The Problem With Being Happy
Lillian explores the problem with our shared societal view of happiness and what it means to be happy.
Every year, somewhere between the 26th of December and the 2nd of January, when time seems to lapse a little and life slows down for a moment, I reflect on the past year. I look at what went well, what could’ve gone better, the highs and the lows, the milestones and achievements, accumulated together to become a measurement of its success. My success.
I begin to anticipate what is to come. The long year ahead, full of opportunities and adventures. Projecting in my imagination a preview of how it will feel. And then, I always wind up asking myself: how can I be better? What could I change? How can I make myself happier?
But when I think about what that looks like, certain discourses and messaging start to fog my brain with ideas. This year, I told myself: go back to therapy. Graduate. Save up. Get fit: start the gym. Heck, run a marathon. Solo travel. Finally pass my driving test.
Really, I realised I was asking myself: what kind of things do I want to ‘do’? Which milestones will I reach? What will I ‘achieve’?
So if we hope for happiness, then ‘what’ are we hoping for? What do we hope that happiness will ‘do’ for us?
“Creating a brighter romantic future starts with you”
Happiness has become the norm, an integral aspect of the modern condition that creates societal pressure to be happy, to strive for happiness, or at least, to appear happy. Our ideas of happiness are attached to particular objects, events and goals, ideas of what we think should make us happy: certain behaviours, choices, and lifestyles that are comprehensible and socially ideal.
There is a history to happiness, though, one that has been moulded through time, culture and place; ideas that are reproduced and sustained today. Ancient philosophical discourses constructed happiness as the ultimate goal of human existence: it provides life with meaning, structure and direction. An instrumental, inherent good. Something to ‘aim’ for.
Our Western, modern conceptions of happiness are not entirely indistinguishable. Dominant discourses of happiness have been moulded and are reproduced through contemporary appeals to hyper-individualised modes of self-help. There are three unconscious worries that “could be standing in the way of you finding and keeping the love you deserve,” an article boldly claims, because “creating a brighter romantic future starts with you”.
Some suggest we keep a gratitude journal, be kind to ourselves, and do daily affirmations. Others tell us to banish self-doubt, build resilience and empower ourselves. All laced with the idea that we must know our worth and what we want, at all times, and be assertive about it - especially if we want to be respected by men at work.
Our individual diagnoses must be identified so we can produce solutions; synonymous with a ‘choice’ available to individually transform ourselves to achieve the goals of health, happiness, productivity, security and well-being. Suggestions are that we are able to exhort, cultivate, manage and optimise happiness through incitements to behavioural, instrumental and DIY changes.
Calls to reflect on our own conduct and identity, our ‘barriers’ to success and happiness are always proffered with the intent of ‘overcoming’ them, grounded in Westernised, selective appropriation of enlightenment; one which favours individualism, rationality, capitalist consumption and progress to achieve ‘true contentment’ over community, empathy, and balance with nature.
Integral to the operations of self-help discourse is bound by the presumption that the methods for upgrading ourselves are somehow universally shared and, perhaps more significantly, universally accessible: a symptom of neoliberalism.
Following neoliberalism, discourses pervading the media called upon women to look inward for fulfilment; first gaining traction in the Western world in the 1990s. Ideas of happiness were embroiled in a strong sense of autonomy, resilience, agency, empowerment and choice, directing women towards an ‘ideal’ type of femininity with which to strive. This consolidated the idea of the empowered, the ‘Cosmo’ women who ‘had it all’, inspired by former editor of Cosmopolitan Helen Gurley: the successful career, a voracious dating life, the looks, confidence and self-sufficieny to be financially independent. She is savvy, flirtatious and fashionable, though must remain likeable, and never too assertive. Though formerly constructed as feminist, such discourse might now better be understood as postfeminist.
Though its ‘feminist’ disguise sustains itself today. Operating now through the facade of the #girlboss, the ‘cult’ of self-help and the rise of influencer culture, these contemporary identities and ideas reiterate the central, interdependent tenets of postfeminism and neoliberalism by claiming any problem can be overcome through resilience and perseverance based on the principle of meritocracy: we are all capable of success regardless of one's privilege on the basis of gender, sexuality, class, economic status and/or race (incitements which are disproportionately targeted at women).
In signifying a particular template to strive towards generated to hold independence, empowerment and self-actualisation as central facets of selfhood, self-regulatory practices construct and modify our notion of self. Functioning through relations of power, we are delivered a corpus of information to conduct what kind of happiness is considered normal to ‘aim’ or ‘strive’ for.
The possibilities available to ‘transform’ ourselves necessitate that our ideas of happiness stay within the normative boundaries of their construction; we already know and understand how we must act, behave, speak and think. If happiness is something to aspire to, then it is within our reach if, and only if, we are willing to follow its tightly woven path.
Reimagining happiness: a political project of what could be
I do not dismiss the importance of self-care, nor one's own happiness, but how these concepts are sold to us. We must begin to question and disrupt what attachments, social ideals and conventions our ideas of happiness pertain to, and how circulating ideas of happiness produce conditions of value.
In transforming our ways of thinking about happiness, departing from thinking of ourselves as vehicles for self-improvement, we can begin to understand how to shift our view of happiness to holistic sites of pleasure, collective joy and community.
Extending our ideas beyond ourselves, and recognising that we are inextricably linked to other human beings, can enable us to refuse and abandon normative, self-regulatory practices of happiness to imagine alternative possibilities.
I’m Lillian, a 23-year-old woman from Yorkshire. I am a recent graduate from Goldsmiths, University of London where I studied a Master's in Gender, Media and Culture. It goes without saying, then, that I am deeply interested in the ways gender has been constructed and operates in society and across cultures.
I have a burning desire for knowledge - I believe so strongly that bettering yourself isn’t about developing habits, setting new goals, waking up at 5 am or getting a promotion, it’s about learning more, standing up for marginalised communities and challenging your worldview. I also enjoy reading, writing, film, photography, taking myself on solo dates, connecting with others, and drinking too much coffee.
Thank you, Matriarch, for creating this space. A space where we can all feel seen.