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The Happiness Myth

For many, happiness is not just a personal choice.

Key points

  • The happiness industry has made us believe that being unhappy is a personal failure.
  • We are unable to be consistently happy. The conflict between expectation and unfulfillment makes us feel inadequate.
  • There is a political facet to the happiness myth.

In this narcissistic era of self-branding, self-improvement, and wellness, many have been caught up in the myth of happiness as a "personal choice." If you are reading this, you are a human being, which means that inevitably you have had to face all sorts of difficult problems, disappointments, and losses in your life, many of which happened outside your control. The happiness peddlers will tell you that you can avoid the distress associated with these adversities, as well as the fear of having to endure new misfortunes in the future, and choose to feel happy instead. This is simply perverse.

Fantasy of "Choosing" Happiness

As I argue in my book on happiness, humans are "designed" (for want of a better word) to have mixed and changeable emotions in response to the difficulties they experience in life and the angst attached to being alive, rather than to be happy. This is our natural blueprint. To pretend that one can simply choose happiness over unhappiness is a fantasy.

 Ferdinand Studio/Pexels
Source: Ferdinand Studio/Pexels

This happiness myth, promoted by countless wellness gurus and self-improvement books, is not just a neutral and benign aspiration. This myth doesn't simply encourage us to adopt a more optimistic and productive attitude in our lives. Instead, it has actually succeeded in building a generalized belief in society that unhappiness is a personal failure, and that an unhappy person must undoubtedly be either inadequate or incompetent. This conflict between reality and expectation rubs salt in the wound of the average person who regularly struggles with her inevitable mixed emotions, failing to achieve the promised happiness nirvana.

Political Aspect

And then there is the political aspect of the happiness myth. BBC radio broadcasted a program on this very issue back in 2020, in which Will Davies, professor in politics in Goldsmiths, and Andre Spicer, professor of organizational behavior in City University, argued that it is very convenient for governments to go along with the view that happiness is purely a personal matter and has nothing to do with their policies, even though we know that some of the most reliable factors affecting happiness, such as unemployment, are potentially modifiable through government policies. Rulers will tell you that unhappiness is easily cured with therapy and mindfulness, so there is no need to worry too much about your inability to access affordable housing, for instance, if that is the kind of thing that is getting you down. In fact, ever since their original inception, self-improvement and positive psychology have centered primarily on the individual at the expense of the social aspects of our well-being. I suspect this is the reason why they have at times enjoyed the favor of conservative politicians.

By pretending that anybody can choose to access a state of happiness regardless of their circumstances (perhaps by simply adopting certain psychological techniques or changes in lifestyle), we are ignoring our true human nature, and we are also releasing our rulers from their responsibility to improve our lives. We are favoring a flawed narcissism—ultimately destined to fail—instead of fighting the real and tangible social evils that make so many of us unhappy.