Modern Culture puts a lot of emphasis on happiness, yet provides only a little of the means for us to achieve it. In fact an over-emphasis on happiness can work against the reality of people achieving it. Moreover our culture defines what it expects us to find happiness in. These definition serve the needs of our current societal system. Not always the needs of the people in it.
A saturation of happiness can create gaps with reality that cause discontent. Life is difficult, we live in complex difficult times, finding meaning and satisfaction is not easy. A good deal of sadness is the norm. By creating the expectation of happiness, we risk blocking off avenues for people to explore their sadness. We risk making depression seem an unhealthy state of affairs. In fact periods of low moods may be a common response to the pressures of the modern world and to certain life events. Depression after loss, for example, is a natural state of affairs. The cultural emphasis on career, efficiency and happiness all work to encourage people to ‘get themselves together,’ ‘pull themselves out of it,’ rather than let people work through their grief at a pace natural to them.
Much discontent may also derive form the feeling that everyone else is happy. Social media may contribute to this. People want to paint themselves in the best light and to share what is good in their lives. There is nothing sinister in this. But it creates a social media world where everyone is smiling and all is fine. Between the status updates and clicks of a camera shutter there may be a petty argument, self-doubt, anger, anxiety and bouts of sadness or depression. Hardly the things you want to share with the world. The problem is the effect of everyone sharing only the good creates a false impression of the world. It means we feel different or stupid or a failure. We feel that everyone else is happy but ourselves.
A culture of happiness may not be a bad thing. Having a goal to reach and smiling faces surround us may be worth the down-sides. Yet there seems room for a more balanced view. One that takes into account both the science of happiness and understands how the modern world shapes our view of what happiness should be.
A recent popular book, Stumbling on Happiness, explores the first point. Happiness is subjective and difficult to predict. The truth is we rarely know what will make us feel happy. We work and toil so that some future self will be happy. Yet that future self rarely feels happy and is rarely grateful for our efforts. What we imagined to make us happy seldom does. Hence the title of the book. If we find happiness at all it tends not to be due to our own strenuous efforts, but by stumbling upon it. Moreover happiness is difficult to define and we use the word in different ways. Often we seek not happiness per se, which is a brief, fleeting, hard to pin down emotion, but contentment. As sense of being, on the whole, happy with ones lot.
We also need to be wary of societal myths. If we were to paint a picture of what our culture deems happiness is, it would be something like this. Married, rich, with perfect children and independent entrepreneurial success. You’ve got more chance of combusting and re-appearing in an alternative universe. Something that is possible, at least in theory.
Relationships are difficult. Not everyone is suitable for one or deserves one. Being single is fine. Loneliness in or out of a relationship is the norm, and few relationships succeed. Perhaps just one in ten. Often they are less smooth and less happy than we society teaches us to expect. And the ins and outs of daily living together are bound to grind down the most attached of couples.
Work is difficult too. Not everyone can have a successful career, wealth and entrepreneurship. The wealthiest and most successful entrepreneurs are so ambitious and driven it is hard to say whether they are content or happy. A fear of death may drive many a politician to seek a place in the history books. Displacing that fear through an artificial immortality. The same may be for the biggest, most successful entrepreneurs. Their lives are not conventional. We may strive to be ‘somebody’, to be remembered, but that doesn’t mean recognition or success will being happiness. In fact it brings its own pressures. It may be cliché but it’s true that neither wealth or success or commodities bring happiness. Yet we are encouraged to think they do.
Advertisements understand what we want: a nice family life, status, comfort, new gadgets and toys. They understand we fear death, fear being forgotten, fear loneliness and failure. Adverts understand us well; they just don’t give us what we need. We need education and understanding and a chance to make sense of the world, a sense of belonging and wanting to do things right. Services or commodities rarely give us those things. Studies show that the happiness derived form a purchase of something wears off at a rapid rate. We are better off purchasing education or experiences. And being mindful of the way advertising pervades our lives.
Happiness is elusive and difficult to achieve there are many obstacles in the way of achieving happy, meaningful lives. Understanding the historical and cultural influences we work under is start. Emotional intelligence will help. So does gratitude. No matter what else you are alive to live and try.