Is happiness good for you?

The imperative to be happy has become so integrated into our daily lives that we hardly even notice it.

Philosophy reminds us that happiness is not a "concrete object" [EPA]
Philosophy reminds us that happiness is not a "concrete object" [EPA]

Few aspirations are seen as more worthwhile and self-evidently desirable than the pursuit of happiness. These days, no one is against it. All of us can become happy, whether poor or rich, Christian or Muslim, conservative or libertarian. 

It is no wonder then that Freud – the father of psychoanalysis – is often regarded with suspicion. Categorically, he claimed that man is not designed for happiness. If happiness would fully come out and realise itself, he claimed, we would not be prepared for it. We simply wouldn’t know what to do with it. Admittedly, this sounds rather disconcerting. Yet, there’s a profound and important point here, one that is worth considering at a time when we are told, again and again, that happiness is the one true way to a meaningful life. 

It is an argument worth considering because today we are not just allowed to be happy; we ought to be so. The imperative to be happy has become so integrated into our daily lives that we hardly even notice it. We have become accustomed to the newsstands at the supermarket, lined with guilt-inducing lifestyle magazines mockingly staring back at us, as if whispering “I know you’re not yet happy”. And we have even begun to accept otherwise solemn politicians talking about happiness as the ultimate goal of politics (and I’m not only thinking about the British prime minister, David Cameron, who issued the country’s first happiness survey in 2011). 

I’m far from immune to this happiness hysteria. All too often I find myself asking whether I’m happy or not. I can walk down the street on a sunny Saturday afternoon, feeling the sun gently falling on my face. I concentrate my mind on those things that would pass as happy things, while secretly filtering out what is unpleasant. And yet, in spite of my best efforts to manipulate myself, I stumble on the answer. I simply cannot say, with any determination, whether I’m truly happy or not. 

Difficult to discern happiness

And there is a good reason why. If you are happy, you will not be aware of it. Think of children laughingly playing on the streets. Surely, they don’t ask themselves whether they are happy or not, even though their lively activities have become a popular image of joy. Philosophy reminds us that happiness is not a concrete object. It does not, in the words of Giorgio Agamben, “obtain the form of consciousness or of a conscience”. The moment you try to arrest it and make it into a possession, it immediately slips away. 

But this is not the only reason why we should resist making happiness our primary priority in life. Here are two more. 

Since happiness doesn’t come with a particular form (round?), distinct taste (sweet?) or conspicuous colour (pink?), it is incredibly difficult to discern. So a natural consequence is that we start looking around for other people who seem to pass the happiness test. And we try to be like them. We structure our lives similar to theirs, embark on similar careers, read the same books, buy the same leather jackets and maybe colour our hair. 

If our budget permits, we may be tempted to pay a visit to a local surgeon. Happiness then becomes an external thing, which is measured by looking at how successful we’ve been in emulating another person, or in adopting various traits from a series of likeable people (if you don’t have them in your own immediate circle, you can easily find them in any number of throwaway lifestyle magazines). 

“Bodily contentment is not the precondition for acting ethically, neither is such emotional state prompting us to connect with worlds other than our own.”

This is of course not how we will put it to ourselves, since it would bear the stamp of inauthenticity, but we surely wouldn’t object being compared to one of these people we seek to resemble. The rub is that this strategy is bound to fail. It will entail troubling experiences of inadequacy, guilt and jealousy. You will see yourself only as a distorted and inadequate image, projected on a flat, external surface. 

Another way we may pursue happiness – and this strategy is no less troubling than the first – is by focusing on our emotions and feelings. We seek to achieve a heightened sense of bodily wellbeing. This is troubling because it relegates the outer world to playing only a secondary role. Here, health and happiness morph into the same abstract thing. We usually call it wellbeing. 

Some would claim that wellbeing is a necessary condition for actively connecting to the world. This is true insofar as pains and miseries can be so overwhelming that we cannot think beyond them. But such argument misses a more significant point, namely that the more concerned we are about our own immediate wellbeing, the more removed we become from the outer world, and other people. What is left is a blind obsession with the body and its perfection. The body, rather than the external world, becomes the site of truth. 

Obsession with happiness

These are only a couple of examples of why the obsession with happiness can have the unintended effect of making us feel inadequate or even isolated. Indeed, we rarely live up to the demand of happiness; and failing to do so will only make us feel guiltier. This is why happiness, as a model for how to live our lives, deserves to be questioned. 

What is most worrying is that happiness constitutes a particular model of morality, according to which a person is a good person only if he or she feels good. The truth-teller is hence the body, and if the body is feeling good, then you can safely lean back and tell yourself that you, too, are good. 

This is a complete reversal of what the ancient Greeks meant by happiness (or eudaimonia), which was first and foremost about being good, of developing a set of virtuous faculties, such as generosity, modesty and friendliness. For them, feeling good was not the same as being a good person. Bodily contentment is not the precondition for acting ethically, neither is such emotional state prompting us to connect with worlds other than our own. 

Recall the scene from Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. For reasons which remain unexplained, Vladimir requests Estragon to say that he’s happy. “Say you are, even if it’s not true,” Vladimir begs. Reluctantly, Estragon gives in and says, “I am happy,” and then, perplexed, he adds, “what do we do now, now that we are happy?” 

Freud’s suspicion of happiness should be read in this context. Imagine we would receive the gift of happiness. And imagine we could enjoy it and consciously keep it. What a dream, we would think at first. But then… What would we do with it? What would it be good for? Indeed, would it be good for us? 

While keeping these questions in the back of our heads, preferably very far back, there are other things I suggest we occupy ourselves with in the meantime, other truths to be pursued than those handed to us by our bodies. Perhaps, these truths could liberate us from a self-obsessional relation to our own bodies and detach us from a self-referential experience of imagined wellbeing. And hopefully, this will open us up to a world which is not just our own, but one that includes others. 

Carl Cederstrom is a lecturer at Cardiff University. He is the co-editor of Lacan and Organization, with C Hoedemaekers, and Impossible Objects, with T Kesselman, and the co-author of How to Stop Living and Start Worrying, with S Critchley, and Dead Man Working, with P Fleming.

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