Sociologist Eva Illouz says that over the last twenty years, there is a growing presence of an injunction to be happy. This mandate makes us feel guilty when we are not, as if happiness has become an obligation in developed countries. It has dangerously resulted in people becoming unconsciously afraid of saying that they are unhappy, since this admission is no longer politically correct. Another unintended consequence is the gradual withdrawal of people – weary of showing their anger any more, they do not contest. Others will simply not consider their anger as a normal expression; this is even more concerning, since anger and its expression are part of our capacity to confront things with which we do not agree, or that do not match our values and principles. In that respect, anger is a sound emotion to manifest.
It is true that there are so many available practices, gurus and personal development professionals who surf on the wave of this “must be happy model,” sometimes manipulating human beings, as if there was a magical recipe to happiness. According to Illouz, people who say they provide a path to happiness are dangerous, due to the nature of happiness as a social construction and the tendency to perceive an inability to be happy outside our predetermined social codes. These codes are what conditions us in being happy or not happy. Therefore, social and cultural codes do condition our perception of happiness.
Although I agree with the inherent risks of a happiness tyranny, everywhere, including at work, I do not agree with Mrs. Illouz’s attack of psychologist Martin Seligman, labeling him as one of these gurus of happiness. Martin Seligman has been speaking about positive psychology for over 25 years now, based on a heavy load of studies, observations and experiences. His approach is everything but an injunction to be happy. Mr. Seligman’s concept of PERMA (Positive emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, Accomplishments) provides a way to deal with our lives in a responsible way, with the possibility to make us happier or to engage in life with happiness.
From observation and experience, I think we are responsible for a consistent part of our lives. We certainly act from, or react to, social patterns, education, fashions, and all sorts of stimuli…but we can also be willing to have a happier future with what we want to be, to do, to have, in our lives. It is our responsibility, neither as a sword hanging over our existence, nor as an injunction, but as a stand we take, correlated to what it requires to live, to have a fulfilled and possibly happy life, meeting our values and aspirations. And why should responsibility be incompatible with happiness?
Why should sociology go against psychology? Guess what? Maybe we can find a path, just choosing to take a stand in every part of our lives. Taking a stand means making a choice about who you want to be and owning it in all aspects of your life. No matter what, times will come when we have to go through tough moments, times will come when we will feel very vulnerable, and times will come when we will not be able to do anything but to be resilient for a while.
Wouldn’t you prefer to stand for an ability to deal with whatever life throws at you, instead of feeling you are just a puppet managed by society and social codes? More than anything else, happiness may be a stand, just as responsibility is. And there cannot be any tyranny when you own that stand as yours.