A Review of The Promise of Happiness

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. 

2 comments on “A Review of The Promise of Happiness

  1. Pingback: Random Linkage: Full Contact Enlightenment June | Full Contact Enlightenment

  2. A lack of words to convey my feelings in being able to share the experience of reading Ahmed together, at this time in our lives. The depth of meaning speaks between us. Your words and perspective help me shape the inexpressible, and for that I thank you.

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