Think Positive? The Pressure to Be Happy

How much control do any of us have over our happiness?

Posted May 12, 2017

Photographee eu/Shutterstock
Source: Photographee eu/Shutterstock

Smile! Turn that frown upside down. Chin up; everything will be okay. Keep calm and carry on. Think positive. Or as Bobby McFerrin sang years, ago, Don’t worry. Be happy. Such messages are everywhere. It seems as if the undergirding belief is: Just change your attitude and put a smile on your face, and everything will be fine. All of this “think positive” self-help business makes it seem as if a person’s happiness is and should be completely in their control.

In fact, the pressure to be happy is causing many people to be unhappy, which is a perverse irony. So much of what factors into our happiness, and our unhappiness, is beyond our control. This gets lost in much of the self-help industry's messages.

The “think positive” approach tends to make happiness solely, or at least primarily, a feeling or attitude. There’s an underlying assumption that people should be able to generate, regulate, and direct their feelings. We should be able to control how we respond to events around us; this is the presumed mark of a mature person. If we cannot do so, or we stay stuck in a negative feeling, we are somehow responsible. If we are responsible for our feelings, and happiness and unhappiness are feelings, then we are responsible for our happiness and unhappiness. It becomes easy to blame people for being unhappy; they must somehow lack the ability or the willingness to corral their emotions. In a (mis)guided attempt to support such people or to exert some pressure to change, it becomes far too easy to lapse into platitudes.

It is true that we have control over our feelings, but this is not enough to ensure happiness.

Is happiness more than a feeling or attitude? What else could it be? These questions have challenged philosophers for millennia, and now psychologists grapple with them as well. Aristotle (384 B.C.-322 B.C.) understood happiness more as flourishing and living well. Happiness isn’t just a feeling or an attitude, but rather a way of living in the world. Happiness is activity—virtuous activity to be exact. Happiness is a consequence of how we live; it is neither a feeling nor an attitude/condition.

Further, Aristotle recognized that for people to be happy and flourish, they need to have certain internal and external goods. The internal good is good/virtuous character, which is an absolute necessity for flourishing. The external goods include wealth, health, and friends.

Aristotle notes:

  • People can have all the external goods and be utterly miserable when they have the wrong sort of character;
  • People with the right sort of character can lack most of the external goods and still live well; and
  • Someone who lacks the external goods and is friendless, powerless, and ugly (his word) will have fewer opportunities to practice virtue, which means it is harder, though not impossible, to cultivate the good character (the internal good) necessary for flourishing.

On Aristotle’s account, happiness becomes something of a luxury for a select few who are the male citizens of the state. They alone have the external goods along with the time and opportunities to pursue activities that will make them better people. This conclusion should make all of us uncomfortable; we don't like to think happiness is a luxury.

The language of “virtuous character” or "virtuous activity" might make some uneasy, especially since “virtuous” carries a lot of baggage in today’s usage. Think of it this way: Aristotle understood that each of us becomes who we are by what we do in relationships with others. We humans are social creatures who always are in relationships with particular others, broader communities, and societies. We cultivate interests and commitments with others and put them into practice. We create ways of being in the world that are meaningful and good. For example, many people find their volunteer work to be fulfilling and gratifying. It feels good to assist others. Many would say they feel good or are their best selves when they help others. Aristotle would regard this as virtuous activity.

Aristotle is right about the relationship between internal and external goods. The lack of external goods presents challenges to flourishing in the more sustained sense that Aristotle describes. Why do so many people lack those external goods, and how does this hinder someone from cultivating his character development? These were never Aristotle's questions, but they are certainly mine.

We live in a world in which there is rampant oppression along the lines of race, sex, religion, and ability. These structural realities wear people down in physical, psychological, and spiritual ways. Too many people are marginalized, powerless, and exploited in the economic and political realms. Too many are utterly exhausted attempting to secure the basic necessities of life, which in turn makes it harder to nurture relationships. As a result, too many people lack opportunities to engage in activities that make us better people, in Aristotle’s sense.

In no way does this imply that oppressed people cannot cultivate good character. That would be patently false. Rather, it acknowledges some people face more obstacles and barriers to flourishing. To return to the volunteering example: When there is little time or energy left over, and volunteer opportunities are in short supply, people will not have access to those activities that many others find fulfilling and that make them better people.

Will positive thinking help? Will cultivating new attitudes help? It is true we can — to some degree — change our feelings and attitudes about oppressive structures, and this may help us to survive and even bring us some happiness. At times, we do need to keep calm and carry on. We need to keep our chins up. However, in order for more people to be happy, in Aristotle’s robust sense of living well, changing attitudes will not be sufficient. So long as so many people live with radical insecurity, happiness will be a luxury.