Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Happiness Industry

Social Mores
Pursuit of Happiness: The happiness/unhappiness dichotomy.
Credit: Geoffrey Moss
One of the most dominant social constructs in society is that happiness ought to be the ultimate human goal, that a successful person is a happy person. And, even better, a good consumer. Always. Such an unattainable goal, like perfection itself, has its roots in a self-help culture (and many religions) that defeats the real rhythms of everyday life, thus causing unnecessary anxiety in individuals who are often unhappy for very valid reasons.

I am such an individual, but I am not anxious but more annoyed about people who constantly demand that I "be happy," without any thought on why this is both necessary and important to my well-being. It might not be, and the dogged and persistent pursuit of it might lead to the very unhappiness that it is supposed to defeat. Sure, there are many studies that correlate happiness with wealth; yet, given that only a small percentage of the world are wealthy, one can come to the (wrong) conclusion that most of the world is naturally unhappy. Or might appear so. Or been told they are unhappy for lacking something that only money can purchase. So, why is this a problem? Happy people spend and consume more; unhappy people do not.

An article, by Mari Ruti, in the Chronicle of Higher Education validates my sentiments on the happiness industry and how it undermines the personal pursuit for a deep and thoughtful life; many happy people, it must be noted, are not only boring and bland but predictable and shallow. Such people are better consumers and can ignore all manner of societal ills and inequalities, and this kind of personal fulfillment, aided by constant false (promise) advertising, helps and encourages the happiness industry.

Ruti writes:
Unfortunately, we live in a culture that finds such insurrections threatening, not least because they make us less predictable and therefore harder to control. This is one reason we're constantly reminded of the importance of leading a happy, balanced life—the kind of life that "makes sense" from the viewpoint of the dominant social order. Many of us have, in fact, internalized the ideal of a happy, balanced life to such an extent that we find it hard to imagine alternatives. As Freud has already claimed, there is little doubt about what most people want out of life: "They want to become happy and to remain so."
A quick survey of our culture—particularly our self-help culture—confirms Freud's observation. One could even say that, in our era, the idea that we should lead happy, balanced lives carries the force of an obligation: We are supposed to push aside our anxieties in order to enjoy our lives, attain peace of mind, and maximize our productivity. The cult of "positive thinking" even assures us that we can bring good things into our lives just by thinking about them.
In this picture, anxiety is somewhat of an embarrassment: a sign of existential failure. Although the rushed pace of contemporary life makes tranquillity more and more difficult to come by, we are repeatedly warned against the pitfalls of anxiety, including the psychosomatic symptoms it's supposed to spawn. So-called wellness experts deem agitation to be bad for us. Magazine articles offer tips on how to overcome stress. And New Age gurus equate enlightenment with serenity.
Needless to say, our fixation on the ideal of happiness diverts our attention from collective social ills, such as socioeconomic disparities. As Barbara Ehrenreich has shown, when we believe that our happiness is a matter of thinking the right kinds of (positive) thoughts, we become blind to the ways in which some of our unhappiness might be generated by collective forces, such as racism or sexism. Worst of all, we become callous to the lot of others, assuming that if they aren't doing well, if they aren't perfectly happy, it's not because they're poor, oppressed, or unemployed but because they're not trying hard enough.
If all of that isn't enough to make you suspicious of the cultural injunction to be happy, consider this basic psychoanalytic insight: Human beings may not be designed for happy, balanced lives. The irony of happiness is that it's precisely when we manage to feel happy that we are also most keenly aware that the feeling might not last. Insofar as each passing moment of happiness brings us closer to its imminent collapse, happiness is merely a way of anticipating unhappiness; it's a deviously roundabout means of producing anxiety.
Now, many people will take offense to this article and to such thinking. As well, they should, since it might cause them to think about how they are currently living their lives in the pursuit of happiness, which is not the end goal of humanity, notably if one man's pursuit leads to a general unhappiness of millions of his fellow humans. Another argument that resonated with me is the idea that happiness and health are somehow linked like a solid mathematical equation. Even if it were so, I could not live in accordance to such narrow and restrictive dictates.

Consider this salient point worth noting:
Many of the people who have made the biggest contributions to our collective history—intellectuals, researchers, composers, writers, artists, and so on—have lived lives that, from the outside, seem fairly pathological. They have often been deeply solitary, have had trouble forming enduring relationships, have been consumed by their projects to the point of obsession, have plunged into the depths of despair, have doubted and disparaged themselves, and have had to endure the coldness and sharpness of the world's judgment. Yet who is to say that these lives are somehow less poignant than those that seem more wholesome?
I could not agree more and am glad (not happy) that I have read this article.

For more, read [ChronHigherEd]

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