If you know the source for this graphic, tell me
Browsing around the other day, I found a lightning bolt article on Salon by Rebecca Traister. Succintly titled Screw Happiness, it's an excellent takedown of the pervasive idea that we must be happy, all the time:
When it comes to social science and economics, women lately seem especially prone to having the contentment thermometer thrust at them, and their temperature always seems to register at "dissatisfied." A study by University of Pennsylvania economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, as well as one by Princeton economist Alan Krueger, have shown a decline in female happiness in the years since the second wave, a trend that has been cheerily used as proof of exactly how unhappy increased social, sexual, professional and economic liberation has made American women. Even those who dare make claim to general life satisfaction are told not to get too comfortable; as Marcus Buckingham, the author of "Find Your Strongest Life: What the Happiest and Most Successful Women Do Differently" gloomily warned any aberrantly chipper chicks in a piece last year, "as women get older they get sadder."
But really, how could they not, given the aggressive messages about happiness and how they must achieve it, and unhappiness and how they must avoid it that are foisted on them from every direction, making them feel like failures if they are not warbling and grinning their way through life?
But the thing is, "not happy" has its own rewards.
Unhappiness is propellant; disappointment and dismay prompt us to work for a better grade, to ask for a promotion or seek a new job, to search for a more affordable or comfortable abode, to go out at night and meet someone new, to try to get pregnant or decide not to have another kid. More specifically, the elements of life that make us sad or upset or bored show us what we do not want; they give shape and specificity to what it is we do want and perhaps the motivation to work toward it. That which leaves us empty prompts us to find what we want to fill us up, whether it results in picking up a phone to talk to a friend or picking up and moving to Bali.
In archetypal American rags-to-riches stories, the dissatisfactions of poverty and degradation are what provoke heroes to make their giant forward leaps. In my far more privileged experience, fear, humiliation and error provided me with the fuel, the desire and the ambition to move away from where I was and toward something else, something that quite often turned out to be better. For that transformative power, I give unhappiness a lot of credit.
And Amen to That, I say. While Salon labels Traister's column as "feminism," which shouldn't be as pejorative a word as its become (or at all), it's applicable to all of us. The insistence on "happiness" as our average condition had become endemic, with consequences for all of us, male and female.
To top it off, there's an excellent interview on Technoccult with Duff McDuffee and Eric Schiller about the problems with the booming "personal development" business, which revolves around encouraging people how to achieve the transcendent state that Traister was referring to:
Duff: Yes, an excellent point Eric. Books like Who Moved My Cheese encouraged employees to “embrace change” and stay positive while they were being downsized for no fault of their own to make short-term profits for stakeholders. Barbara Ehrenreich covers this too in Bright Sided.
Whether or not this was intended, personal development functions as a perfect religion for capitalism. Pray for money and consumer goods and social status, and take 100% responsibility even when your circumstances are largely determined by social structures and institutions that are not in your direct control.
Eric: The early gurus cherry picked from Maslow and Jung – whatever ideas sounded good at the time.
Duff: Today’s gurus still do
Klint: OK. So how does this – or does it – tie into other areas like “self-help,” “lifehacking,” and, most recently, “lifestyle design”?
Eric: Personal development and self help are effectively the same, personal development is a more recent name for the same thing.
Duff: They are all synonyms as far as I’m concerned, rebranding.
Eric: Life hacking is different, but I think it is in effect, part of the same trope. Life hacking is a branch of hacking culture, it is really technologically based, but is all about “bettering oneself” so it has taken on the goal of PD or self help.
Duff: “Lifehacking” seems to me to be another name for geeking out on consumer gadgets and software for the most part. I mean if you really want to hack your life, do Vipassana meditation, or read Hegel, or take acid (not my preference, but that will seriously hack some stuff up).
Yeah, that seems about right. To be clear: I want everyone to be as happy as possible. At the same time, if you're reading this, I want you to be angry about a thousand things you should be angry about.
Happiness is an emotional state. Just as anger, fear, hate, awe, love and determination are. Through the course of our lives, we will experience countless variations of all of the above, and more.
And that's fine.
What's not fine is being trapped in any emotional state, because that's insane. Happiness is lovely, but as a response to a definite improvement or wonderful happening in life. By the same token anger is also, on occasion, an appropriate response to a set of dire circumstances. Often, too, like that sudden adrenaline rush, it's what provides the energy and inspiration to escape those bonds.
That's where my big problem with the cult of happiness, which both Traister and the Beyond Growth folks point to, sets in. We shouldn't always be happy, yet we're expected to be. Most of the self-help industry is based on reaching a mythical point where we always feel the same emotional state, and too many psychologists assess a failure to be perpetually happy as not being "well-adjusted."
But honestly, there's a whole heap of things not to be happy about, both personally and societally. And I'd rather people push for change than simply try to become complacent in their surroundings.
At the same time, enjoy yourself and don't fixate on (in the grand scheme of things) minor problems. I don't know if the above rambling makes sense, but what I'm basically pushing for is people to stop worrying about if their lives fit some bullshit mold, have an ounce of stoicism, and use their emotions as they come. And they're all useful, in one way or another, at some time.
So here's to the day when we see that, and stop trying to fix things that aren't machines.