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Is a cult of happiness leading us to lose sight of life?

However hard we pursue happiness, when the party’s over we must still confront the grimmer aspects of life. Shutterstock/YanLev

This article is part of a series, On Happiness, examining what it means and how it might be achieved in the 21st century.

We live in a society that seems obsessed with the “cult of happiness”. Characters in movies and on television are frequently asked, “Are you happy?” Parents incessantly wish happiness upon their children:

I just want them to be happy.

In her song Just Be Happy, pop singer Rihanna chants “just as long as it makes you happy”, over and over again. Pharrell Williams’ 2014 song Happy was a worldwide hit.

If you sing it enough, maybe you can ‘be happy’ in Rihanna’s world.

Countless websites, shelves and shelves of self-help books and endless magazine articles attempt to identify exactly just what makes us happy! These are accompanied by step-by-step guides such as lifestyle website body+soul’s Eight Steps to Happiness.

One example of this self-help genre is Sonja Lyubomirsky’s step-by-step program, The How of Happiness: A Practical Guide to Getting the Life You Want. According to Lyubomirsky, each of us has a kind of happiness “set point”, which can be calibrated to different highs and lows. The book advises readers on how to raise this “set point”.

The ubiquitous motivational speaker Anthony Robbins also offers a great deal of advice on happiness. His books, websites, conferences and training programs, not to mention special appearances on Oprah Winfrey’s Life Class series, tell us about the three steps we need to follow to find true happiness.

Robbins has built a prosperous career linking happiness with success. His Unleash the Power Within training programme is accompanied by testimonials from none other than Bill Clinton and Hugh Jackman.

So much advice, so little of it good

Through my involvement in writing on “happiness”, I have done my best to review the overwhelming volume of self-help literature and I have found very little to salvage. You are left, at best, cynical and, at worst, feeling inadequate.

This assessment is based on three broad observations.

  • Happiness is often identified as an “end point”: a place to which we travel.

  • The focus is on the individual and ignores any community bonds. In the words of Heidi Marie Rimke, this celebrates a culture of “hyper-individuality for which an inherent, responsible relationality with others is actively discouraged and pathologised”.

  • Happiness is presented as something that can be administered through a list of exercises, or checklists.

The key question that each of these books, magazine articles and speakers fails to ask is whether happiness is actually possible.

If we accept that happiness is a state of being satisfied with one’s life, at what point is it possible to say we are truly satisfied? Perhaps happiness relies on the way we view the world. Is happiness a function of the world around us or our own perception of it?

Must we forget the world to be happy?

Can we be happy, for example, when successive Australian governments pursue brutal detention policies against refugees seeking asylum in this country? On our behalf, in our name, they are banished to what have been described as “concentration camps”.

In this context, the pursuit of happiness can seem trivial or juvenile.

Or is our happiness only possible through exclusion? That is, is the pursuit of safety and freedom from persecution by asylum seekers pitted against the happiness of the domestic population: two populations whose interests are said to be at odds.

Can we be happy when we know so many people are homeless? EPA/Orestis Panagiotou

Can we be happy when on any single night across Australia one person per 200 experiences homelessness? In a wealthy nation of only 23 million people, this figure ought to be astonishing.

The principal cause of homelessness among women and children is male violence: two-thirds of homeless children are accompanying a woman escaping domestic violence. Other reasons range from entrenched structural inequality and inadequate affordable housing supply to intergenerational poverty and long-term unemployment.

Happiness as a shared expression of love

Sara Ahmed takes a similar journey in questioning the pursuit of happiness in her well-recognised work Feminist Killjoys, which was followed by The Promise of Happiness. In these texts, Ahmed undertakes a robust cultural analysis of the idea of happiness as it functions in present-day Britain – but with much broader relevance.

It is worth recounting Ahmed’s arguments, as she simultaneously captures the individualised nature of happiness that allows us to ignore the plight of others, and the idea that happiness is something that someone else can bestow upon you. Happiness, Ahmed argues, is that which we “promise to give to others as an expression of love”. We say, “I just want you to be happy.”

The Beatles were perhaps wiser than they knew when they closed the first global live satellite TV broadcast with All You Need Is Love.

As someone who is inherently optimistic, I do think happiness is possible. But rather than an end point, it can be found in the fleeting moments of the everyday: noticing the sunset, the taste of fresh tomatoes, or a meal with friends and family.

It is within these moments that we need to appreciate happiness – to understand it within the context of an often brutal world and contextualise it within our own frailties and mortality.

These moments do not end the plight of refugees or house the homeless. What they do, however, is challenge the individualised nature of happiness as described by self-help literature. We are prompted to actively seek out moments of happiness in daily interactions with others and experiences, and take a moment to reflect and appreciate such instances. It echoes Eleanor Roosevelt’s valuable advice that happiness is a by-product of experiences, not an end in itself.

This article is based on an essay in the collection On Happiness: New Ideas for the Twenty-First Century (UWA Publishing, June 2015).

You can read other articles in the series here.

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