Does Happiness Really Come From Within?

What you miss by only looking within

Posted May 13, 2016

I understand the appeal of saying that happiness comes from within. It can be a statement of personal responsibility and empowerment. If you are not happy, you can do something about it. You don't blame someone else or expect another person to make you happy.

At the same time, from the perspective of someone who cares a lot about social justice, there is something discomfiting about the notion that happiness comes from within. It is a narrowly personal construal of happiness, when in fact, external conditions, such as larger social systems, can have a lot to do with our feelings of happiness and contentment and satisfaction with our lives.

As disparities between the rich and the poor continue to grow, as entrenched social systems continue to privilege some groups over others, and as prejudices have reached even into bathrooms, further afflicting groups such as transsexuals who have already faced more than their share of stigma and shaming, it seems almost cruel to say: Hey, if you are unhappy, you need to look within. It sounds a bit like blaming the victim. It can also stand in the way of sustained efforts toward genuine social change.

One of the most powerful critics of the internal view of happiness is Barbara Ehrenreich. In Brightsided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America (and in this excerpt in Alternet), she explains:

Like pop positive thinking, positive psychology attends almost solely to the changes a person can make internally by adjusting his or her own outlook. Seligman himself explicitly rejects social change, writing of the role of "circumstances" in determining human happiness: "The good news about circumstances is that some do change happiness for the better. The bad news is that changing these circumstances is usually impractical and expensive." This argument – "impractical and expensive" – has of course been used against almost every progressive reform from the abolition of slavery to pay equity for women.

If you want to look within for the source of your unhappiness, go for it. But don't look just there. Don't accept the blame for external conditions that you had no role in creating. And if you want to do something about the circumstances of your life and many other people's, too, that's what social change is made of.

[By the way, people carrying the banner of positive psychology, including Marty Seligman, have also been among those perpetrating the misleading claim that getting married makes people happier. I've been critiquing that one for years, in Singled Out, in Marriage vs. Single Life: How Science and the Media Got It So Wrong, and in many articles and blog posts.]