Conversations in Management: Pronoia

“I’m a kind of paranoiac in reverse. I suspect people of plotting to make me happy.”

                Seymour Glass.

HappyCould it be true? Is it possible that people are plotting to make you happy? It’s an idea J. D. Salinger suggested in his 1955 novella, Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters. In the story, the character Seymour Glass notes this in his diary to help explain why he didn’t make it to his wedding. All is not lost, however, and Glass elopes with his bride-to-be almost immediately after the cancelled ceremony. The diary entries leading up to the elopement are interesting, because in them, Glass struggles to explain the unexplainable.  That is, how can a world that so often seems petty, shallow and judgmental be a beautiful transcendent and happy place? If you’re familiar with Salinger’s writing, you’ll know that things don’t work out too well for Glass in the long run, but now he’s exultant about marriage: “How wonderful, how sane, how beautifully difficult, and therefore true. The joy of responsibility for the first time in my life.”

The idea of a “paranoiac in reverse” remained dormant until 1982 when Dr. Fred Goldner of Queens College coined the term pronoia to describe a psychological disorder mirroring paranoia.  A paranoiac suspects others think ill of them and may even harbor malevolent intentions. A pronoiac, on the other hand, believes others think well of them and that their motivations are good. Goldner, views this darkly. As he explains, “Mere acquaintances are thought to be close friends; politeness and the exchange of pleasantries are taken as expressions of deep attachment and the promise of future support.” Well, maybe. Goldner seems to be describing the extreme consequences of a sunny disposition and somehow it doesn’t ring true. Even in an age where the professionals seek to pathologize virtually every emotion and behavior, his clinical take on pronoia has failed to catch on.

If the clinical view hasn’t caught on, neither has the New Age approach. A 1994 feature in Wired, proclaimed, “There’s a new and rapidly spreading cultural virus ripping through the British Isles. The symptoms of those infected include attacks of optimism, strong feelings of community, and lowered stress levels. Will their gathering in August at the Grand Canyon be the Woodstock of the ’90s?” The short answer to that last question was, “no.” Despite the later publication of a popular book by Rob Brezsny—Pronoia Is the Antidote for Paranoia—no movement initially promoted by a group called the “Zippies” was likely to gain much traction in our serious-minded society. In case you missed it, Zippies are “Zen-inspired professional pagans” who’ve, “balanced their hemispheres to achieve a fusion of the technological and the spiritual.” Beginning to understand why their, “postcyberpunk, postconsumerist way of life,” didn’t turn out to be bigger than the Beatles?

But what if Seymour Glass was on to something—something more profound than Goldner’s antiseptic diagnosis or the Zippies’ daffiness? Something that’s almost unexplainable beyond the belief that the world is ultimately a benevolent place in which the good vastly outweighs the bad. It’s not a place where we have to rationalize our hurt with the grim acceptance that, “everything happens for a reason.” Nor is it a world spinning out of control. Yet on a daily basis we seem to have succumbed to the paranoiac’s suspicion of life. Are we so focused on what’s wrong that we miss what’s right? In his poem Desiderata, Max Ehrmann writes, “And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.” Is the universe plotting to make you happy? Could it be?

                                                                                                                                                                            —Ebert

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