Have you ever reflected upon the way in which happiness is worshipped in our contemporary societies? Have you ever stopped to consider that this obsessive quest for happiness may be making us extremely miserable? In this essay we tackle this issue and present the ideas of some authors that have thoroughly analysed it.
When we think about prohibitions, we tend to think about other people preventing us (in a more or less delicate way) from doing something. A typical example may be parents telling their children not to touch certain dangerous objects or not to speak to strangers, for instance. As we grow up, our parents’ prohibitive tone tends to diminish because as adults not only are we capable of taking responsibility for our actions, but also we have, in a certain way, internalised those prohibitions.
However, these may also go in the opposite direction, and we may be prevented from not acting in a certain manner or not feeling in a certain way. A clear example of this can be seen in capitalist societies’ emphasis on not feeling miserable. Through advertising and social media, we are constantly bombarded with a very clear message: you only live once, you can’t afford to be unhappy. This apparently innocent and well intended premise can be extremely harmful, as it imposes an unnecessary extra pressure to our everyday lives. We are directed towards certain objects and situations because they are supposed to make us happy but, once achieved, why do we sometimes not feel as elated as we should?
In the Ted Talk The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz mentions that depression and other mental disorders have increased because people hold very high expectations regarding the different experiences they encounter throughout their lives. Therefore, he suggests we should all have low expectations: that could help us to make the most of every event in life without feeling we have missed something or that we could have done better.
Even though Schwartz’s advice is certainly very wise, I think we could go a bit deeper in the discussion on why we sometimes feel so disappointed when having accomplished something that was supposed to be important to us. In order to do this, Sara Ahmed’s book The Promise of Happiness can shed some light on how capitalist societies force individuals to be happy. Happiness is presented as the main objective we should all have in our lives. Hence, certain objects and situations are invested in the idea of this social construct of unconditional contentment. According to the author, we mostly regard those objects as attractive because they have been presented to us as being sources of joy. What happens when they do not make us feel that way? What happens when we don’t fit in any of the models or ideals that are supposed to bring about happiness?
In her book, Ahmed tries to answer some of these questions and also brings about others. By examining the specific cases of subjects that have wandered off the beaten path (such as “the feminist killjoys”, “the unhappy queers” or “the melancholic migrants”) she analyses what happens to those who try or have tried to configure their subjectivity around other ideas, values or beliefs other than this promise of joy. I firmly believe that if we start to question the social construct of happiness that is presented to us in our contemporary world and start to choose which models to follow and which ones to break, we will be closer to feeling at ease with ourselves and with the people around us. It’s high time we did the same as John in Brave New World and started claiming the right to be unhappy.
Ahmed, Sara (2019). La promesa de la felicidad. (Traductor Salas, H.). Buenos Aires: Caja Negra Editora.
______________ (2010). The Promise of Happiness. Durham: Duke University Press.
Schwartz, Barry (2005, July). Barry Schwartz: The Paradox of Choice [Video file]. Retrieved from: https://www.ted.com/talks/barry_schwartz_the_paradox_of_choice