Faking Positive Emotions for Our Jobs: At What Cost?

The toll taken by emotional labor often results in depression, anxiety, and psychosomatic problems. I've heard flight attendants refer to Prozac as "Vitamin P."
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In this post, I'm combining two ideas: 1) the philosopher Martin Heidegger's thoughts on the essence of technology, which states that in a technological world everything is treated as resources to enhance control and mastery of everything; and 2) the ideas of Arlie Russell Hochschild, who in 1983 published a book entitled "The Managed Heart: The Commercialization of Human Feeling," in which she brilliantly predicts the globalization of "emotional labor." Dr. Hochschild makes the case that whenever we are paid to make the effort to seem to feel and try to actually feel the "right" feeling for the job, and to try to induce the "right" feeling in certain others, that we are performing emotional labor.

Simply put, considering that we have shifted into a service-oriented economy, Dr. Hochschild warns of the consequences of commercialized human feeling that is made into a commodity, bought and sold the same as if it were a physical object. Dr. Hochschild studied Delta flight attendants as a perfect example of a work force expected to display smiles and a friendly attitude in the face of an increasingly hostile public. There are consequences to the relationship between the individual and his or her work, as well as the alienation of the worker from himself or herself. Having been a Pan Am flight attendant for 20 years beginning in 1965, and now a psychoanalyst and psychotherapist for 24 years, I feel that I know exactly what Dr. Hochschild is describing, and have observed the increasing tendency of businesses to hold the attitude that human beings are resources to be used, which leads to dehumanization. I will attempt to describe the changes I have observed in the airline community.

Long before Pollyanna got a bad name, Pollyanna: The Glad Book was my favorite inspirational book as I was growing up. In fact, even now it sits in a place of honor among my books. Nowadays, "Pollyanna" has morphed into a term meaning someone who has a superficial, naïve, rose-colored-glasses view of the world. But for those of us who read the original story, the character was a real person tested by difficult circumstances, who was in touch with her own emotional experience. It's the story of a little girl whose father taught her a game about always finding at least one thing to be glad for, even in the worst of times. When her father dies, Pollyanna is forced into situations in which she has to be courageous and positive, but her ability to "look on the bright side" (as many of our parents have said) allows her to triumph and to bring love and hope into the lives of those around her. Heavily identified with the heroine, I, too, wanted to deny all gloom, sorrow, and hostility by radiating a serene, optimistic, pleasant, and cheerful countenance to one and all -- especially in the wake of the trauma of the death of my father when I was a little girl.

Like many of us in the 1950s, I grew up feeling that I should be happy, always smiling, never angry, and eternally positive. I was aware of "negative" feelings, of course, particularly sadness, but I was careful not to let them show often, even to myself. I experienced anger mostly as a feeling of numbness, and depression felt like physical tiredness. My experience, like the original Pollyanna, was a combination of "positive" feelings and a cover-up of more difficult "negative" feelings. As a result, at a very early age I developed a passion for talking to people about their problems and feelings, discovering that in the process, I felt better. I was fascinated to hear about depression, anxiety, anger, and envy from people who were verbal enough to talk about it. I learned to sit with it and bear witness, and in doing so I could feel whole, knowing that somewhere inside me I had those unexpressed feelings, too.

Upon graduation from college in 1965, I, like many other modern-day Pollyannas, found a job that I couldn't have improved upon even in my most grandiose childhood fantasies. To be a stewardess for Pan American World Airways in 1965 meant that I had access to the entire world. The job description was perfect for me in that it called for only "positive" feelings. To show feelings of fear, anger, or sadness was inappropriate and could frighten nervous travelers. I took to the work quite naturally, and I would rush through my flight attendant duties so that I could do what I loved best: finding the most distressed passenger or fellow flight attendant to wile away the endless hours trying to ease their pain. I learned to trust my intuition, and although I had very little psychological jargon at my fingertips, I felt that I had a fascinating laboratory with a captive audience with which to increase my human understanding.

My first experiment with a passenger was when I noticed an elderly woman sitting all alone in a window seat before takeoff, crying softly to herself. Somehow I knew -- it flashed into my head -- that her husband had recently died, and that he had always held her hand on takeoff. Finding someone to sit in my jumpseat, I slipped into the seat beside her, taking her hand in mine. She looked startled and then smiled at me with such gratitude on her face that I spent the next 20 years looking for those opportunities, savoring them.

For 10 years I felt that my job with Pan Am was the best airline job in the world. To be part of the Pan Am "family" gave us all a feeling of pride, expansiveness, and security, and I believe that we were some of the happiest and most content employees of any company on the planet. Our smiles were real, and we loved our jobs. However, as circumstances began to change, and Pan Am's decline was becoming more evident, we began a roller coaster ride for survival. Smiles became more difficult and less genuine. What was happening to our Pan Am world toward which we felt great love and loyalty? Fewer flight attendants served more passengers, layovers were shortened, and we had to work many more days a month with more arduous schedules. Most distressing for me was the change in the quality of our service. The world-famous tools of our trade -- the delicious food served with china, crystal, silver, and flowers -- gave way to typical, tasteless airline food served with plastic utensils. Our love for Pan Am never wavered, but our jobs became more emotionally difficult, an unhappy portent of things to come.

As the airline world was changing, I was smiling when I didn't feel like it. I went from genuine feelings of contentment and enjoyment of the job to feeling required to always show those feelings. The problem began when I realized that I had to maintain this outward persona, regardless of what was going on within me or within Pan Am, and my joyfulness gave way to cover-up. More than once my fondness for Pollyanna came to mind, my original conception of her as I tried to "look on the bright side" of an ever-darkening situation. Now, more and more, Pollyanna was becoming an inauthentic cover-up who nevertheless had to summon up courage.

I imagine that others would think that my work now would be about emotional labor; in fact, it is the opposite! Being a psychotherapist requires that I be as authentically present and connected to my emotional experience as possible. I am not required to smile, or be polite, or to act in any way that is contrary to how I genuinely feel. I can't describe how emotionally freeing it was for me when I changed careers and landed in a place where I'm required to be authentically myself! When I go into my office, I think of it as a place where I get an emotional workout: as I sit with others, I get to feel with them a whole gamut of emotions that I wouldn't necessarily feel on a daily basis on my own. The freedom to do this is a continuing joy for me and feels as natural as breathing. I must admit that as a beginning therapist, once in a while a patient would ask me, "Why are you smiling?" It was a habit that was hard to break when I was feeling uncomfortable or anxious. My default button was always to smile.

So as someone who appreciates how hard emotional labor can be, I have to say that when people comment that my work now as a therapist must be hard and burdensome, I want to say, "Hard? I'll tell you what's hard! Try working a 15-hour, non-stop flight, with all of its accompanying fatigue, and try giving everyone that you come into contact with whatever it is that you think they need from you. And do it with a constant smile, which everyone expects. And add to that the fact that you feel incredibly responsible for hundreds of people's lives in case of an emergency." To be a really good Pan Am flight attendant in the 1980s became harder and harder, and flight attendants at most airlines are feeling even more stressed today. When I see a flight attendant who's doing a wonderful job and seems to enjoy the passengers, I find a way to compliment them, because, believe me, they are working hard. There's nothing Pollyanna about that.

The toll taken by emotional labor often results in depression, anxiety, and psychosomatic problems. I've heard flight attendants refer to Prozac as "Vitamin P," a psychiatric medication used in the service of emotional hiding and inauthenticity, as people increasingly try to medicate away natural emotional pain. Sept. 11, 2001 caused devastating emotions in all airline personnel, but particularly in those who work for American Airlines and United Airlines. It felt like I was working with them almost around the clock for about a year, and I was shocked when even colleagues of mine would say, "You mean that they're scared to fly?"

When the JetBlue flight attendant Steven Slater took his now-famous slide down the emergency chute, beer in hand, after publicly telling off a nightmare passenger, many people around the world cheered. The incident hit a nerve among many employees in service jobs who are expected to perform the "emotional labor" that Dr. Hochschild describes. The dehumanization of human beings when they are regarded as resources to be used and commercialized strikes a universal chord, and as Dr. Hochschild pointed out nearly 30 years ago, we are all partly flight attendants.