The Happiness Dilemma
I am suspicious of happiness. This might be a surprising thing for a therapist to write, so let me explain.
The world we live in is a difficult place. Life – day to day – is a struggle, and this is no different for humans than for the other species on our planet. What is different is that we humans have created cultures and civilisations, that pretend we are special , and depend on making the rest of the planet a massive resource bank from which to make our stuff.
Yet, the thing we call culture, is just a set of expectations that not even we humans agree upon. So we lose ourselves in mutual misunderstanding and fight each other. The rules of our ‘civilisation’ are that we must be loyal to our ‘nation’, and reject others’ ways of life as being ‘undemocratic’ or ‘barbaric’. We define ’us’from within, and ‘them’ by their non-acceptance our ‘our’ norms. And OUR norms seem mostly to be about sex, fighting and shopping. Or they are about markets (what sells) and defence – which amount to the same thing. What this creates is inequality, exploitation and an avoidance of the stark truth that we cannot, any longer, treat each other and our planet as commodities.
This is the backdrop to the projects that want to make us happy. At their core, they are all about positive thinking – “You’re not happy unless you think you’re happy”, writes Gretchen Rubin in her Happiness Manifesto. And at their best,they are about social activism and positive relationships – “It is because the world is so full of suffering that your happiness is a gift” – writes Robert Holden of his project.
At the disturbing extreme, however, there is a new kind of modern magic – the ‘law of attraction’: “Anything in your life you want to change, you can — simply by understanding the Law of Attraction, and choosing to deliberately change your thoughts and constantly reach for the thought that feels better” writes Eva Gregory.
Despite its pseudo-scientific language (‘being in tune with the energies of the Universe’ and such like) this is just old-fashioned, positive thinking with knobs on. At one level this fairy-dust fantasy might be seen as harmless; but dig deeper and we can see that the theory simply blames the victim. If you suffer, it implies, then it is your fault for not being properly positively ‘attuned’ with the ‘laws’. Apply this principle to natural disasters, misfortunes and social inequalities, and the law of attraction becomes positively sinister; and it also promises (literally) quick fixes and easy money to vulnerable and gullible people. However, perhaps the most worrying aspect of this is that an increasing number of coaches and therapists (in the UK as well as the USA) seem to be promoting this exploitative and anti-happy message with their clients.
Which brings me to two questions. First : does positive thinking really make us happy? Sometimes, at a personal level, the answer can be a qualified yes. If we are realistic about goals and limitations, and aligned with our personal strengths and virtues, then positivity can motivate us through to the next step in our journey. However on another level, the answer is a resounding NO. For Barbara Ehrenreich, positive thinking is a fantasy that has turned people from the fundamentals of life, which include suffering. In reality, all humans get ill and die, people are lucky and sometimes unlucky and inequality plays a big part in suffering. Far from positivity being a recipe for happiness, she argues, it’s the basis for blindness and has led to repeated failures and crises in Western political, cultural, economic, ecological and military spheres.
Following on from this comes a second question: Is it OK to be happy in the world we live in? Well, it’s arguably naive and futile to seek full-time happiness, when the world is in such a mess. It is also dangerous to push away suffering, as if it weren’t a fact of our human lives. it is this disconnection between reality, and the fantasy that we should all be ‘shiny, happy people’, that lies beneath much of the anxiety, stress and depression that many of us suffer from from. And, of course, the world is on the verge of an ecological and economic crisis, so, maybe, no – its not alright to be happy with this! However, if we include, in our definition of happiness, our engagement with the world, and the development of open and honest relationships with each other, then again, maybe the answer can be a qualified yes.
In the final analysis, as a therapist and teacher, I can’t be involved in projects and conversations that promote a view that personal happiness, riches and spiritual development are the important things. And, I won’t help people escape from very real pain and unhappiness by sending them into fantasy worlds of ‘laws of attraction’ or transcendence. In contrast, I want to develop – with others – new manifestos and toolkits for resilience, activism and resistance. I want to help people develop deep capacities to be open to vulnerability and pain – as well as to creativity, authenticity and joy. I want to encourage people to find ways of being angry that make a difference, rather than destroying others or ourselves. And above all, I want to help people to to open to the joy available to us in each moment – even at times when we are not ‘happy’.
In the new year I’ll be announcing some new plans and major changes to my work and practice. My aim is to have great conversations that change lives and help people radically re-engage with their inner and outer landscapes. I want to stand up, not for happiness and magic, but for imagination and joy, to take a small human step towards rebuilding a new psychology and ecology that we can be happy to live and love in.
I’d like to do this with you, if you’d like to join me.