The happiness myth
Originally published in Marie Claire South Africa
‘Ever since happiness heard your name,’ wrote the 14th-century Persian poet Hafez, ‘it has been running through the streets trying to find you.’
What a delightful image, and what a reassuring thought – that we as humans could simply go about our lives, safe in the knowledge that somewhere out of sight, happiness is about to catch up and introduce itself. Of course, Hafez didn’t know what the world would be like 628 years after his death. Could he ever have imagined that we’d become so impatient, we’d turn the tables on happiness and chase it through the streets instead?
Because that’s basically what we’re doing. Happiness – that wholly subjective, completely abstract concept – has become the goal of the modern age. Suddenly, it’s no longer enough to be financially successful, healthy, and socially, spiritually and sexually fulfilled. We’re now also constantly asking ourselves, ‘But am I happy?’ If the answer isn’t a resounding yes, we begin to hunt happiness, as though it’s an achievement – a loyalty tier we reach after completing a certain number of hours of yoga and gratitude journalling, something we can attain and then sit back and enjoy for the rest of our lives. (Spoiler alert: it’s not.)
Ruth Whippman, a Brit who relocated to California, was so taken aback by the US’s obsession with ‘achieving’ happiness, she began researching this cultural phenomenon and subsequently published her 2016 bestseller The Pursuit of Happiness: Why are we driving ourselves crazy and how can we stop?. In an essay on the topic for Vox.com, she says, ‘It seems as though happiness has become the overachiever’s ultimate trophy. A modern trump card, it outranks professional achievement and social success, family, friendship, and even love. Its invocation deftly minimises others’ achievements (“Well, I suppose she has the perfect job and a gorgeous husband, but is she really happy?”) and takes the shine off our own.’
The cruel joke of the modern human condition is that the more we probe our own personal happiness levels, the less happy we’re likely to feel. The great 19th century philosopher John Stuart Mill probably said it best: ‘Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so.’
‘It’s one of the key aspects I work on with my clients – to stop chasing the idea of happiness,’ says Kerstin Waddell of Be Happy Life Coaching in Cape Town. ‘The constant striving, accumulating, comparing and seeking of external validation are only adding to their unhappiness.’
Kerstin cites the work of Dr Russ Harris, whose book The Happiness Trap shows the ways in which misleading pop-psych ideas of happiness are contributing to stress, anxiety and depression. According to Russ, we get stuck in the happiness trap as a result of three major myths:
Myth #1 Happiness is the natural state for human beings. ‘The normal state for a human being is an ever-changing flow of emotions. Emotions are like the weather. You wouldn’t say the natural state for the weather is a warm, spring, sunny afternoon. It’s natural in winter that it’s going to be colder, and in summer it’s going to be hotter. And so it is with our emotions,’ says Russ.
‘Life is a mixed bag of experiences,’ adds Kerstin. ‘Loss and pain are inevitable. They’re part of our humanness.’
Myth #2 Happiness is as simple as ‘feeling good’. If this is your notion of being happy, then there’s no such thing as lasting happiness, ‘because how long does a good feeling last?’ says Russ. ‘Think of the happiest day of your life. How long did a state of pleasure or contentment last before there was some frustration, disappointment, anxiety or irritation?’ He believes we need to throw out the idea of ‘feeling good’ and redefine happiness as living a life that is ‘rich, full and meaningful’ – which includes the full gamut of human emotion.
Myth #3 If you’re not happy, you’re defective. If we’re being honest, who hasn’t entertained a mental picture of their ideal happier self, sailing through life calm and collected, never feeling stressed, angry, hurt, cynical or irritated? But blocking out what internationally acclaimed psychotherapist Miriam Greenspan dubs ‘dark’ emotions is definitely not the path to happiness.
‘People feel that there is something wrong with them when they don’t feel happy,’ says Kerstin. ‘Miriam talks about “emotion phobia” – the way dark emotions not only feel bad, but we have come to think we are bad to feel them; that they are signs of weakness, moral decay, spiritual inferiority or personal inadequacy. Dark emotions have been pathologised, shaming those who feel anything but happy as ill and defective.
‘But every emotion, even the dark ones, fulfil a positive purpose. What if they’re just a different type of language that we’re misinterpreting? What if they’re trying to teach you something?
‘When we avoid dark emotions, they pile up. Like a yappy dog, they’ll try to get your attention, and get louder and louder, until you respond. Or, if you try to numb them, you end up numbing the light emotions too, and so turn yourself into a robot. The pain of being “dead” is inevitably more painful than the original dark emotion. So you may as well invite them to tea and listen to what they’re trying to tell you.’
THE POLITICS OF HAPPINESS
In 2012, the UN began publishing its annual World Happiness Report, the idea being that governments and organisations can use insights from the report to inform policy-making decisions. ‘Increasingly, happiness is considered to be the proper measure of social progress and the goal of public policy,’ say researchers.
It’s not a new idea though. The UN’s seemingly forward-thinking report has its roots nearly half a century ago in the Kingdom of Bhutan. In 1971, that tiny Buddhist nation pioneered the idea of using Gross National Happiness (GNH), rather than GDP, as an indicator for a country’s success.