Love, Inc

The intersections of emotion and capitalism.

Happiness and Its Discontents

One of the most unhappy summers is also infused with a longing for happiness.

This summer has been filled with misery. Wars and occupation and genocide in Gaza and Ukraine and Iraq. Child refugees and political dysfunction in the US. And yet it is also a summer infused with longing, a seemingly insatiable desire for the most elusive of human states: happiness.

Consider the case of six young Iranians arrested for making a video to Pharrel Williams' song "Happy."  Although most of them were released yesterday, they still may face prosecution for expressing their joy in a way deemed "obscene" by conservative factions because the men and women danced together and the women's hair was uncovered.  

Or consider the incredible outpouring of grief over Robin Williams' suicide. Odes to the happiness he brought to Americans are trending on Facebook and Twitter. President Obama gave a rare public expression of grief, saying Williams had "touched every element of the human spirit."  And Williams' widow, Susan Schneider, said: 

"As he is remembered, it is our hope the focus will not be on Robin's death, but on the countless moments of joy and laughter he gave to millions."

Part of this incredible public outpouring of grief lies in having to acknowledge the incredibly thin line between laughter and tears, happiness and depression. How could Williams, a man who gave so much happiness to his audiences, a man so seemingly engaged with the world, full of energy and joie de vivre, also be a man of sleepless nights, soul-deadening sadness, and suicidal thoughts?

The answer might be because happiness is never a permanent state. We can pursue happiness, desire happiness, and wish we were happy, but happiness will always be one heartbeat away from sadness. Yet modern nation states and modern economies rely on our eternal search for the smiley face. Buy this car, this toothpaste, this house, this political candidate, this religion, this workout regimen, this comedian, and you will be happy. But only for a moment. Then you have to go to the next happiness project and the next and the next. This is why so many religions eschew happiness in search of something deeper and more stable, what some call joy and others acceptance. And yet in the religion of modernity, happiness is that which we must pursue, that which we strive for at all times and that which makes us sink even deeper into the abyss when we don't achieve it.

This is also why scholars are so obsessed with studying happiness. Just this week scientists came out with a formula for predicting happiness. They then tested the formula on 18,000 people with the Great Brain Experiment and found they could more or less predict when you'd be happy (and when you'd be miserable). But they could also predict that any happiness would only be momentary. And it is this fact that deserves our careful consideration.

Advertisers and politicans understand happiness and its discontents. They use our desire for happiness and our inability to achieve it for more than a moment to move us, mostly to move us to consume. That's why Facebook manipulated its users in 2012. They wanted to know how to shape emotion. And they figured it out—able to make us more or less happy by controlling our newsfeed. According to Facebook, it was to improve our content; according to commonsense, our content means selling us more stuff, which will make us happy, if only for a moment.

Yet happiness is now so very central to modern existence that no matter how miserable things are, we feel better just knowing we have a right to pursue it. As Iranian President Rouhani tweeted this week, after the arrest of those crazy kids dancing to the song "Happy": 

 "#Happiness is our people's right." 

Happiness may now be a nearly universal right, but its pursuit is what prevents us from valuing more stable states of being: like contentment, safety, and satiety. Faced with a world mired in misery, it is time for a new anthem. Not Pharrel Williams' "Happy," but Ace of Base's "Cruel Summer."

Laurie Essig, Ph.D., is a professor of sociology and women and gender studies at Middlebury College.

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