Do you deserve to be happy?
It’s not a question the modern prophets of positive psychology would ever ask. According to their pop-scripture, happiness is something you can help yourself to, train yourself for (in an easy 10-step program!) and have every day like ice cream, if you so desire.
Still, do you sometimes get that niggling feeling, as you set off on holiday or treat yourself to some indulgence, that maybe you haven’t done enough to earn the blissful reward? When you feel joy, are you sometimes uncomfortable with it?
The flip side of the ubiquitous get-happy edicts is our fear of being happy.
“There’s such a thing as happiness anxiety,” says Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage. “It’s when you’re happy currently and worried that you will be unhappy in the future. You don’t want to have that crash. Things are going great right now, and you get attached to that.” Robert Holden, a positive psychology expert in England, calls it “happy-chrondia,” a mindset based on the belief, subconscious or not, that any happiness comes with an eventual fall and price.
Sounds Garden of Eden-ish to me.
Could it be that some of the fear or discomfort we can feel about happiness is also some kind of Puritan-esque hangover? After all, the imperative of modern society upends many of western culture’s socio-religious narratives about when and how and if you can achieve joy.
As the product of a WASPy, stiff-upper-lip upbringing in which manners and propriety were everything (one didn’t make a spectacle of oneself with money or vanity or success – a value of self-abnegation, really), I can relate. I don’t think I’m alone in feeling that part of my cultural/social heritage is that I had to work hard, be nice and behave well, and suffer a little bit in order to earn something good.
I couldn’t order up happiness on a take-out menu. It wasn’t a consumer product. If I wanted it, I had to sweat a bit in the kitchen of life.
Suggesting that you can help yourself to happiness, just like that, is a bit like thinking you could expect to get a well-paying job without working your way up from the mailroom. (Not that I ever worked in a mailroom, but you get my point. It’s about not thinking you’re entitled to the best of things, including top-drawer emotions, just because you have a heart, a brain and a pair of lungs.)
Some of it, I grant you, is the lasting result of tried-and-true child-rearing techniques. You have to be good, and then you will get your lollipop (read pleasure). The other day, I overhead a mother tell her toddler that he “deserved” to go to the park because he had been such a good, quiet boy in his stroller while she shopped. I used the same reward strategy to discipline my boys when they were small. Hey, it works.
But even that parenting style could be interpreted as having its roots in Puritan beliefs, which were some of the founding tenets of North American culture. The height of the Puritan movement came in the mid-17th century, when a group of English Protestants took over the state in the First English Civil War, “removing the cavaliers who had an aristocratic sense of flair and gaiety,” explains David Neelands, Dean of Divinity at University of Toronto’s Trinity College. It wasn’t that they were opposed to joy and bliss. It’s just that they wanted to tell people how to get it. It was a long-term project, to be found through devotion to God.
“They thought that to try to achieve joy through sensual pleasures was improper,” says Dr. Neelands. So they shut down theatres, emphasized literacy so people could read the Bible, frowned upon drunkenness, disapproved of recreation and overt sexuality, and eliminated the use of musical instruments from their religious services. “The idea that someone would enjoy the feast of Christmas was appalling,” says Dr. Neelands. In the 17th century, the Puritans came to New England by the boatload to set up the New World according to their design. It was not until the 19th century that celebrating Christmas became fashionable in Boston.
Of course, we’re a long way from that now. In fact, the current consumer culture is like a “a rejection of Puritanism,” Dr. Neelands acknowledges. But it wasn’t so long ago here in Canada that curtains were drawn on the shop windows of Eaton’s on a Sunday. Dr. Neelands recalls that “in my grandparents’ age, the assumption that people live for pleasure would be improper and distasteful.”
Still, there are echoes of it, and maybe that’s why we’re in the midst of a happiness revolution. We’re in the process of throwing out Judeo/Christian notions of how to be happy.
“While the notion of fallen-ness and sinfulness are swirling in us, there’s a positive in Judeo-Christian tradition in the sense of service to the needs of the poor,” Stephen Scharper, a religious anthropologist at the University of Toronto, explains. “It’s the idea that you’re never going to be fully happy as long as so many of your brothers and sisters are poor. It’s the difference between true happiness and an elite kind of Epicureanism or hedonism, a narcissistic pursuit, and it is that line that the Judeo-Christian tradition is always pointing us to.”
Interestingly, it is that very tenet that positive-psychology experts are addressing as they try to shift the culture’s thinking to allow for take-out happiness.
Mr. Achor, who helped teach and design the famed happiness course at Harvard, acknowledges that many people feel they don’t deserve to be happy when there’s so much suffering in the world. But shrewdly, he changes the logic. It’s not that you have to serve the poor to be happy. It’s that you have to allow yourself to be happy first, because that’s how you can be of most help. “You’re not making their lives any better by being unhappy,” he explains in an interview. “In fact, you’re decreasing your ability to create a more positive world, which would help them as well. It actually dishonours other people’s suffering when we don’t celebrate the meaningful and happy parts of our lives, because that’s the part that gives us hope – that, in the midst of suffering, we can make a better world. But if the people experiencing a better world are not cognizant of it, then it eliminates hope.”
Welcome to the revolution.