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(Tara Hardy for The Globe and Mail)
(Tara Hardy for The Globe and Mail)

Sarah Hampson

Does our obsession with happiness bring us closer to it? Add to ...

We live amid a tyranny of happiness. It's the new sex. We're given tips for it: how to get it; boost it; protect it; make it last. We're meant to be in orgasmic emotional throes 24/7, in the flow of optimal experience. And if someone else - or something - in your life doesn't make you happy? No problem. There are enough emotional masturbation techniques in the culture to keep anyone occupied for hours, if not a lifetime.

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How-to videos, websites, workshops, retreats. You can go on a Happiness Cruise. You can be coached to happiness - apparently. Some universities offer courses in it. You can get a happiness doctorate.

Look, there's Oprah's grinning face on the cover of O. Every month, the magazine offers suggestions on how to improve one's life - go on a diet, get your dream job, erase your debt, forgive more - all with the assumption that a Happier You is possible and right around the corner.

Oprah makes her audience feel that it's their responsibility to get to their best, most peaceful, love-filled, self-satisfied selves.

Consider the glut of books on the subject.

Gretchen Rubin's memoir, The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning , Clean my Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun, shot to instant New York Times bestsellerdom when published earlier this year, and has sold 31 foreign editions.

Neil Pasricha's The Book Of Awesome, a collection of thoughts about the small, simple things that can put a smile on your face, was also an instant bestseller this year. His blog, 1000awesomethings.com, on which the book is based, has received 17 million hits.

Then there's the increasingly intricate science of happiness.

"When I first started doing research in happiness 21 years ago I felt insecure about it," says Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside and author of The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting The Life you Want. "It was considered a fuzzy, unscientific topic."

But with the boom of behavioural scientists and the brave new world of neuroscience that explores how we process emotions, unhappiness has become an unfortunate (and seemingly curable) condition.

But does our obsession with happiness bring us closer to it?

We've always been interested in the topic, of course. In the United States, to pursue it is an inalienable right enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. We have Father Freud to refer to on the subject. Philosophers have mused about it since ancient time. Hollywood has long made it the necessary resolution to movie scripts.

But the way we seek it has changed. "Happiness is as a butterfly, which, when pursued, is always beyond our grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you," wrote Nathaniel Hawthorne in the 19th century.

Such passive (and humble) expectation is out. We're now in happiness boot camp, exhorted to be positive, to feel good, to consume a diet of affirming thoughts. It's an emotional fitness regime, a work ethic, not for the benefit of others or the community at large, it seems, but for individual pride. Look at the strength of my happiness core!

And all this when icecaps are melting and the economy is still wobbly. The modern pursuit of happiness is a confusing mixture of defiance and denial.

We want peak emotions all the time. But we feel inadequate for not being able to achieve them. We're exhausted by the peer pressure to shoot up emotionally, but we feel like losers for not wanting to. That insidious idiom - there's nothing stopping you from being happy but yourself - smacks of self-recrimination. After all, if it's only you preventing your happiness, there must be something wrong with you if you can't find it.

The wildfire global spread of the documentary-style film and book The Secret in 2006 was stunning evidence of the current obsession with self-fulfillment gone awry. It was a mass feel-good shot in the arm, a head-trippy mixture of philosophy, theology, feng shui, medicine, quantum physics, metaphysics and coaching; the ultimate New Agey grab-bag of optimist thinking suggesting that the universe has an intelligence designed to fulfill your every emotional and financial need.

The pursuit of happiness now feels as if we're building an existential castle on quicksand.

Are we focused on happiness because we're subconsciously aware of how impossible modern life makes it? Is it simply a rallying cry of hope against evidence to the contrary - an Obama-esque Yes-We-Can assertion that there's potential in humanity? Are we really just covering up a spiritual malaise and fundamental lack of purpose, now that our belief in government, traditional religion or fill-in-the-blank authority figures has eroded?

That's the thing about modern happiness: Its pursuit poses more questions than answers.

Follow on Twitter: @Hampsonwrites

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