Today happiness is a truly flourishing industry populated by self-help, motivational seminars, life coaching and dating websites. Here, editor Rebecca Long explores ways in which happiness has lost its meaning.
In the conspicuous consumption 80s, t-shirts assured that the key to happiness was not to worry. In the 90s, the Gulf war and recession relegated such pap to bottom drawers. Today happiness is a truly flourishing industry populated by self-help, motivational seminars, life coaching and dating websites. Happiness is a democratic ideal, promised to be not only within an individual’s reach – but an individual right.
But happiness wasn’t always imagined as something to be pursued.
In his book Happiness: A History, history professor Darrin McMahon reveals that at the dawn of Western history, happiness was largely a matter of chance. The first known Western history book, The Histories, frames happiness as something bestowed by the gods or fate. In fact, the word ‘happy’ comes from the Old Norse happ, meaning ‘good luck’.
Ironically, in idealising happiness – one of the English language’s most loaded words – we both create and demonise that which is not it. And since there is no consensus on what it is, what it is not is vast. Eighteenth century philosopher Immanuel Kant said: ‘Happiness is not an ideal of reason, but of imagination.’ As with other ideals such as thinness and physical beauty, it is not only incumbent upon those who are not yet happy to try harder, but also to hide their unsated hunger.
This tyrannical normative posturing is what author Judith Halberstam calls ‘toxic positivity’ – referencing the charter to maintain a cheerful, uncomplaining disposition, much like the so-called ‘Polyanna’ syndrome, known in psychology circles as a corrosive kind of denial. It derives from Eleanor H. Porter’s 1913 novel Pollyanna, describing a girl who plays the ‘glad game’—attempting to find something to be glad about in every situation. It’s a criticism often meted at paradigms that seem to perpetuate the idea of a level playing field, and as a result, compound a sense of lack in those who inevitably fail to feel as happy as they think they should. Research shows that we are not equally capable of feeling happy – whether by virtue of a lower set point, ignorance of practices that enhance happiness, or unrealistic expectations.
The dismissal of 19th century Irish economist Francis Edgworth’s proposed ‘hedonometer’, with which he hoped to measure happiness, and the failure of modern science to coin a standardised happiness metric, attest to the multiplicity of meanings and impossibility of a one-size-fits-all ‘happiness’. Some schools of thought argue that the common methodology of self-reporting is unreliable as human beings may not know whether they’re happy (an opposing view is that if one believes herself happy, she is).
‘The concept of happiness is such an indeterminate concept that, although every human being wishes to attain this, he can still never say determinately and consistently with himself what he really wishes and wills,’ Kant writes, describing anxiety, envy and intrigue as symptoms not of not having, but of pursuing.
For philosophers, the two main theories of happiness are hedonism (prioritising a high ratio of pleasant to unpleasant experience) and the life satisfaction theory, which better aligns with the ancient Greeks’ ‘eudaimonia’, describing a life lived well despite a person’s momentary affect. Where, then, would the psychological or emotional state of ‘being happy’ – connoted by behaviours such as smiling – fit?
The imperative to heal the rift between ideal and reality may be better replaced by a reclamation of happiness; becoming a custodian of our own happiness and redefining it. It’s equivalent to making a meal from scratch and adjusting to taste, versus scoffing a drive-thru burger.
Kant is decidedly dismissive of imposed definitions.
‘Noone has a right to compel me to be happy in the peculiar way in which he may think of the wellbeing of other men; but everyone is entitled to seek his own happiness in the way that seems to him best, if it does not infringe the liberty of others…’
The brief to discern between that which will bring one happiness and that which promises transient pleasure underpins much contemporary happiness literature and is a mainstay of the Dalai Lama’s seminal works on happiness. Ultimately, he says, the task is to train the mind in a way that fosters a baseline contentment less vulnerable to life’s vicissitudes than happiness that depends on extrinsic fuel. Yet as German social psychologist and psychoanalyst Erich Fromm concedes in his 1976 book Having or Being, getting from here to there demands that we eschew what promises to make us feel good. And in the era of fast-food happiness, resisting instant gratification on the promise of longer-term reward is unlikely to appeal. Yet there’s a twist in the tale according to Fromm. In abandoning narcissistic and egotistic motives, one is likely to glimpse a new world of wellbeing that renders pleasure less alluring. We may just thank ourselves for it.