Free Yourself from the Happiness Imperative
A counter-cultural new years resolution.
For so many of us, our new years resolutions focus on striving to be happy, becoming fitter, healthier and overcoming our inner blocks and anxieties that create obstacles preventing us from achieving our potential and greater happiness.
Magazine articles, TV and radio talk shows, life coaches, self-help books, blogs and twitter accounts are filled with positive rhetoric demanding that we strive for happiness offering trite slogans “Be your true self” “Love yourself more” “Be kind to yourself” “Follow your dreams and you can achieve anything you desire”. Striving for happiness may seem like a no-brainer, for how can it be a problem to strive for happiness? Lets take a step back for a moment and look at what’s really happening here.
We find ourselves living in a “society of commanded enjoyment” (Stavrakakis 2008). A society that demands (at an unconscious level) that we acquiesce to the ‘happiness imperative’ (Beradi 2008), that it is our duty to be happy. So whilst we think we are acting independently to strive for happiness we are simply conforming to a social demand to be positive, strive for happiness and fulfil our potential. In the past social demands were different, ‘know your place’ ‘Work hard and be humble’ and it would have been wrong to strive for happiness. Whilst this striving for fulfilling potential has its upsides and liberates us from former constraining forces, constantly having to perform being positive (even to ourselves) and holding high expectations that it is our duty and entitlement to be happy is truly problematic.
This happiness imperative that demands our positivity is not just about individuals wanting to improve and discover true happiness, it’s a social construction closely linked to consumer capitalism that drives us to behave and think in particular ways and limits our ability to think and feel in other ways. It’s very dysfunctional to both individuals and to society as it blocks our ability to feel what we need to feel, which is a whole range of diverse emotions.
The happiness imperative is an injunction that speaks directly to our super-ego and says to us, “if you are not happy you are not a good person, because you are not fulfilling your potential as you should be ”. To not be happy (and not to be successful by implication) like those celebrities we see on TV is a fault of our own making. This of course is very convenient to those in governance positions who say whenever there are social problems ‘its the individuals fault’, or as Margaret Thatcher so famously put it, ‘there is no such thing as society’. Consumer society is fed by the happiness imperative as mass marketing screams at us, ‘buy this and be happy’ ‘buy this and feel great’ offering consumer goods and services which promise happiness but deliver debt and an ever-increasing circle that feeds not happiness but a lack of meaning in our lives. Material goods bring temporary relief from feelings of emptiness, or displace sad feelings in our manic buying sprees, but soon the feelings of emptiness and lack return, quickly creating desire for the next round of consumption to take the pain away. Experts in our pervasive therapeutic culture offer an array of wares to help guide us to greater happiness; counselors, coaches, therapists, healers, huggers, spiritual directors, new age physicians, plastic surgeons…. Whatever you want, the experts can deliver with their technique driven solutions. Consume our services and happiness is just around the corner!
Furred (2003) and Beradi (2009) claim that the happiness imperative creates the opposite effect to what is intended, citing the devastating amounts of depression, anxiety and unhappiness since society adopted this stance (a post 1968 phenomena growing out of the counter-culture that celebrated individual freedom and was later assimilated into mainstream consumer society). Barbara Ehrenreich focusing on the happiness imperative in the USA claims ‘that on a personal level it leads to self-blame and a morbid preoccupation with stamping out ‘negative thoughts…. On a national level, it has brought us an era of irrational optimism resulting in disaster’ (Ehrenreich, 2009). It is worth noting that in the USA where positive psychology thrives and the happiness imperative is most prevalent Americans account for two-thirds of the global market for antidepressants, which happen also to be the most commonly prescribed drugs in the United States. (Ehrenreich, 2009)
So what to do about it? Should a new year resolution be to become less happy?
No of course not, but it could be to free yourself from the happiness imperative itself. To see the double-bind this puts us in. To rid ourselves of this socially perverse demand that encourages us to chase an illusory fantasy of always being happy and positive. Allowing yourself not to always feel positive begins by telling the super-ego voice in your head to get back in its box! Then to allow yourself to feel human with all that entails; sadness, grieving, loss, pain, love, hope, joy, contentment, confusion, satisfaction, boredom, frustration, melancholy and the ambivalence of many confusing feelings. It is all these other feelings, thoughts and emotions that make our lives so rich and so liveable.
So enjoy a rich new year filled with ambivalence, joy, love and melancholy.