer economy . In the 19th century, cheerfulness was a marker of social mobility: in the realist novels of writers such as Balzac and Stendhal, for example, cheerfulness is associated with up-and-coming lower-class provincial men, cheerfully jostling and ascending in a new capitalist world. .

Of course, the history of all that human beings value is also, inevitably, a history of attempts at control. Joy has always felt more under our control than other feelings, treated as an emotion that can be deliberately triggered. Today you can use balloons or a bouquet of flowers. In 1561, a Dutch physician advised that “good humor” could be made by “kissing…dauncinge, Wyne and singing”. A 17th century medical textbook told its readers to mix a “powder to create gaiety” by combining ingredients such as saffron, ambergris and shavings of deer heart bone.

This manipulative instinct has been particularly evident in the United States, a country that has pioneered the expression and commodification of cheerfulness in too many ways to count, including cheerleaders, Cheerios (coined in the 1940s and marketed with the slogan “He smells his Cheery-oats!”) and the icon representing a smiley face. As American economic and geopolitical dominance grew in the 20th century, a new wave of entrepreneurs and spiritual advisers told millions of readers that to succeed in the world, one must choose to be joyful. In the 1930s, the most famous of these characters was Dale Carnegie, whose best-selling textbook How to Win Friends and Influence People highlighted the benefits of good humor for business advancement. In 1952, a Protestant pastor named Norman Peale published The power of positive thinking, which asserted that health and wealth were the result of optimism and a cheerful outlook. (One of Peale’s most infamous fans? Donald Trump.)

This self-determined view of cheerfulness still generates gigantic profits for the American self-help industry. See: Rhonda Byrne’s Bestseller The secret (remember “protest”?) and the enigmatic sermons of Marianne Williamson, who suggested that illness and despair are illusions that can be overcome by choosing more positive feelings. Feeling spontaneously, truly joyful doesn’t matter anymore, if it ever did. The main thing is that you put on a compelling show, both for others and for yourself. As Hampton explains, modern life has stripped the authenticity of joy and made it fully performative: “To be joyful is what it means to be joyful.”


It is always comforting to think that modernity has corrupted us: our mores and mores, our children and our politics, our intellectual lives and our natural environments. It means there was once a golden age, something for us to reclaim. Hampton offers this kind of degeneracy story about cheerfulness. He proposes that joy went from being a substantial feeling to the sticky, superficial feeling we know today. The American-made joy is just a “distant echo” of an “earlier moment”, he explains, “now largely stripped of its spiritual underpinnings”.

But Hampton’s own book reveals that cheerfulness has never been so pure. From the start, joy’s serious, better self has coexisted with its phoner twin. Medieval French nobles realized that by responding to hostile neighbors and potential threats by putting on a “good face” (good dear), they could avoid violent quarrels. Renaissance courtiers learned from influential texts such as that of the Italian diplomat Baldassare Castiglione The Courtier’s Book that a chipper personality could grease the skates of their social or political ambitions. And many popular etiquette guides in the 18th century advised young women to carefully perform a “constant gay,” as it was called, a kind of “innocent deceit” that would help them succeed in the world of men and manners. In other words, false joy is not as modern a plague as Hampton would have us believe.

Emotions are generally defined by their ungovernability, experienced as forces that overwhelm us and challenge our sense of agency. This quality is what makes most seem genuine and trustworthy to us. Fake anger or love feels like betrayal. But false joy? It’s hard to say how this is so different from reality. Joy has always been perched on the razor’s edge between truth and falsity, which makes it particularly vulnerable to political manipulation and abuse.

Indeed, powerful interests have long used mirth to counsel appeasement and prevent action. At the turn of the 20th century, for example, the middle classes and exhausted workers of the United States were instructed by inspirational bestselling books like Cheerfulness as a life force (1899) to be optimistic at work instead of complaining. Because joy “extends the lifespan of human machines,” one author explained, it would make everyone’s job easier and more efficient. Much later, Ronald Reagan (appropriately a college cheerleader) found in the rhetoric of sustained national optimism a practical way to deflate social democracy while energizing the neoliberal project. During his presidential campaign, he attempted to convince voters that success was largely due to a cheerful mood rather than government support or social conditions. Even today, the American political establishment prefers its candidates to be “happy warriors» instead of furious crusaders, and is more worried about the pessimistic tone of the militants than about the substance of their demands.

Nothing in this darker story means that joy is undemocratic or that optimism is politically naïve. Far from there. Social movements, as most organizers and activists will tell you, depend on it to make hard work enjoyable. But it’s not as trivial as one might think. Cheerfulness is a political emotion like any other, mercenary and vital, capable of making worlds as well as breaking them. Hampton would like us to tap into joy’s overlooked ability to “transform the moral self.” Yet perhaps the greatest risk we face as democratic citizens is not neglecting cheerfulness, but rather the opposite: that we trust it too easily.