13 February, 2010

The Terror of Happiness: why Joel Osteen, Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Phil could be wrong

by Jorge Reyes

Years ago I had a supervisor who approved my draft memos with a happy face. Of course when one of the drafts weren't approved, I'd see an unhappy face. 

Let's face it, we Americans think of ourselves as a happy people. Even our most basic legal framework, the Bill of Rights, protects such ephemeral concept-- the pursuit of happiness. (A weird concept of a legal right if you think about it.)

How refreshing, then, to read a book that puts the entire business enterprise of happiness into perspective, such as “Bright-sides: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America,” by Barbara Ehrenreich.

Ehrenreich sets out to analyze that strange notion of happiness which goes by many names and that is so peculiar about this early part of the 21st century.

She feels that happiness, or positive thinking, has become the main and most paradigmatic cultural trend in America today. From the preacher Joel Osteen to Oprah Winfrey to Dr. Phil, she questions why this trend (happiness as the cure for all malaise) has become so entrenched in popular culture, and when, if how, it might end.

"There is a vast difference between positive thinking and existential courage.”

Happiness, Ehrenreich says, is not the same as feeling good, or having a generalized positive outlook on life or about being hopeful or even courageous. Feeling good, or feeling bad, are natural human emotions and are legitimate ways to cope with life, especially during times of crisis, such as when suffering from cancer, as the author was. Stricken with this deadly disease, Ehrenreich's therapist asked her on more than one occasion to embrace her ailment, to accept it cheerfully, to befriend it almost in a halo of light.

That, she feels, is brainwashing and a very irresponsible way of looking at the world.

Ehrenreich likens happiness to what it has become in many circles-- a sort of mysterious, supernatural mantra that can be channelled by a proactive mental process in the vain hope of altering reality to conform to our wishful thinking, which is what it is.

Under the veneer of so much happy talk there lurks a darker shadow, though, and that's one of the most fascinating aspect of Ehrenreich's book. By comparison with other industrialized nations, in America children are most likely to die in infancy and grow up in dire poverty. The health care system, as we all know, is fractured at the same time that it is also one of the most expensive. We have a very high rate of incarceration. Our income disparities is becoming alarming. We Americans consume 2/3 of all the world's market for antidepressants.

The list is long. Exhaustive. Sobering under so much talk about happiness.

Throughout the book, Ehrenreich continually asks some very important questions. Do we say that we're happy because we're truly happy? Or do we just say that we're happy in order to fight off personal insecurities? Are we happy because we rely so much on prescription, or illegal, drugs and are constantly in a daze? If we didn't rely on so many antidepressants, would we feel as happy?

As she cautions in the introduction, “there is a vast difference between positive thinking and existential courage.” Ouch.

The culture of happiness, in all its variants, is just an offshot of the old idea of progress. It is nothing new. People who adher to it see human nature as malleable, progressing towards a better future based on reason and, yes, happiness. Hence, “the pursuit of happiness” in our Bill of Rights.

But where most of these progressive ideas stopped short, extremism filled the gap. Fast-forward into the 21st century, and you grasp how these extremist ideas have been reinterpreted in a way that has become a billion dollar business.

Happiness, divorced from circumstances, is an utopian ideal, and that's the main theme of this book. After all how can anyone argue against happiness? 

Feeling happy is an ennobling and healthy endeavor, perhaps one of the healthiest feelings any of us can have. As it has been demonstrated by scientific research, without the feeling of feeling happy or without the feeling of what happens generally (to paraphrase Antonio Damasio an expert in neuroscience) our human species would be in a much sorry shape.

Happiness becomes a problem, a pathological New Age mumbo jumbo, though, when all other feelings except it are discredited offhand as less than or unworthy of other forms of human feelings. Like it or not, to be sad has its merits.  To be depressed.  To be angry.  To feel revengeful.  Within the panoply of human feelings, none should be repressed or disregarded.

The world, life, living in general, is full of strife. Unfortunately, as the conclusion of this books attests to, there really isn't a bluepring for living, only a propensity for survival and that can be either good or bad, happy or sad. The world is what it is and we are vulnerable creatures living in it, reacting to circumstances, often times rebelling against them, while at other times accepting our fate with quiet, resigned acquiescense.

If by the end of the book you feel a little less happy, cheer up. A gloom and doom existential scenario is not what this book is about; after all, life-- the mystery of living-- is something not to be despaired about.  On the contrary, there's cause for celebration in living. 

So if along the way in your journey you ever feel genuinely happy about something or someone, then consider yourself lucky and cherish those moments for as long or as short as they may be.


Anonymous said...

That's a first that there's something wrong with positive thinking.

Anonymous said...

It's like the stupid smilley face of Walmart. Everyone is happy, happy, happy. Yet, most of their employees are underpaid, overworked, and mostly part of the working poor.


Anonymous said...

Walmart always gave me the creeps.

Anonymous said...

Everyone likes to be happy. What the gurus of happiness have discovered is that it is a very profitable business. When a self-help guru goes on Oprah, I'm sure his/her books end up on the NY Bestsellers list.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed your post and short of review of Barbara Ehrenreich's book. Sorry if this is picky, but the "pursuit of happiness" is one of the "inalienable rights" listed by Jefferson in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence. It is not a part of the Bill of Rights, though without the rights guaranteed there happiness by any definition could only be pursued, never attained.