Special to The Toronto Star
“In an era when more is more, there’s an extravaganza of ways to make yourself happy. Except it’s not working, this “cult of optimism.”
Happiness is big business these days.
In an era when more is more, there’s an extravaganza of ways to make yourself happy — affirmations, vision boards, the power of positive thinking, to name a few.
And who doesn’t want to be happy?
Except it’s not working, this “cult of optimism.” Even the well-intentioned self-help movement seems to glisten with snake oil.
Happiness, it seems, isn’t something you can run to ground and then shout “gotcha.”
And there’s not much cultural support for happiness, that very thing we’re after.
The two-headed beast called Marketing and Advertising is never quiet. The goalposts of aspiration keep moving. Beauty standards require blond hair with extensions, too-long acrylic nails and massive plastic knockers, though how those fit into a size zero is anybody’s guess. It’s not called “keeping up with the Joneses” anymore, but that’s what it is — conformity by a longer name.
Having the latest mobile device or computery thing is a pricey demand and the only way to be cool: be with us or get out of the way. And who can be happy dealing with giant corporations when you’ve crashed, or want to make a change? Really, it’s my fault? Only a stiff drink or a hot bath makes that better. We’re even surrounded by disdain in the media — all those television shows with people behaving so horribly it makes your jaw drop.
The truth is, not much looks like fun, and shopping and pretending just aren’t buff enough for the heavy lifting happiness takes.
But a new approach to happiness is on the horizon. Take Oliver Burkeman. Even the title of his book — The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking — is a breath of fresh air.
After researching the work of psychologists, philosophers and some self-help gurus, he concludes that “it is our constant effort to eliminate the negative — insecurity, uncertainty, failure or sadness — that is what causes us to feel so insecure, anxious, uncertain or unhappy.”
Instead of finding this depressing, “it pointed to an alternative approach, a ‘negative path’ to happiness that entailed taking a radically different stance toward those things that most of us spend our lives trying to avoid. It involved learning to enjoy uncertainty, embracing insecurity, stop trying to think positively … be willing to experience more negative emotions — or, at the very least, to learn to stop running quite so hard from them.”
Not so black and white then.
This Is How: Help for the Self by Augusten Burroughs echoes Burkeman, though it’s more of a motorcycle ride. “Sometimes you just feel like s—. Telling yourself you feel terrific and wearing a brave smile and refusing to give into ‘negative thinking’ is not only inaccurate — dishonest — but it can make you feel worse.”
And in Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, Barbara Ehrenreich includes her own experience with cancer. “Positive thinking seems to be mandatory in the breast cancer world, to the point where unhappiness requires a kind of apology … ”
What a relief! This rediscovered wisdom is that life has to do with balance. Pretending that bad doesn’t exist is wasted effort. We’ve all been there and will be again, wiggling through life from happy, to neutral, to sad. Rinse, repeat. Life’s like that and the trick is in how you manage it, how expert you get with the wiggle.
There’s nothing stopping you from being positive, or you can be a curmudgeon if the situation warrants. Instead of trying to jolly it away, when you or someone else says, “I’m in a bad mood,” you could lighten up. You can do things that make you feel good. You can do things that make others feel good. Have some fun.
There, that’s better.
See the article here: The Business of Happiness