The dark side of the relentless pursuit of happiness at all costs
We live in a world obsessed with happiness. Hundreds of books, podcasts, and TV shows are devoted to helping us be happier. Happiness is a strong and vibrant industry. People, understandably, love to be happy.
However, our cultural obsession with happiness has produced a group of happiness zealots. You probably know some of them. They wander around scolding you for frowning, encouraging you to always look on the bright side. These zealots see themselves as happiness evangelists. They extol the virtues of optimism and warn against the dangers of pessimism and cynicism.
Anyone who is not happy at any given moment is seen as someone who is suffering and in desperate need of cheer. Not being happy is almost as bad as being a smoker — it places you on the outside of acceptable public behavior.
It’s all very exhausting and depressing.
It’s also fake and dangerous.
The Full Range of Human Emotions
Disney tried to capture some emotional nuance in its movie Inside Out. The character Joy, happiness personified, may have been the star of the show, but the entire film is about the essential role emotions like Anger, Disgust, Fear, and especially Sadness play in our lives.
But, since Inside Out was released in 2015, the happiness zealots have gotten stronger. Through countless happiness listicles and talk show appearances, they have been spreading the gospel of happiness at all costs.
As human beings, we come equipped with a full range of emotions. Common sense tells us that we cannot all be happy all of the time. But, our current culture is putting pressure on all of us to either be happy or to be relentlessly pursuing happiness.
But, the happiness prescribed by many gurus is fleeting and unsatisfying. It’s like trying to feed the hungry with chewing gum.
Many of us feel guilty if we are not happy. We feel like we are doing something wrong or that we have made tragically bad life choices along the way.
Full-time happiness is an act. There is nothing wrong with sometimes being sad or angry. When bad things happen, and they happen to all of us, it is healthy to get upset about it.
It’s Healthy to Cry Sometimes
One of the tactics the happiness zealots use is to exhibit mock-concern over the state of your mental health. If you are sad, they wonder if you are really depressed and in need of professional help. In pretending to care about you, they are stigmatizing both genuine mental health issues and routine human sadness.
Being sad isn’t the same as clinical depression. Ironically, often the path to true happiness lies through a period of sadness.
Some of the latest scientific research into sadness and tears has found:
· Crying is a natural human phenomenon
· Crying is a way for our body and brain help us to feel better
· Crying when we are sad causes an increase in endorphin production
· We shed stress hormones through tears
· Sadness is linked to greater empathy
Being sad some of the time is part of the human condition. When we refuse to let ourselves cry and be sad, we may be harming our health. Instead of processing emotions in a natural, healthy way, we allow stress to build up in our system. We put on an outward expression of happiness while denying ourselves the ability to feel authentically happy because we won’t allow ourselves to feel sad first.
Seeking Happiness Alternatives
As a society, we are fixated on the idea of happiness, but we have been very lazy about defining what it means to be happy. If happiness is the bubbling, smiling exuberance you see on the Instagram feeds of happiness zealots; happiness may be an awful goal.
If our lives are built on nothing more than feeling “good”, what are we accomplishing? Aren’t we just thrill-seeking hedonists?
What role does doing good play in all of this?
Chasing happiness is a trap. You can never achieve permanent happiness. That is not how we are biologically configured. The more you seek to obtain happiness 24/7 the more likely you are to be disappointed and miserable.
Instead, you should seek to feel joy and contentment. The feelings that we are all yearning for when we read about self-care rituals and living our best lives have nothing to do with the forced happiness that is the focus of much of the current self-help sector.
What we want is to feel like we have enough and that we are enough. You cannot achieve these feelings by only doing things that feel good in the moment. If you want joy and contentment, you have to cultivate a sense of gratitude. You have to be connected to your fellow human beings through meaningful service.
If you want to truly live your best life you have to work on doing good more than you work on feeling good. It’s a harder, less intuitive path. It is one that none of us can truly master in this life.
However, by following the path of joy and contentment instead of selfish happiness, you get to experience the full range of human emotions. You will also find it easier to get to sleep at night and easier to wake up in the morning — because this path gives your life meaning and purpose.
The next time a happiness zealot orders you to smile and be happy, feel free to ignore them. Instead, focus on truly feeling whatever emotions you are going through. They will suffer with their happiness as they constantly try and feel good while you will find contentment trying to do good.