Who gets the hump at happiness? What kind of curmudgeon opposes health and fitness? Reader, CPT is the grouch in question, and we’ve got a festival to prove it: ‘Fitter, Happier, More Productive’ runs for a week here next month. We conceived it partly in response to there being loads of ace work on the subject, and partly as a playful counterpoint to the Sick festival, in that our festival explores wellness – what we mean by that, how it’s changing, how the ideology of wellness (“the wellness syndrome”, as it’s recently been defined) has started to look pretty sick itself. There are six shows in it, by six great young artists and companies examining the pressure to be perfect, and how it feels to struggle in its shadow.
Now, let’s be clear: at CPT – to quote the title of a Made In China show – we hope that you’re happy. As a Scotsman, reared with a horror of self-indulgence, I have some sympathy for the great Proclaimers song that runs, “life is full of misery / Well, take something for it / Or try to ignore it / Don’t give it to me.” But it’s clear – isn’t it? – that there’s something deeply dubious about the “science” of happiness, so beloved of New Labour and David Cameron. About the cult of positive thinking, propagated by capitalism to make us take responsibility for the harm it inflicts. And about the way we now pathologise and medicate for inattentiveness, anxiety, and other aspects of what used to get called “being human”.
It used to be a matter partly of choice, partly of accident whether we were happy or fit, beautiful or healthy. Now, it’s a moral imperative. If you’re sad, you’re bad. If you’re fat, it’s your fault. If you smoke, you’re a social pariah.
And so positive thinking, which was supposed to set us free, has imprisoned us all. We used to just fail; now we have to blame ourselves for failing. The American sociologist Barbara Ehrenreich has written a fine book on this subject, Smile Or Die, which is bang-on about the strict limits and sinister subtext of “personal development”. Heaven forfend it’s your boss’s fault, or the company, or the tanking economy, when you get the sack. You just weren’t positive enough that that job should be yours. There’s plenty to be said, meanwhile, in favour of mindfulness – but in its workplace incarnation, this latest fad is undeniably obliging to the powers-that-be. “It conveniently shifts the burden onto the individual employee”, write Carl Cederstrom and Andre Spicer in The Wellness Syndrome. “Stress is framed as a personal problem, and mindfulness is offered as just the right medicine to work more efficiently and calmly within toxic environments.”
Cederstrom and Spicer’s book offers a useful corrective to the clouds of guff wafting around your “positive mental attitude.” They show that the cult of happiness is of a piece with the demonising of drinkers, couch potatoes and crisp-guzzlers. They write about the American colleges where students must sign contracts promising not to drink alcohol. They trace the way that our faith in collective action has eroded in parallel to the “naive enthusiasm [that we can] make our lives better through enhancing our lifestyle.” They nail the contradictions in happiness ideology, and the absence of any consensus on what happiness actually is – on whether we’re allowed to fake it till we make it, or whether happiness only counts if it’s inner, spiritual and profound (rather than the kind that comes with – in my case – guzzling crisps).
To which the natural human response is: aaargh! And the elevated response is to make really exciting theatre shows exploring attitudes surrounding depression (Josh Coates’ Get Yourself Together), the maniacal cult of self-worth (Urban Foxes Collective’s hit show Be Better) or the pressure to be charismatic (Cape Theatre’s CPT-developed We Choose to Go to the Moon) – to give just three pertinent examples.
We at CPT naturally consider our audiences to be happy and eager, fit and beautiful. But we’d prefer that wasn’t a result of an ideology that compels you to be, the better to sculpt you into an efficiently performing economic unit. Likewise – when you have your rare off-days – we wish that that you should never feel ashamed or inadequate, far less obliged to throw money at the so-called self-improvement industry. Trust us, coming to or ‘Fitter, Happier, More Productive’ festival is all the self-improvement you need.
Join us for Fitter Happier More Productive between Tue 3 – Sun 8 Nov. Browse the full programme here.