“Mankind does not strive for happiness; only the Englishman does that.”
– Friedrich Nietzsche
Someone recently asked me, “What do you really want from your life?”
I said, “To be happy.”
But even as the words came out of my mouth, I felt like I was copping out. What kind of a bullshit non-answer is that? Of course, everyone wants to be happy, but do we know how? Or why?
No matter which angle you look at it from, modern 21st Century society seems possessed by an underlying obsession with happiness. We see it in every facet of our lives, from work, to healthcare, to literature, to art. An array of doctors, psychiatrists, HR managers, and self-help “gurus” constantly stand at the ready to ensure our continued happiness, and prescribe all manner of drugs, counselling, vacations, and motivational texts to correct any deviation from the set path of bliss.
The happiness mandate permeates our culture in ways we simply cannot escape. But, why? Why are we so obsessed with being happy, and could our obsession actually be harmful?
NEITHER NEW NOR LIBERAL
The root of compulsory happiness lies in a socioeconomic ideology known as neoliberalism. Put simply, neoliberalism is the idea that the economy should be free from government restrictions, and that people should have the individual freedom to purchase or sell whatever they desire on the free market by way of demand and supply. Put very simply – imagine the younger, rebellious cousin of capitalism, who hates rules and just wants to be free.
In a neoliberal economy, anything can be monetized. Regardless of whether consumers are paying for booze, clothes, food, or even sex (which is legal in Singapore), the neoliberal economy runs on one common commodity: happiness, or, each individual’s personal idea of happiness. “If it makes you happy, you can buy it,” says the neoliberal. Don’t know what makes you happy? Don’t worry, let advertising tell you.
Of course, there isn’t any country in the world whose government subscribes fully to the neoliberal model, but its principles of individual freedom and free market consumerism apply to every capitalistic economy in the world, including those that pretend to still be communist *cough* China *cough*.
As neoliberalism peddles happiness to the people that consist the economy, it also relies on happiness to survive. It is a known fact in economics that happy people spend more money. They go to restaurants, clubs, theme parks, and shopping malls more often, and spend proportionately more. The “work hard, play hard” adage is the mantra of the neoliberal economy, which espouses making more money and spending more money to feed into the wheel of peddled happiness that drives our society.
Is this all wrong? I don’t know. Maybe this is how society is supposed to work. Or maybe we’re all just overconsuming on an endless happiness treadmill until we get numb from our blessings and constantly stay unsatisfied until we fall off. I can tell you how it is, but I can’t tell you how it should be.
EQUALITY OF EMOTIONS
If human emotions were J.K. Rowling characters, happiness would be Harry Potter. Everything revolves around that kid; it’s annoying.
We constantly glorify happiness, while vilifying the other emotions of the spectrum, classifying them as “disorders” that need to be dealt with.
Jimmy’s always sad? He suffers from depression.
Jane gets angry at the slightest thing? She has anger management issues.
Johnny’s deathly afraid of that one thing? He’s got a phobia.
How about Phoebe, who’s constantly smiling and cheerful all the time? Oh, she just has a really fun, bubbly personality. Isn’t she lovable?
There is a popular misconception that emotions somehow conflict with logical reasoning; the battle between the heart and mind, as some would conceptualize it. This could not be further from the truth. Modern scientists believe that emotions are tools that our brains use to organize and expedite rational thinking. Every emotion has a crucial function, not just happiness. If they didn’t, our brains wouldn’t have evolved them in the first place!
Happiness acts as a sort of positive feedback mechanism, as in, “This is good for you, keep doing that.”
Anger allows us to perceive injustice and wrongdoing more acutely, and respond in kind, as in, “That guy just tried to steal my goat and burn down my farm. I probably shouldn’t let him get away scot-free.”
Sadness, as an inverse of happiness, acts as a negative feedback mechanism, saying, “This is bad, don’t let it happen again.”
Fear helps to keep us alive, as in, “Don’t poke that venomous snake with your fat sausage fingers, you dumb buffoon.”
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not glorifying or trivializing conditions like depression and anxiety. These are problems that must be addressed, but demonizing and rejecting their underlying emotions while exalting happiness above all is equally dangerous.
What advice do we normally give to people who are depressed or angry? We say, “cheer up, buddy”, “take it easy”, “stay positive”. Simply telling someone to ignore their other emotions and just “be happy” is terrible advice. It promotes the notion that happiness is only in someone’s head, that it’s a personal responsibility that others can wash their hands off.
Our collective obsession with personal inner happiness can cause us to ignore valid grievances, enable exploitation, and tolerate external injustice that shouldn’t be tolerated at all.
EVERY EMOTION HAS ITS DAY
While all-pervasive in our neoliberal-capitalist society, our compulsive desire for happiness might paradoxically be pushing us away from really being happy. We pursue economically-serving surrogates for happiness like overpriced bags and cars that let us pretend we’re happy, while setting us on a downward spiral towards depression as we chase mandatory happiness in the face of ignored hardship, and repeatedly find ourselves falling short. We ask ourselves, “Why am I not good enough to get that raise?” or, “How can Suzanne afford that Louis Vuitton bag when I cannot?”
Perhaps, a healthy mental state requires embracing all our emotions to build a more robust sense of harmony and inner peace, where we can be truly happy with who we are, because the pursuit of happiness can only be healthy when balanced and grounded with its accompanying emotions.
Or maybe, the neoliberals had it right all along, and running endlessly on the happiness treadmill is truly the meaning of life. What do you think?