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The Happiness Myth

How the happiness industry sold us the illusion of happiness as a reachable goal

Key points

  • Suffering is inevitable. Accepting this fact will help us in the long run
  • Mandatory optimism is counterproductive
  • We must come to terms with life as it is

Happiness is not natural. It is a mere human construct. A state of contentment (let alone happiness) is discouraged by our genetic design because it would lower our guard against possible threats to our survival.

Mashmuh / Shutterstock
Source: Mashmuh / Shutterstock

Chasing happiness is like chasing an elusive ghost, but the positive thinking industry claims to know its secrets. Self-help was popularized by Norman Vincent Peale, a colorful American pastor, favored by several Republican presidents, including Richard Nixon and Donald Trump. He invented “positive thinking”, a concept now deeply embedded in our culture and steadily growing in influence. The global personal development industry was valued at $38.28 billion in 2019 and is expected to grow at a rate of 5.1%.

Popular films and books are full of supposedly inspirational statements about how all you need to do is believe in yourself and then you'll be able to achieve anything in life. This is simply, and obviously, not true. I don't think there is a need to explain that many obstacles and misfortunes in life are inevitable, or unsurmountable. Our ancestors knew this, and many philosophical and religious traditions are based on the acceptance that being alive is a very challenging task, which comes with significant amounts of suffering. It goes without saying that we should do all we can to maximize our sense of wellbeing and minimize our suffering (as the "utilitarian" philosophers explain), but the end result cannot be a state of sustained bliss. We are not designed that way.

The self-help genre is not a homogeneous beast, however. It is, in fact, ironic how self-help books on happiness and those on how to make it big in life are lumped together in the same bookshop shelves, given that many of the former tell us that caring too much about the latter is the main obstacle to happiness.

The inevitable clash between mandatory optimism and the realities of our existence comes with a heavy psychological price. It could be argued that positive psychology blames those who are suffering for their suffering, as it is based on the fallacy that unhappiness is entirely avoidable. It follows therefore that an unhappy person must be inadequate and incompetent. Positive psychology encourages people who are struggling with a particular goal to persevere in the face of unfavorable odds, which is much more punishing psychologically in the long run than accepting defeat.

I believe that coming to terms with life as it is, and not as the happiness industry tells us it could be, will make us happier, and we will feel more at peace with ourselves and with the world. Unfortunately, the devil always has the best tunes.

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