Happiness – For Sale?

“ … looked on the bright side, got keratitis.”

wonderful life by Bring Me The Horizon


Let’s talk about the Happiness Industrial Complex — it’s the industry that is really focused on making people happy, inside and out.


Unfortunately, it is killing us.


The Happiness Industry is massive business — we are talking self-help books, the various talking heads that have 101 ways to make us all happy and more productive, wellness seminars, yoga and spa retreats, and corporate companies who employ people known as “chief happiness officers” who are then tasked with ensuring that their little workers are staying happy, because happy workers are productive workers.


Ironically, with the growth of the Happiness Industry, there continues to be a decline in happiness. How is it possible that as we strive to be more happy, we are steadily getting unhappier and, I daresay, more miserable. What is going on?


For starters, despite knowing that we cannot buy happiness, we have started to believe that happiness is a commodity that can be purchased if there are products that allegedly say that they will ensure happiness.


And boy, do we fall for it. There is a desperate part of us that wishes for it to be true, so we spend our money, in either mindless consumerism, or in products that promise sweet release from our banal unhappiness. And there is a demand for these commodities — if the self-improvement industry is worth $13 billion, this surely indicates a huge demand to buy happiness.


These products may not necessarily provide happiness, but the people peddling happiness as a commodity does not particularly care because it continues to line their pockets.


Second, the pursuit of happiness is now a hyper-individualised activity — where one is solely responsible for their own happiness. It is a paradoxical activity to partake in because the obsession to become happy (and failing to do so) results in unhappiness. But even worse still is that it posits negative emotions as “bad”, rather than just an emotion that exists to inform us on what we’re feeling at that given point of time, which may be sadness, anger or grief. This is another reason as to why mental illnesses such as anxiety or depression is stigmatised or seen as a hindrance — not only does it see people as being unable to will themselves into being happy as “failures”, it refuses to acknowledge that these are legitimate conditions that people endure on a daily basis, and are in need of empathy, care and understanding instead of being told to simply push themselves out of being unhappy, to “cheer up” or to “look at the bright side of things”. This insidiously postulates the idea that being unhappy is caused by some moral failing on the sufferer’s part, rather than seeing it as a complex emotion just as much as happiness and contentment is. The social requirement of having to wear a mask of happiness is unfair, cruel, discriminatory and makes the experience of negative emotions even worse.


The Happiness Industrial Complex is present nearly everywhere. It is an ideological attitude that one is expected to carry, and failure to do so is often frowned upon as it is seen as a detriment to the productive labour that one needs to be constantly striving to do. The general idea is that if you can simply change your perspective, and focus on being positive, then happiness is waiting for you.


It is a compelling argument — after all, if you are in charge of your own life, then you certainly must be in charge of your own happiness, right? But by that logic, it would also mean that failure to achieve happiness by yourself is your own unique failing.


The hyper individualisation of one’s own happiness is absurd as it does not reckon with factors that actually inform one’s (un)happiness. People do not live in a vacuum — they live in a world, in a society, with family, friends, peers and colleagues, who very much factor into whether a person is happy or unhappy. Furthermore, to frame happiness as an individual and solitary pursuit fails to acknowledge the evidence that indicates that the greatest determinants of happiness is genuine and loving human connection with a community of people.


And finally, let’s not forget the socio-economic factors that determines whether one is happy or not. The Happiness Industrial Complex propagates a form of toxic positivity — the idea that we should only focus on the ‘positive’ emotions and ignore ‘negative’ emotions — but disregards the very real material conditions that dictate one’s happiness or unhappiness. Positive thinking does not put food on the table, but a stable income, secure housing and health does. But the ever increasing rates of economic instability, lack of job security, healthcare and other benefits play a role in whether we be happy or not. To ignore people’s material realities is to, once again, project cruel and even discriminatory attitudes against them.


This is not to say that meditation, exercise, and simply doing the thing that you did not want to do won’t give you some form of satisfaction or even happiness — there are real benefits to being able to take care of yourself. These are things we do to soothe ourselves when times are difficult, or when we may need a moment to recalibrate how we are feeling.


But we cannot buy or will our way into being truly happy. True happiness means caring for one another, be it our family, friends, co-workers, or our community. Caring for others can look like cooking a meal for someone, or helping someone do their laundry when they are depressed, or being able to have a truly heartfelt conversation, or baking a cake for everyone in your building, or engaging in community social justice action — these are all acts of care that feed the human need for connection. And we do this not because it will help us achieve something, but because it will create a more connected and happy society.

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