Forced Smiles: Our Obsession with Happiness and Why It’s Making us Miserable

poi_gallery_image-image-39bb6876-7218-4346-b02b-989d6fd34291When Gary Smith arrived at work the morning of April 8th, 1994, he went to check his first assignment of the day. Mr. Smith was set to install a new security system in an upscale home in north Seattle that overlooked Lake Washington. When he arrived at the home and knocked on the front door, Mr. Smith did not receive an answer. He went looking around the property for any occupants of the home. To his surprise, he found the owner of the home in the greenhouse – dead, with a self-inflicted shotgun wound to the left side of his head. The man’s name was Kurt Cobain.

In the months that followed, tribute after tribute poured in for the young musician. The Nirvana frontman may have ended his life, but his death did not end his career. Cobain’s passing only intensified his fans’ obsession with him; his early death gave rise to an almost mystical treatment of his persona. It also generated massive revenues for a band that wasn’t even playing anymore. The Cobain estate earned over $50 million alone in 2006.

Cobain was famously troubled – he had attempted suicide several times before – but it seems peculiar that a man who had achieved what nearly all of us yearn for: success, fame, and adoration from millions, would choose to end his life at its peak.

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The shift towards Individualism

Happiness is a fickle pursuit. It is poorly understood and substantially overvalued in Western culture. Before the field of psychology was invented, not much attention was given to individual happiness and how to increase its prevalence in our lives. Humans gave little thought into their emotions and what factors in their lives influenced them. It was not until the 1960s that we started to investigate happiness from an empirical standpoint.

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The proportional occurrence of the word self in a corpus of books published in English

The 1960s and 1970s were a pioneering era in psychology. The notion of “self” was a hot topic that had gone previously unexplored in the literature. Beginning in the mid 60s, the number of papers exploring the concept of “self” ballooned, reflecting the individual interests of society at the time. Marketing slogans became increasingly targeted at the individual. Dating culture and singles bars were created. For the first time in many people’s lives, they began to think and look inside themselves for answers. The era of self-exploration and self-expression had begun. At the root of the “self” revolution was the notion that happiness – defined in the context of personal fulfillment – was the most important thing one could strive to achieve in life.

It was around this time that the self-esteem movement was in its early formation. Beginning in the 1970s, the number of research papers that investigated self-esteem grew substantially.

51mbujade2l-_sx331_bo1204203200_Psychotherapist Nathaniel Branden published The Psychology of Self-Esteem in 1969, and its influence was apparent throughout the following decade. Self-esteem became a key element in educational policy since most of early research and suppositions about self-esteem suggested that it was paramount to personal happiness. Our predilection for nurturing children created a hypersensitive approach to promoting self-esteem and ensuring that schools were a bubble of happiness and support for our children. Early research suggested that happy kids grew up to be successful, happy adults, so schools were designed to foster such an environment.

While schools were being transformed into havens of positive support, major changes in the adult world helped drive the transition from collectivist to individualist. Despite a prediction by Keynes that automation and other technological advances would create a reduction in working hours, the opposite occurred: North Americans are working longer hours than ever before. The movement of women into the workforce during the last quarter of the 20th century essentially doubled the workforce overnight, resulting in a decline in the level of participation in community groups that educated women were disproportionately active within. Two-career families have less time for community work and other group activities, and this has driven them towards individualist lifestyles.

Urban sprawl has also contributed to a more individualist culture. Despite the intent of suburban developers who seek to construct “communities”, civic engagement and collectivist values actually decrease in the suburbs when compared to those who live in the city core. Living in the suburbs means more time spent on your commute, which leads to less time available for group activities like volunteering or playing in a recreational sports league. Suburban dwellers are more likely to be reclusive despite their abundance of neighbours. Additionally, the social homogeneity of suburbs creates a reduction in incentives for civic involvement due to a reduction in social connections that cut across class or racial divides.

Television is perhaps the worst offender, compounding the effects of the previous two factors. North Americans spend an astounding amount of time in front of the TV that could be spent elsewhere, and it adds to the increased level of isolation and individualist focus of our current society. In addition to reducing civic engagement and increasing the focus on the self, increased television viewing also exposes viewers to more messages about lifestyle ideals. Whether through advertisements or programming, the images we view on television project unrealistic expectations of what we expect our lives to be like. When they don’t turn out as we had hoped, we become unhappy with our seemingly futile efforts, furthering our withdrawal from society.

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Ultimately, the primary cause of the shift away from a collectivist to individualist society has been a generational one. Before the Baby Boomers were born, entire nations had to band together to support the single greatest conflict the world has ever seen. Motivated by the threat of an evil so sinister that it appeared to be lifted from a comic book, the Greatest Generation banded together any way they could in order combat it. Without such a threat looming over their heads, each generation born after World War II ended has drifted further away from these collective values and become increasingly individualistic.

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Smiles for Sale

In a meritocratic society, happiness functions as the ultimate metric for status: if you’re not happy, it’s your own fault and I’m better than you if I’m happier than you are. It’s why the rich old miser archetype exists in popular culture. As a result of our society placing so much value in the pursuit of happiness, we have simultaneously exiled those who don’t (or can’t) follow suit.

 In a 2012 UN report on happiness, countries that scored the highest possessed high levels of social equality (including gender equality), trust, and quality of governance. This study measured overall happiness by country, but it did not examine happiness at the level of the individual. The title of the article I linked to is misleading; income didn’t improve happiness in terms of national GDP, but contrary to popular belief, relative individual income is directly related to happiness no matter what country you live in.

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For example, the United States has dreadful levels of income inequality. Those who earn a higher annual salary typically report higher levels of happiness. However, because the average annual income is skewed by the large degree of income inequality, the US is an outlier based on annual income compared to happiness levels. Countries with aa similar per capita GDP and a more even distribution of wealth report higher levels of happiness.

The oft-parroted “happiest income” benchmark of $75,000 comes from a study conducted by Nobel Prize winning economists Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton. The study distinguished between two measures of happiness: i) emotional well-being; and ii) one’s overall life satisfaction. The “magic income” of $75,000 is related to the first measure, not the second. The reason the study is misreported so often is because an income of $75,000 is a much easier to achieve than an income of, say, $500,000. Our brains are notorious confirmation bias-seeking machines, so it makes sense that a more achievable income gets shared more often to support the narrative that money can’t buy happiness. Consequently, the $75,000 figure becomes overly-simplified and obfuscated in a case of digital broken telephone.

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The metrics through which personal happiness are assessed like wealth, health, societal status, and familial status are largely a product of the first item on the list. By placing such a large financial undertone on our idea of happiness, all we have done is alienate those who literally can’t afford to be happy. This has harmful effects: mental health rates among those of lower socioeconomic standing are the highest. Ditto for substance abuse. The effect has been felt across socioeconomic spectrum, with increases in adverse mental health conditions reported for each income level. This is partly due to improved diagnostic ability and increased awareness, but the link between meritocratic societies and mental health condition is still clear.

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Despite the old adage that money can’t buy happiness, nothing could be farther from the truth in Western society. Happiness has become nothing more than a commoditized emotion that is packaged and sold. Those who can afford it flourish; those who can’t, suffer.

“It is only in a society that makes generalized, personalized growth the ultimate virtue that a disorder of generalized, personalized collapse will become inevitable. And so a culture which values only optimism will produce pathologies of pessimism; an economy built around competitiveness will turn defeatism into a disease.”  – William Davies, The Happiness Industry

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The Forced Smile

Part of what is causing this happiness inequality is how confused our society is when it comes to defining happiness. We often conflate happiness with a two closely related concepts: pleasure and positivity.

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Pleasure is typically what is typically marketed as happiness to us: a new car, a tasty dessert, or a trip to Hawaii are sold with the promise that they’ll make us happy. Pleasure is a chemical response within our brain to stimuli that involves the release of dopamine. These stimuli can be associated with positive events, but dopamine is also what causes addictions to things like drugs or gambling. Even if we avoid the obviously harmful things, we’re still at risk from a life ruled by pleasure. Research shows that placing heavy investment in pursuing superficial and materialistic pleasures leads to increased emotional instability, anxiety, and unhappiness in the long run.

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Positivity is no better. Negative emotions are normal and healthy, and should be embraced and expressed instead of bottled up and capped with a forced smile. Individuals who are overly positive are actually doing just as much harm to themselves as those who are constantly negative. It sounds counterintuitive to say, but research shows that people who force themselves to be positive all the time are actually just as dangerous as people who are negative all the time. Look at what happened to Ned Flanders in The Simpsons when a life of maintaining an infallible positive exterior finally had its armour breached. It’s important to experience both sides of the emotional spectrum, otherwise individuals risk sheltering themselves from how to deal with negative emotions properly. Striking a balance between the two is the key, albeit in a healthy, constructive manner.

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The Secret is a notorious example of the misapplication of “positivity” as it relates to happiness.

After understanding the distinction between pleasure, positivity, and happiness, we can understand when the saying “money can’t buy happiness” can be accurately applied. We are sold pleasure and positivity through a variety of channels, but none of them actually cause us to be happier; it’s an illusion conjured up in our head. That still doesn’t prevent our desire for pleasure or positivity from affecting our mental health. Our society’s obsession with happiness is especially harmful because of the poor understanding of what happiness actually is. Our pursuit of and desire for pleasure and positivity is paradoxically making us less happy in the long run.

As I touched on earlier, happiness is a very complicated subject. So what actually influences our happiness – or better yet, what is this obscure concept we call happiness? Simply: happiness is the product of becoming your ideal self. It is not a single moment, a tangible object, or any one thing. It’s an ongoing, dynamic process that is primarily driven by your unconscious. In other words, you can’t try to be happy; you just are.

So if you can’t try to be happy, how do you become happier?

Research shows that happiness is improved by increasing the amount of control and autonomy you have with your life. This is where income factors into increasing overall happiness. The more money you have, the more freedom and control you can afford. For example, in countries and cities where income inequality is highest, happiness decreases. A list of the 25 happiest cities in Canada demonstrates this: the cities with the greatest income inequality (Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal) are all near the bottom of the list. Those who feel that their efforts are futile and have no hope of social mobility between socioeconomic classes are more likely to be unhappier due to a lack of control over the outcome of their lives.

There is hope: studies demonstrate that happiness is about 50% inherited, 40% within the individual’s control, and only 10% a consequence of our environment. Perhaps what is more interesting is that new research published in 2016 has uncovered specific genes that code for happiness, depression, and neuroticism. This research yields fascinating possibilities for future work regarding genetic counselling and mental health. Epigenetic effects on happiness heritability should also yield interesting results. Despite the genetic influence, you do have a degree of control over your level of happiness. Research shows that the most effective techniques for increasing the level of control you have include taking responsibility for more things in your life, setting smaller, more attainable goals, and reducing your reliance on external validation.

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Happiness will continue to play a more prevalent role in our lives as societies around the world improve the basic needs provided to citizens. The UN report highlighted 4 key areas of global development that will improve happiness at a global level: ending extreme poverty, good governance, environmental sustainability, and social inclusion. At an individual level, the most important thing someone can do to alleviate the distress caused by the happiness obsession is to understand exactly what happiness is and avoid pursuing the pseudo-happiness markers: pleasure and positivity. Ultimately, it’s about gaining control and responsibility in our lives and halting our worries of whether we will ever truly be happy.