Our Obsession with Happiness

Happiness and I share a complex relationship. Part of me believes that when people say that all they want is to be happy, I feel like what they actually mean is that they don’t want to be uncomfortable – a curious distinction.

In my last term of school for my critical theory class, I wrote a paper called “I Purchased Fairness and Happiness from Starbucks for $4.25”, which was about fairness and happiness in the context of a capitalist society. Below is an excerpt of the essay that deals with happiness in particular, with reference to Sara Ahmed’s The Promise of Happiness and Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment. Bolded elements are key points:

“…[D]oes a cup of drip coffee from a corner store satisfy us more than a gentrified, $5 latte? Why must we seek a Starbucks for our coffee over a mom-and-pop shop for the same product? We feel that one is of better quality because we pay more for it, and that that will make us happier because we are spending our spoils in a way that satisfies our values.

However, nothing about coffee has any inherent value to how happy we are. Like fairness, happiness is sold to us by companies. Sara Ahmed states that “[t]he very promise that happiness is what you get for having the right associations might be how we are directed to certain things” (2).

In a recent Starbucks commercial, branded coffee is juxtaposed with the idea of friendship (cups placed side by side, with names of friends or partners on the cups) (Starbucks, “Starbucks Commercial #2 – 2017”). It is not the coffee that provides us the benefits of friendship or partnership, but since it is paired with the brand of Starbucks coffee, we connect our purchase of our daily coffee to the short supply of things we actually need to make us happy – tenderness, understanding, and community.

Like fairness, we often settle for the bourgeois concept of happiness, and in their eyes, happiness is ultimately about money. This manifests itself in oppressive ways, just as the concept of ethical capitalism does – Ahmed focuses on the notion of “the happy housewife” and “the happy slave” (50). Ahmed also works with the Hegelian master/slave dialectic to formulate her thesis: that happiness, as a construction, is used to keep black women (in particular) complacent and in fixed positions, and that unhappiness is a resistance against oppressive states of being. The following can be compared while reading her text:

Master Slave
Self Other
Happy Unhappy
Man Woman
White Black/Indigenous
Good Bad

Ahmed suggests that anger and unhappiness are so unpleasant to society that we attribute it with only the worst of qualities: ugliness, savagery, sub-humanness, and so on. And such language has been used to paint black and indigenous people in a very negative light (Ahmed 80). Thus, your body is only as worthy of existence as your emotions that benefit the bourgeois class: when you are happy, complacent, and understanding, you are more likely to be productive and less likely to question authority. But when you are unhappy, you will be subject to silencing and retaliation in hopes you will not resist the super-structure you are upset with.

Two years ago, I applied to work at the first Nordstrom in B.C., and in the final round of interviews, the manager of the store sat us all down for a group interview. He told us that the happiness of the customers was his number one goal, and that he would work to ensure all his customers attained the same level of happiness and comfort that he would expect going into any store. He exemplified this with the explanation of Nordstrom’s return policy, which is unique because they don’t have a return policy. No matter how old or damaged a product was, it would always be refunded to the customer so that they would be happy. His reasoning was that getting a refund to the customer would keep them happy – and, more importantly, shopping. I questioned this in front of the group, and I did not get hired at Nordstrom.

The story highlights two aspects of my argument thus far: one, that the fairness of getting a refund no matter what is still rooted in capitalist motivations, and two, that happiness with the capitalist system must be preserved so that people do not question authority (and thus, they are punished accordingly).

However, we are all kept in the cycle of unquestioning because we are fed images of what happiness should look like. This is rooted in Adorno and Horkheimer’s model of the Culture Industry. They say that “executive powers…let pass nothing which does not conform to their tables, to their concept of the consumer, or, above all, themselves” (96). This is to say that the normalization of working until we die and finding one person that satisfies all our inner, heterosexual desires is delivered to us by our media.

This is part of the reason why Pepsi’s recent ad campaign featuring Kendall Jenner ‘curing’ society of white supremacy and police brutality with a can of Pepsi was so distasteful and ‘tone deaf’. Adorno and Horkheimer say that “[i]n film, the outcome can invariably be predicted at the start – who will be rewarded, punished, forgotten”, and the ad campaign was much the same (98-99). As consumers, we see the disconnect between the intentions of a corporation exploiting the emotional and physical labour of activists and resistance movements for a profit, and between what people are going through every day. The culture industry wants us to believe that the media is on our side – we are relatable! We’re in the now! But really, all the ad campaign proved to us was that the people in power are exploitative, will actively try to shape our concepts of resistance movements, and will commodify even the most powerful feelings of resistance and anger to sell it back to us in bite-sized portions: this is Activism Lite, this is Resistance 2 Go, this is Fair Trade, this is happiness – this is our society stuck in the same cycle.

Why haven’t we solved the problem yet? If we can critique the faults of Capitalism and the cyclical nature of it, is there no way to cure it of its ailments? Part of me believes that we are capable, but we don’t utilize the necessary ideas in order to get the process going. Undoing/replacing capitalism, to many people, means COMMUNISM, which evokes scary images of Russia and China, and grotesque images of universal healthcare and sharing wealth. Capitalism put in place a culture of toxic individualism, and thus all the things we think we know are just reflections of the economic system in which we operate and exist.

“…I am…not saying that we should always be unhappy to be conscious, but rather, we must recognize that there are social structures in place that allow for “justified” punishment for being unhappy because of the associations that come with being angry. I am saying that we should not simply buy into the norms, and that we should question everything we encounter. And this may be met with opposition, and anger may arise due to frustration. But we must also remember that anger and frustration, along with unhappiness, are valid emotions that have been suppressed by society to keep us complacent.

I feel like as a society, we are obsessed with being happy. We do things to achieve happiness, we want others to be happy – and, of course, this is not necessarily a bad thing. But when happiness is treated as the ultimate goal, or as the stagnant medium between delirious and depressed, we run into feelings of inadequacy and insecurity because we cannot keep up with the standard of happiness that others have set for us, and, simultaneously, that we have set for ourselves. We also then become very uncomfortable when others are not also happy, because we have been taught to have an aversion to such feelings.

Happiness is seen in conjunction to wealth, to success, to stability, to people who are driven, to women who have kids, to the monogamous heterosexual couple pre-divorce, to those who bounce back from failure – what I mean is that happiness is portrayed as a very static and structured feeling. Likewise, happiness is manifested in many people as a construction: that certain things must be done or attained for happiness to really be present. This makes the concept of happiness feel like it’s a jar or container that needs to be filled, but there’s a hole at the bottom of the container so all the contents eventually leak out – thus needing to be refilled again and again: happiness can only be maintained with the constant addition of stuff, whatever that stuff may be.

I’ve realized that people don’t necessarily notice a lack of happiness – what they usually notice is a presence of something else, whether it be anger or sadness or discontentment. And this is a bit problematic to me because we all value our own happiness in some way, but we usually only ever pay attention to its “antithesis” of sorts. Usually this is triggered by people verbally or physically showing that they are upset – but the problem is that many people are very good at keeping a straight face about it (until they don’t – then they can get scary, but that’s an aside).

The absence of happiness is not the same as the presence of anger or discontentment, although I understand why they are seen as synonymous. Needless to say, they are not dichotomous feelings, nor are they exactly opposite. When happiness is absent, one could be passive or neutral, disillusioned, and perhaps they might feel something other – such feelings are fluid and dynamic. People react to the presence of discontentment because that is usually when it is most obvious that there is a lack of happiness, but people don’t often react to the person that’s bored, unstimulated, uninspired, exhausted, silent, annoyed, lazy, etc. – someone who is not exactly happy, but not angry either.

Some people live with the expectation that their lives, someday, will be exponentially happy, to which I say good for you! But in recent years, my own outlook on happiness has gotten me to question how that exponential happiness will be achieved. I feel like people who are always happy, without fail, are robots that have come from space to brainwash us.

As a personal anecdote, I have had very few instances of extreme happiness because it’s been shared by feelings of anxiety or annoyance or exhaustion. But this does not mean that I don’t find things that make me happy. Happiness, like most of my feelings, is fleeting and temporary – but it always returns in portions that I can enjoy for the time it is present. And I feel like that’s how we should think about how we define happiness (instead of having happiness control us and our decisions).

Also, because I imagine that someone will ask, “Well what DOES make you happy then?” in a super whiny voice: dogs, ice cream, and watching Bob’s Burgers.

Featured image: Smiley Face is in the Public Domain (CC0).


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Self-proclaimed jack-of-all-trades. Intersectional feminist. Educator/linguist in training. Fashionista, food-lover, and fairly poor hand-eye coordination.

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