Are You Happy Now?

Four exactly alike smiling faces made from a banana mouth, orange slice eyes and a strawberry noseI view the “happiness movement” with skepticism. If you aren’t familiar with it, it argues that unhappiness comes from framing our experiences “negatively,” and if only we reframe them “positively,” we can be happy. Here’s a TED talk from one of its most visible proponents.

Note that our speaker, cruising on the silken waters of Harvard cachet, is marketing a service to large corporations. If your boss sent you to happiness school, would you dare to test less happy at the conclusion of the class? No wonder this guy is happy. He’s found himself a sure thing!

I certainly agree that “news” in the U.S. is horrendously unbalanced in its focus, and you probably do too. I also agree that making external goals a condition of happiness doesn’t work for many people (though it may work just fine for others, depending on their personality type). But when the speaker assumes that mental reframing is equivalent to emotional reframing, we part company.

Here’s the thing: the positive thinking approach is self-contradictory at its core. The philosophy itself labels experiences as “positive” and “negative,” thereby perpetuating the very problem it claims to solve. Thinking “negative” thoughts becomes “bad.” (Therefore, if you’re unhappy, it’s your own fault.) But wait, isn’t that negative thinking? Some readers may have encountered similar contradictions within New Age philosophy, which the “new” happiness movement strongly resembles, under its scientific veneer.

As I have mentioned elsewhere, I don’t think “negative” emotions are bad. In fact, I believe that unhappiness is a vital component in overall happiness. If our brain chemistry is working correctly, I believe anger, fear, grief, envy, anxiety, and most (possibly all) other uncomfortable feelings are growth emotions which move us to new understandings and behaviors by their very unpleasantness.

A screaming face made of cloudsHowever, if our brain chemistry is out of kilter, we may become stuck in bad feelings. According to happiness theory, all we need to do is think our way out of them – with the same brain that is being sucked into a chemically constructed emotional black hole. Isn’t that akin to suggesting that all we need to do to treat a broken leg is run a marathon?

The illogic of this is also why I’m skeptical about the supposed effectiveness of cognitive therapy as a treatment for depression. I’m sure looking at your thoughts can make you more conscious of “negative self talk,” and that there is value to that. But a person experiencing any more than the mildest form of depression will not be able to emotionally believe that negative self talk is inaccurate. Instead, it becomes just another thing to hate oneself for.

I suspect cognitive therapy helps many depressed people intellectually recognize the irrationality of their perceptions. Furthermore, a reframed intellectual understanding is easy to test for, which may account for the favorable research results. But that is not the same thing as feeling better, which is much more difficult to measure.

I’m all for reframing notions of “success” at a societal level. As Lily Tomlin succinctly puts it, “The trouble with being in the rat race is that even if you win, you’re still a rat.” There has been some interesting international movement in this direction, with a few countries starting to measure their gross domestic happiness (contrast to gross domestic product, which measures only how much money is spent, whether it’s on housing or heroin).

But I know how depressives think, having been one for most of my life. The happiness movement in the U.S. is highly likely to cause depressives to feel blamed, or to blame themselves, for their unhappiness. This is not just cruel, it’s grossly irresponsible, as it could easily be somebody’s last straw. Depression can be terminal, people! As cyber-bullying suicides have demonstrated all too clearly, words can kill. So if you don’t know what you’re talking about, please shut up.

One thought on “Are You Happy Now?

  1. Pingback: Negative Emotions: They Aren’t the Real Problem | grace on purpose

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