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Happy? How do you know? And does it really matter? Add to ...

"It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question."

- John Stuart Mill

It is a balmy night in mid-June and I am sitting in a windowless condo event room watching a seminar entitled Your Road Map to Happiness.

At the front are Todd Keeley and his twin sister, Michelle, a pair of certified Toronto life coaches. They are standing beside a flip chart with a list of unpleasant words written on it: Overwhelmed. Anxiety. Uncertainty. Worry.

The terms describe the way we - the people who have opted to come to this workshop instead of, I don't know, sitting on a sunny patio with a chilled glass of white burgundy - have just professed to feeling. Or perhaps I should say, they describe the way we have just professed to feeling in this moment.

Todd and Michelle are very big on "the moment." They are also very big on a bunch of other concepts you may have come across. These include (but are not limited to) personal empowerment, not engaging your inner critic, coming from a place of gratitude, relishing the journey and, most fervently, the law of attraction - an unproven rule of self-help physics that proposes positive thoughts produce positive events.

The whole thing puts me in bad mood. Lately, I've come to hate happiness. Or at least the shrink-wrapped version of it that's being shilled at this workshop. If I often feel annoyed with the state of the world, there is a reason: The state of the world is often annoying. But maybe you've been too busy channelling positive energy to notice.

Freud certainly wasn't. The father of modern psychology thought that humans weren't meant to feel consistently happy, since "all the regulations of the universe run counter to it." And yet somewhere along the line we forgot Freud and embraced Tony Robbins instead.

Luckily, a growing number of scientists and cultural critics are losing patience with the ethic of positivity that is oozing into hospitals, universities and the bestseller aisles of major bookstores with the insidious adherence of melted taffy.

"The problem with the culture of incessant happiness is that it's one of the things that drives social dissatisfaction," says sociologist Micki McGee, the author of Self-help, Inc.: Makeover Culture in American Life. "You're asked to take yourself as a constant self-improvement, and frankly this never ending quest is exhausting."

There is a backlash afoot - and it's a cranky one. Call it the case against happiness.


Formerly territory reserved for self-help gurus and meditation guides, the study of what makes upbeat people stay that way has become a flourishing academic discipline since the turn of the millennium. The field now has its own publication, the Journal of Happiness Studies, hosts international conferences and commands millions of dollars in research funds.

And this is no fringe group: Martin Seligman, director of the Positive Psychology Center at University of Pennsylvania, is also the former president of the American Psychological Association. The most popular course at Harvard University today is Professor Tal Ben-Shahar's positive psychology primer, drawing several hundred students each semester.

According to these psychologists, the key to combatting the ever-burgeoning epidemic of depression in our society is (to steal a line from Monty Python) to always look on the bright side of life.

As Mr. Seligman puts it on his Authentic Happiness website, positive psychology "focuses on the empirical study of such things as positive emotions, strengths-based character, and healthy institutions." He also describes his evangelical mission to train a whole new legion of positive psychologists who will "make the world a happier place, parallel to the way clinical psychologists have made the world a less unhappy place."

But not everyone is happy about the influx of happy money - bankrolled in large part by the John Templeton Foundation, an organization that has also donated more than $11-million to the study of "unlimited love," "forgiveness" and "gratitude" - into the world of ideas.

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