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In modern day American society, people are expected to abide by certain unspoken social rules-social norms. In “How We Believe”, from Acting Out Culture, several authors take their audiences through different sections of social norms to explain where these social rules and norms came from and how they play into everyday culture. In Bright-Sided, Barbara Ehrenreich explains America’s optimism throughout hardship from not only an observer’s standpoint, by several psychologists’ standpoints as well. This theme then plays into James Twitchell’s Two Cheers for Materialism. Twitchell explains materialism from an optimistic but academic viewpoint while arguing that materialism is in fact beneficial to modern culture. Materialism and optimism are two huge parts of normal American culture. And in “How We Believe”, they are used to support and further explain social norms in the American society.
American society prides itself on being strong and standing out among the rest. Part of what makes the American society the way it is would be its positive attitude. Once an American is knocked down, he gets back up, dusts off his boots, and returns the favor. In the introduction to Bright Sided, Ehrenreich accurately describes American culture as being naively optimistic. For example, in the summer of 2001, America was given ample warning and blatant clues that there was an ensuing terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. However, the FBI, the INS, President Bush, and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, all brushed off these warnings. They figured such a powerful and prominent country with a strong economy would not be the target of such a horrific terrorist attack. They were all accused later of “failure of imagination”, as Karen Cerulo writes in her book, Never Saw It Coming: Cultural Challenges to Envisioning the Worst. However, after the terrorist attack on September 11th, America came together as a nation and supported itself. The American people were unified and together were a family. After this incident, American society took everything with a grain of salt but still kept a smile.
It is and always has been in American culture to keep a positive attitude through hardship and really just on an everyday basis. Barbara Ehrenreich writes in Bright-Sided that “Americans are a “positive” people”. It is in the nature of Americans to dust off their boots when they have been knocked down and carry on. According to psychologists, having a positive mindset about ourselves and the world around us can increase the longevity and quality of our lives. People are heavily influenced by their environment, so this conclusion makes complete sense. But at the same time a large number of Americans feel the exact opposite.
Scientists have done a study on the happiness of different nations and found that many Americans are in fact clinically depressed. According to these scientists, “Americans account for two-thirds of the global market for antidepressants”. These statistics then beg the question: if so many Americans are clinically depressed, why does America have the reputation of being so resilient? According to Ehrenreich, this reputation is supported by our “ideology”. Americans have a positive mindset about pushing on which is why America is one of the most prosperous and resilient nations in the world. This ideology brings people together as a nation, as Americans. It forms a strong sense of patriotism among citizens. One reason why America has become so prosperous is because people in the marketplace have learned to use Americans’ positive thinking to their advantage. Ehrenreich writes “While positive thinking has reinforced and found reinforcement in American national pride, it has also entered into a kind of symbiotic relationship with American capitalism”. Materialism is part of what keeps this nation moving.
Materialism often times has a negative connotation. It is centralized around money and money is the root of all evil, as they say. However, in Two Cheers for Materialism, James Twitchell dives into materialism not from a critical standpoint, but rather an optimistic one. Twitchell refers to materialism as the “central characteristic of modern life”. It is human nature to be drawn to material possessions. The American marketplace has learned to use that to make a profit. In the game of capitalism, evolving trends feed into consumerism’s strength. When the latest trend is bold makeup, Cover Girl opens a new line of products to create the perfect smokey-eye complexion. When the latest trend is floral print, Forever 21 fills their shelves from top to bottom with nothing but floral. And according to the marketplace, a person is not happy without these new products. Once consumers have purchased these items, they will be happy again. That is until the next trend comes around. This brilliant marketing scheme is what makes the American marketplace so active and prominent. According to Twitchell, other nations such as Russia and China are “playing a frantic game of catch-up”. So although materialism can drive society crazy, it is society that is feeding it and society can not live without it.
Materialism and optimism go hand in hand to support American social norms. America is a capitalist and consumerist nation and prides itself on a strong marketplace. Through hard work and a competitive streak, America’s market has grown to become one of the most active and recognized markets in the world. At the same time, America has undergone some extreme hardship and has learned to come out on top and in control again. Even weakened, America kept a strong face. That is in American culture to keep fighting and keep trying. It’s the American way. As a nation, we have come together, despite our differences and risen to the top together. It is in our nature to win. We have run into hardship before and we will run into more down the road. But with the right mindset and the right support, America will not be broken. We will stand back up and fight. It is our social norm to get back up and win.
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