Drawing in part on some of the points made in Sara Ahmed’s book The Promise of Happiness, which I just reviewed in the last post, as well as current events there are a few more points about the topic of happiness I wish to touch upon.
Self-help books are full of advice about attaining “happiness” but many of them don’t define what they mean by “happiness”.
What does “happiness” even mean in common parlance? Ask a dozen people and you’ll get a dozen answers. Words like blissful, relaxed, stress-free, joyful, carefree, comfortable, ecstatic and peaceful would possibly be used. The problem with these is they don’t really refer to anything. They have no relation to one’s context. They are states of being that seem to be achievable in isolation or that is the way they come across in these books and other media.
The thing is we don’t live in isolation. We live in an incredibly complex matrix of circumstances, environment, history and relationships. We are wholly dependent upon this matrix for our very survival and are wholly interdependent with it.
The happiness in isolation prescription we are so often offered is at best a placebo. At worst it is a lie.
I can think of at least 10 things I’d want before I would choose that kind of vague “happiness”. Here’s some of them:
- doing meaningful work
- having meaningful friendships and relationships
These are just random off the top of my head. If I were to make up some of those false dichotomous choices, “Would you rather be _____ or happy?” with the blank filled in by one of the above, I’d choose any one of the above and probably about 20 other things first.
In case I haven’t explained myself adequately here’s something further. Happy in relation to what? If you look at the list I provided at the top there’s relation explicitly obvious or implicitly implied in each one of them. This is what I mean:
- challenged [by something]
- inspired [by something]
- ethical [ethics is only an issue when it comes to relationship]
- focused [on something]
- creating [something]
- aware [of something, be that environment or whatever]
- empathetic [only comes up in relationship]
- insightful [into something]
- doing meaningful work [work by its nature involves relations of some sort]
These all underscore the relational nature of our existence. One could, I suppose, turn all this inward, but one might become so self-involved the ability to even function in society would possibly be compromised.
Chati Coronel wrote this on Twitter a while back:
nothing marks your territory. you don’t end with skin
This kind of isolated state of “happiness” that is so often offered as some kind of panacea to the ills of the world is blatantly anti-realist. That is to say it is delusional.
Happiness as an industry may be at its zenith in the United States. Though it is increasingly being sold elsewhere as well. Those who don’t take to this sale may be labeled “happiness averse”. That’s a complicated and loaded term. It presupposes happiness is a principle goal and that it is something to be highly valued, maybe even the highest value or goal. “Happiness aversion” is not the same as depression or somberness although that implication is also conveyed. That is to be expected from the Western psychological framework which presently does seem to be drunk on it’s own positivity kool-aid.
There are purported differences between cultures on what kind of emotional goals and environment are preferable. In the article Why Happiness Scares Us the author writes:
Aversion to happiness exists across cultures, especially those that value harmony and conformity over individualism, recent research suggests. The findings challenge the Western assumption that everyone is aiming for a life full of unremitting joy. …
Comparing happiness between cultures runs into the problem of how different people define the emotion. …
Some cultures think of happiness as a loss of control — fun, but destructive, like being drunk, Weijers said. Others believe extreme highs must be followed by extreme lows, as revealed by proverbs from many nations. In Iran, people say that "laughing loudly wakes up sadness." In China, a cheerful person might be warned, "Extreme happiness begets tragedy." In English-speaking nations, you might hear, "What goes up, must come down."
Islamic cultures value sadness over happiness, Weijers said, because sad people are seen as serious and connected to God. Artists might fear that soothing their emotional torment will destroy their creativity (and, indeed, creativity has been scientifically linked to mental illness). Activists might see happiness as complacency and seek to rouse anger, instead.
I dislike the phrasing "conformist" with regard to culture though. It is the article writer that uses it while the quotes from study authors use "collectivist" instead which I think is more accurate. "Conformist" denotes a certain authoritarianism (either by hierarchy or social pressure-one could easily say the same about hyper-individualist cultures in terms of influence as well) which I don’t think is necessarily correct in these circumstances.
Some of the characterizations of cultures here suffer from the same problems that the “Culture and Personality” theoretical trend in anthropology did. The idea of “national character” or particular traits belonging to people with particular genetic configurations leads not only to stereotyping but the kind of reductionist viewpoint that underlies a lot of racism. It comes down to phrases like “They’re all like that” or “Have you heard this Polish/German/blond/Jewish/Arab/African joke?” relying on some stereotype or whatever without any examination of contexts, material or ideological, or outside influences such as colonialism and so forth that may have had some causal effects on people in a particular region or circumstance. [Sara Ahmed’s book covers a lot of that too.]
What I’m saying is that these kinds of studies, even if they get some statistically significant data, become popularized and will just as often be misinterpreted or re-framed both the issue and the results to accord with dominant ideology, just as the author there has done with substituting “conformism” for “collectivist”. “Conformism” is a highly negative value in a hyper-individuated culture, hence the people who are “happiness averse” are characterized in an even further negative light. The writer’s biases come to the fore.
Another thing that was in that article:
..most nations in the past defined happiness as a factor of good luck and fortunate circumstances. Modern American English, however, stresses happiness as an internal mood, something more innate to a person and his or her character than to the external world. Bolstering the evidence of this change, the researchers [using Google’s n-gram stats] found that mentions of a "happy nation" have declined over time in English-language books, while the phrase "happy person" has been climbing steadily.
This atomization is interesting. With the rise of capitalism and emphasis on hyper-individuality, particularly on the “individual consumer” (now you know why they want all our data), those amorphous things that had previously been seen as collective, that is in people having “a share of the nation’s wealth” be it material or not, has really changed. People used to be psychologically and emotionally invested in creating better communities even if it was of no direct immediate benefit to themselves because they could see that in the long run living in an environment where people cared for one another was a lot less stressful than one where it was “everyone for themselves”.
This is an unfastening of communal bonds, a destruction of the commons, not just material commons but intellectual and emotional. It is often even anti-community where community is seen as a collective project.
Can someone be “happy” while they step over people sleeping on the sidewalk? Can they sleep well knowing kids in the next neighborhood are hungry? If they can, are these the people you really want to be associating with? What happens when your luck runs out? Are they going to be the ones on your doorstep offering to help you?
If you want to join the happiness brigade however but can’t quite fake it well enough yet, you can always go for a makeover. Or at least a few Botox shots.
In a recent New York Times article, Don’t Worry, Get Botox, professor of psychiatriy, Richard A. Friedman, suggests that getting Botox shots to ward off unhappy facial expressions can help cure depression.
This is another facet of the individuation of the field of psychology and psychiatry. Even things like family therapy and milieu therapies are taking a back seat to these individual approaches. Some of this is due to the rise of cognitive therapy and theory particularly in the form of the cognitive-behavioral approach. Interestingly that is the approach through which most “mindfulness” is being inculcated or subsumed into psychology.
In CBT (cognitive-behavioral therapy) the gist is that your thoughts make you sick. Change or challenge your thoughts and things can get better. It is proven to work to an extent. I’m not going to deny that because I’ve used this approach personally. And it works as far as it goes. It doesn’t change your circumstances however or the kinds of things in the world that continue to trigger anxiety and/or depression. If one is in a lousy marriage for example, say with someone who has a serious addiction or abuse problem, CBT is not going to solve that. It may help re-formulate a response to the situation, or not. Likewise if one is in a crappy job CBT isn’t going to improve that no matter how much one’s mood improves while doing that crappy job.
This folds back into the discussion of ideas like “the happy slave” or “domestic bliss” in Ahmed’s book. Not only is it delusional to think that people in oppressed conditions are happy about it (remember that opinion the Bundy guy had about black people being “better off” under slavery—this is the kind of rationalization that is used for that) but that they *should* be happy about it.
On the [Western, convert] Buddhist happiness industry front we then get smarmy books about how to be a happy worker by adjusting ourselves to our oppressive conditions rather than overthrowing the bosses or making a stand for better working conditions or something else that would disrupt the status quo. The happiness industry is all about preserving that status quo. It’s not about “liberation” or anything else of that sort. It’s about being a better drone.
One can be a good little economic soldier and carry out all the little meaningless duties required of a good consumer-citizen. Take the pills, get the shots, do the exercises, comply with all the treatment regimens, talk the self-talk and so on but THEN WHAT? Well you die and somebody else gets to occupy your slot in the machine.
Professor Mark Fisher wrote an excellent post about the current neoliberal economic situation and his own depression. In Good For Nothing he states:
The dominant school of thought in psychiatry locates the origins of such [depressive] ‘beliefs’ in malfunctioning brain chemistry, which are to be corrected by pharmaceuticals; psychoanalysis and forms of therapy influenced by it famously look for the roots of mental distress in family background, while Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is less interested in locating the source of negative beliefs than it is in simply replacing them with a set of positive stories. It is not that these models are entirely false, it is that they miss – and must miss – the most likely cause of such feelings of inferiority: social power. The form of social power that had most effect on me was class power, although of course gender, race and other forms of oppression work by producing the same sense of ontological inferiority, which is best expressed in exactly the thought I articulated above: that one is not the kind of person who can fulfill roles which are earmarked for the dominant group.
Anyone who’s had a taste of depression is familiar with the feeling of powerlessness and helplessness that comes with it. Even if a person hasn’t gone into a full scale depression vestiges of it that can still float into one’s consciousness. Some of the reactions can reach into that delusional sort of “I control the universe” The Secret kind of thinking.
In a recent interview with Mark Fisher, the interviewer wrote:
Deal or No Deal throws randomly selected amounts of money at randomly selected people. Yet the entire message the show insists on the precise opposite: that individual decisions – a simple yes/no to the Banker – can somehow make a difference.
Mark calls this magical voluntarism – “the belief that it is within every individual’s power to make themselves whatever they want to be”. Magical voluntarism is the dominant ideology and unofficial religion of contemporary capitalist society, he argues, pushed by reality TV experts and business gurus as much as by politicians.
In further explication writer “sometimes explode” wrote on the Libcom blog A reply to Mark Fisher on magical voluntarism. He furthers the concept of “magical volunteerism” and places it in a larger context.
This is the image of the consumer as a soul able to emit desire-transmissions into a receptive universe, and implies an entire metaphysics built around Loreal’s insistence that “you’re worth it”. Mark Fisher is quick to point out the core political problem here: if you fail to find work, pay your bills, get that holiday/car/pair of trainers, it’s because you didn’t want it enough. This implies a deficiency in your ability to desire or, in the language of the Secret, to emit frequencies into the universe.
He goes into some depth discussing the origins and history of this kind of attitude within the psychotherapy milieu. The point of contention is what to do about it. Fisher suggests a more mainstream approach while sometimes explode takes a more radical tack. The whole piece, along with Fisher’s is well worth a read. Comments are also good.
So those are the tangents.
Just spent time at my elderly parents’ house, as I do a few times every year, doing the housework they aren’t able to, hanging around in their basement—where I can check email on dialup internet for $2 per hour (not much social media, even with images turned off, as it’s not very social when it’s crawling along at dialup speed on a computer with WinXP), gossiping about relatives, and getting the updates on neighborhood news. I made a few meals while I was there and made a few more they can just take out of the freezer, did mountains of dishes (or once in a while it seemed like mountains), washed curtains and windows, weeded the garden and that kind of stuff. Also watched way too much baseball. The parents are big fans of the Blue Jays. I’m not keen on baseball or most sports, with the exception of cricket, so after an inning or two I sneak away. In between chores and baseball, I read Sara Ahmed’s book “The Promise of Happiness”. It’s not a Buddhist book, but one that a lot of Buddhists might do well to read.
There are a lot of books out there about finding happiness, experiencing happiness, recognizing happiness and so on. Plenty of people also talk about Buddhism and happiness, without bothering to delineate what that happiness is or what it means. Most often it gets the utopian treatment and there is an underlying assumption that “happiness” (to pull out the scare quotes) is everything from a blissful, joyful, ecstatic experience to general contentment. In most of these cases “happiness” comes to mean “anything other than what I generally feel”. Happiness then takes on an escapist quality.
Happiness, as it is often framed, or as it is often dangled before us as some kind of tempting goal, is also a highly coercive concept and one that has often been used to disguise it’s use as a potentially oppressive means to reinforce and maintain the status quo.
That brings me to Sara Ahmed’s book, The Promise of Happiness. It’s quite brilliant and discusses so many issues that have needed to be discussed for a very long time. I’m only going to do a close read and review the Introduction here because I just want to give some indication of how much food for thought is within these pages. The entire book brings this kind of depth.
Here’s a condensed excerpt from the introduction.(emphasis mine):
… The question that guides the book is thus not so much “what is happiness?” but rather “what does happiness do?”
I write from a position of skeptical disbelief in happiness as a technique for living well. I am interested in how happiness is associated with some life choices and not others, how happiness is imagined being what follows being a certain kind of being. The history of happiness can be thought of as a history of associations. In wishing for happiness we wish to be associated with happiness, which means to be associated with its associations. The very promise that happiness is what you get for having the right associations might be how we are directed towards certain things.
…the work of feminist, black, and queer scholars who have shown in different ways how happiness is used to justify oppression. Feminist critiques of the figure of “the happy housewife,” black critiques of the myth of “the happy slave,” and queer critiques of the sentimentalization of heterosexuality as “domestic bliss” have taught me most about happiness and the very terms of its appeal. Around these specific critiques are long histories of scholarship and activism which expose the unhappy effects of happiness, teaching us how happiness is used to redescribe social norms as social goods. We might even say that such political movements have struggled against rather than for happiness. Simone de Beauvoir shows so well how happiness translates its wish into politics, a wishful politics, a politics that demands that others live according to a wish. As she argued: “It is not too clear just what the word happy really means and still less what true values it may mask. There is no possibility of measuring the happiness of others, and it is always easy to describe as happy the situation in which one wishes to place them”.
She continues in the introduction to discuss the current culture of happiness and positive psychology.
…The popularity of therapeutic cultures and discourses of self-help have also meant a turn to happiness: many books and courses now exist that provide instructions to be happy, drawing on a variety of knowledges, including the field of positive psychology, as well as on (often Orientalist) readings of Eastern traditions, especially Buddhism. It is now common to refer to “the happiness industry”: happiness is both produced and consumed through these books, accumulating value as a form of capital. …
The contrary nature of the use of the concept of happiness, such as in various measurements that pit country against country in terms of the happiness of the populations, is one illustration of how happiness is used in a rather slippery fashion.
…reports are often cited in the media when research findings do not correspond to social expectations, that is, when developing countries are shown to be happier than overdeveloped ones…Happiness and unhappiness become newsworthy when they challenge ideas about the social status of specific individuals, groups, and nations, often confirming status through the language of disbelief.
Questions arise when countries like Bhutan or Bangladesh, for example, score higher than the US or a European nation in terms of happiness. How can that be? These countries don’t have all the material things, high tech health care, access to education, ultra-modern infrastructure, opportunities, comforts, economic status we have. Don’t they know what happiness is? Shouldn’t they be seething with jealousy about all our fabulous stuff, our luxurious lifestyles, our access to nearly unlimited choices, our freedoms to make those choices and more? There sits the realm of disbelief. Exceptionalism, self-proclaimed or even by empirical measures (ie statistics), calls for exceptional happiness doesn’t it?
Or…are we fooling ourselves with the constant “pursuit of happiness” which can’t seem to be fulfilled? Perhaps. There is a lot to consider when we start wrestling with the idea of happiness.
Sometimes it even seems like there’s a “happiness crisis” when confronted with these kinds of facts.
As Ahmed writes:
…we might even say that happiness becomes more powerful through being perceived as in crisis. The crisis in happiness works primarily as a narrative of disappointment: the accumulation of wealth has not meant the accumulation of happiness. What makes this crisis “a crisis” in the first place is of course the regulatory effect of a social belief: that more wealth “should” make people happier….If the new science of happiness uncouples happiness from wealth accumulation, it still locates happiness in certain places, especially marriage, widely regarded as the primary “happiness indicator”: as well as in stable families and communities. Happiness is looked for where it is expected to be found, even when happiness is reported as missing.
This is a very interesting observation. We know there are reports and statistics which tell us married people are not necessarily happier (Why would the divorce rate be so high if it were otherwise?), and that communities are rife with all kinds of conflict yet we continue to look there for this elusive happiness thing or we constantly ransack our consciousness for some expression of happiness and all we find is discontent. It reminds me of when people lose their keys and keep looking in the same five places in their house over and over for an hour, only to discover the keys were in the car all the time.
The author continues:
What is striking is that the crisis in happiness has not put social ideals into question and if anything has reinvigorated their hold over both psychic and political life. The demand for happiness is increasingly articulated as a demand to return to social ideals, as if what explains the crisis of happiness is not the failure of these ideals but our failure to follow them. And arguably, at times of crisis the language of happiness acquires an even more powerful hold.
Oh yes if only we tried harder to be happy. If only we could get our productivity rates of happiness manufacturing up another 10 per cent. If only we expanded our ranges of techniques or thought more positively certainly it would appear. If only others would stop being so damn negative all the time then we could all be happy.
That leads into things like positive psychology. There is a really interesting point here that deals with one of the major fallacies of positive psychology.
Making people happier is taken up as a sign of improvement. The very “thing” we aim to achieve is the “thing” that will get us there. Positive feeling is given the task of overcoming its own negation: feeling positive is what can get us out of “anxiety, depression and other negative states”. To feel better is to be better—positive psychology shares this presumption with the economics of happiness. Here there is a stronger argument: to feel better is to get better.
It’s the same argument and twisted logic some wealthy people use regarding poverty or homelessness. I actually read a comment not long ago on a news site which asked: “Why don’t those homeless people just go home?” Similarly when unemployed people stage protests about lack of available work, people shout from cars: “Get a job!” Or when people say to those who are experiencing depression “Just cheer up.”
The “have happy thoughts” positivity cult is built on a kind of fraud. By fraud I mean if someone is unhappy where are they supposed to get these happy thoughts? They must fake them. They must delude themselves into believing they have this positivity. They must lie to themselves. Or more often they take the word of some author or life coach or organization that this is not only possible but that it is an advisable course of action. Of course when a person feels discontent and unhappy enough to want to really escape that subjective state it doesn’t take much to sell them a set of ideas or a course of action. That is what the happiness industry does.
One must act happy and that act is generally one of emulating those with the “happy profile” and that profile is associated with certain privileges. The kinds of things that go along with these privileges all aid in easing one’s way in the world. The happy person is typically depicted as someone living a particular lifestyle (such as having a home, family, friends), with particular personality attributes (such as calmness, amiability, extroversion), who has the luxury to enjoy a challenge, mainly because they are not challenged by basic survival and so forth.
Ahmed discusses the classic description of “the happy person” and the “happiness profile” as well:
A happiness profile would be the profile of the kind of person who is most likely to be happy…
- …happy persons are more likely to be found in the economically prosperous countries, whose freedom and democracy are held in respect and the political scene is stable. The happy are more likely to be found in majority groups than among minorities and more often at the top of the ladder than at the bottom. They are typically married and get on well with families and friends. In respect of their personal characteristics, the happy appear relatively healthy, both physically and mentally. They are active and openminded. They feel they are in control of their lives. Their aspirations concern social and moral matters rather than money making. In matters of politics, the happy tend to the conservative side of middle (Veenhoven 1991)
The face of happiness, at least in this description, looks rather like the face of privilege. Rather than assuming happiness is simply found in “happy persons,” we can consider how claims to happiness make certain forms of personhood valuable. Attributions of happiness might be how social norms and ideals become affective, as if relative proximity to those norms and ideals creates happiness. Lauren Berlant has called such a fantasy of happiness a “stupid” form of optimism…
What she deals with in the book is happiness from the point of view of those who do not fit the standard happiness profile.
Happy people are more highly valued than unhappy people. The notion of happiness, like notions of celebrity, wealth or other social and material commodities exudes a certain attraction which lends itself to power by proxy. This is fetishization. If we can get close enough to those who hold this precious commodity, some of it might land on us. With happiness being increasingly commodified it has become, in Marx’s term, commodity fetishism.
Happiness has become variously reified and further become a fetish in the anthropological sense. What does this mean? A fetish is something we associate with having a certain power that does not appear on it’s surface. For example people carry good luck talismans of various kinds for various purposes. Someone wears their “lucky shirt” to every job interview or they throw a pinch of salt over their shoulder when the salt shaker spills or other such superstition. A shirt or a pinch of salt are just what they are. We infuse these objects in these situations with powers that are far beyond something real. So the fetishization of happiness is something like that. “If I can get me some happy then everything’s going to be OK” People make things like “vision boards” where they past pictures of stuff they want that they think will make them “happy”. Or they’ll say certain phrases “daily affirmations” that will be used to program particular orientations. That’s a ritualization of this fetishization process.
Happiness or a performance of happiness also becomes a panacea for ills like poverty. This is where the “happy poor people” trope comes in, or the unthinking positivity that’s pushed during illness—read Barbra Ehrenreich’s book “Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America” about the happiness industry in the US and what it’s done to things like the cancer cure industry. For example there is a push to think that “Your cancer is a gift”. GIFT?!?! Really? Something you’d want to give your child or other beloved person then? When you talk to medical personnel a lot of them have bought into this too. One source (unnamed because they want to keep their job and license to practice) told me that their colleagues prefer to deal with “positive” patients so those who face their illness with depression or even just realistically, get a lower quality of care. Staff avoid them. It’s also part of the reason many doctors don’t want to tell patients the truth until they absolutely have to. It’s like the patients are doing some kind of “affective labor” to keep up the morale of the medical staff.
Beyond this, when this “happiness product” gets sold to people with that same understanding underlying it we have a kind of commodity fetishism. Somebody’s selling you crap and making a pretty good profit at it. Marx’s definition of commodity fetishism, in brief:
A commodity appears at first sight an extremely obvious, trivial thing. But its analysis brings out that it is a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.
~Marx, Karl. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. Vol. 1. p. 163
Commodity fetishism is the bedrock of the advertising industry. If only we’d wear that lipstick or buy that car or choose this season’s colors or watch that movie or get that trinket then our lives would be soooooo much better. The associative power of commodities in this way is meant to be seductive and to play on our fears, insecurities and discontentment. Throw a little “magic” into the mix and profits ensue.
OK I’ve gotten a bit off track from the book review, but as I said there is plenty of food for thought provided in the book and thus far I’ve only gone over the Introduction. The whole book lays out the situation in detail. It delves deeply into the history of the development of this happiness obsession and then looks at it through various lenses in terms of the politics of happiness and the ensuing oppressions and the covert agenda that is involved in many of these invocations of happiness.
I’ll have more to say about this—a few tangents, in the next post.
I have to thank Les for bringing Sara Ahmed’s book to my attention. She’s recently written a good post, An enemy of the Idiotically Compassionate, that came from that book also. I thank her for her mention of something I’ve written previously on idiot compassion too.