After writing last week’s blog post A meaningful existence, I was inspired to finally read a book that has been sitting on my bookshelf for a few years now: Smile Or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World by Barbara Ehrenreich. I bought it because I was interested in the pathological search for happiness and need to think positively in Western society, but there are so many good books to read that I just didn’t get around to it (and to be honest, I didn’t need to read this particular book to finish my thesis). Lately, however, I feel like I am being bombarded with happiness advice on the Internet. I don’t think I’m exaggerating if I say that I see posts, articles, interviews etc. on how to be happy in my Facebook newsfeed several times a week, if not daily.
This bothers me, because this obsession to find happiness is missing the target. Yes, I as much as anyone else want to be happy, who wouldn’t. But happy doesn’t happen on its own. It’s a feeling that is the result of something else. I believe that it is the result of meaning and fulfillment. That is what Professor Catherine Sanderson, who I quoted in last week’s post, was getting at when she says that happiness comes from figuring out what you’re good at and finding ways to do it. That is what Barbara Ehrenreich, who I quoted in my post The irony of work-life balance, meant when she talked about losing oneself in one’s work. Having a meaningful existence is gratifying, doing meaningful work – paid or non-paid – is fulfilling, and when we feel fulfilled, we also feel happy. Suddenly the rest, the things we may think will make us happy, like the perfect body, the latest fashion, the perfect house, or whatever else, doesn’t matter so much anymore. It can be nice to have nice things, I as much as anyone else like nice things, but these things are an extra bonus, and not instrumental in making us happy.
Searching for happiness on its own is like searching for a great sensation, a great taste for example, without realizing that what we really need to look for is the food that provides the great taste.
In Smile Or Die, Ehrenreich takes a critical look at the positive thinking and the search for happiness that has become such a great part of our culture in the past decades. At the end of the 1990’s, the positive psychology movement was instrumental in making happiness and positive thinking a collective obsession. Happiness and optimism were linked to everything from health to career success, and perhaps not surprisingly became a great hit in the media, not to mention among motivational speakers. Happiness became the solution to all mundane problems, and wasn’t particularly difficult to sell, I mean like I said before, who wouldn’t want to be happy.
However, this obsession with positive feelings and happiness can also have a dire effect on our personal development and our relationships with others. For one, it leads to self-absorption. Also, refusing to have anything to do with anyone who doesn’t trigger only good feelings about ourselves, not only cuts us off from reality, it also effectively protects us from any deeper insights into ourselves or our lives. For that we need the whole scale of emotions, both god and bad. Plus, there is of course the risk of ending up very lonely.
Ironically, research has shown, that this obsessive search for happiness hasn’t made people any happier.
Ehrenreich ends her book by dishing out her own happiness advice. And no, she doesn’t succumb to doing what she is criticizing. It is all condensed in one paragraph:
“Happiness is not, of course, guaranteed even to those who are affluent, successful, and well loved. But that happiness is not an inevitable outcome of happy circumstances does not mean we can find it by journeying inward to revise our thoughts and feelings. The threats we face are real and can be vanquished only by shaking off self-absorption and taking action in the world. Build up the levees, get food to the hungry, find the cure, strengthen the “first responders”! We will not succeed at all these things, certainly not all at once, but – if I may end with my own personal secret of happiness – we can have a good time trying.”
And I couldn’t agree more. Let’s not look for happiness. Let’s look for meaning and let’s feel good about what we do. Only then will we be happy.