Why we don’t all need to be happy

by Amanda Beth Peery


Everyone wants to be happy. The key to life is happiness. Do what makes you happy. This message is everywhere, the great happiness cliché, plastered across blogs, books, and billboards. Happiness has become the universal currency of life: we know we've done well if we end up with a lot of it. But why are we so convinced that happiness should be our goal? Aren't there other things to live for?

"Happiness" is used as a vague catch-all, standing in for any type of fulfillment and any "positive emotion." It's associated with satisfaction of desires and even a mild anti-consumerism ("money can't buy happiness"). Although happiness might seem like something everyone should want, it's actually a very particular value, and it shouldn't be everyone's ultimate goal.

Try telling a random person, at least an American, that you don't care about happiness, or that it isn't what you want most in life. They probably won't believe you. If you say you care more about beauty, they'll say, "Beauty is just what makes you happy." If you say you have a burning desire to discover the fundamental nature of the universe, they'll say that scientific discovery is what makes you happy. There's no escaping happiness.

"Happiness" swallows up every other goal and value. It stands for whatever fulfills our most important desires. Seen in this light, happiness seems innocent enough. It's just the word we use for what we want.

But the word "happiness" is not an empty shell. It has specific meanings, and when we're aiming for happiness we're steering in one direction and driving past other roads.

First, when we talk about happiness, we're really talking about personal happiness. Happiness as a life goal is about what makes you happy. Let's say you have the talent and skillset to help solve climate change. According to the happiness cult, you should work on climate change if that's what makes you happy, but it's equally good or "valid" for you to spend your life earning money as a banker if that makes you happier. Individual happiness clouds out virtue. The idea of living a happy life eclipses the idea of living for something beyond the self.

Happiness also means having "positive emotions." A happy life is one where you end up with more emotional pleasure than pain. Having kids might leave you frustrated, socially constrained, and sleep-deprived, but if your kids give you more joy than sorrow over the course of your life, they "make you happy."

The problem with this idea is that it assumes our emotions can be sorted into two categories—positive and negative, happy and unhappy. Reducing emotions to a single dimension empties them of content. Even if we could shrink our emotional state into a category at any given moment, the vagaries of memory would twist our perception later on. There's no cosmic calculation that can reveal to us, looking back on our lives, whether we were more happy than unhappy overall.

Finally, it's impossible to separate happiness from its place in consumer society. Advertisers co-opted happiness early on, recognizing an empty category tied to every possible positive association. But consumers pushed back. Happiness became code for the non-commercial. It became the one thing more important than your job, your salary, and your toys. It moved into the place the sacred used to occupy.

This was a late development in the idea of happiness. The historian Darrin McMahon has written about how, when the American constitution was drafted—with its famous endorsement of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness"—the word "happiness" meant human flourishing. This included physical well-being and the ability to own property. Somehow, in the centuries since, happiness has taken on an almost Buddhist flavor, privileging contentedness with what we already have. It has become the only alternative to a life lived for power, fame, or—especially—money.

Happiness is presented as the only alternative to shallower goals because it represents the mildest and least threatening type of anti-consumerism. It allows for a passive retreat from consumer society, a way of standing to the side and letting neoliberal capitalism pass by. Sure, if you read happiness blogs, you might spend more of your day meditating and less of it shopping. But you're not any more likely to take a critical look at your political and economic system and fight against its injustices. Happiness doesn't threaten the shadow virtue beneath it, economic self-interest, so advertisers and their corporate clients eagerly promote it as the one thing money can't buy.

Although happiness is more limited than we say it is, and although its importance is inflated to support the status quo, there's nothing wrong with choosing happiness as your guiding light. What's wrong is saying that happiness is right for everyone. We should be able to accept that someone can live for art, or for their family, or for the public good, even if what they choose makes them—truly—unhappy. We shouldn't twist words to try to prove that they're really choosing happiness.

Dethroning happiness opens up a world of possible virtues and possible ways of living. We can choose knowledge as our goal. We can choose beauty, or protecting other living creatures, or even finding contentment (which isn't the same as happiness). We can make these choices, and a thousand others, without worrying about what will ultimately make us happy. Each person can live their own best life, and we don't all need to be happy.