American popular culture is abuzz with talk about happiness: what it is, where it comes from, and most of all, how to achieve it. Anyone even remotely connected to social media will find the topic difficult to avoid. You’ve seen the articles on Huffington Post and Facebook and even Psychology Today: “10 Keys to Happier Living”; “The 4 Keys to Happiness”; “37 Keys to Happiness and a Happier Life”; “Six Keys to Happiness”. The examples are countless. There are even professional “Happiness Consultants”. American psychologist Martin Seligman has even devised an entire theory of psychology around happiness called “positive psychology”. Americans are clearly obsessed with happiness.
So what does all of this happiness talk mean? Why are so many people interested in writing about, talking about, and advising on happiness? For starters, it means that Americans, despite living in what is touted as one of the best countries on Earth in terms of quality of life, may not be so happy after all. The reasons for this are myriad, and beyond the scope of this article, but suffice it to say that people who are genuinely happy are not chiefly concerned with how they can increase their happiness. They’re out leading their happy lives. Statistically, about ten percent of Americans could be diagnosed with clinical depression, and there is an array of contributing factors to its existence. Also, a diagnosis is far more complicated than the presence of “unhappiness”, and depression can range from mild to severe. But in addition to those suffering from clinical depression, many more Americans are afflicted with a less severe, but no less important, malaise: a chronic sense of disappointment and dissatisfaction with one or more aspects of their lives. Despite all the advice on how to achieve happiness, we don’t appear to be very successful in obtaining it.
Second, our obsession with happiness means that we are, by default, ignoring an entire range of other emotions: namely, the so-called “negative emotions”. But why should we focus solely on happiness, at the expense of talking about anger, sadness, disappointment, and frustration? Why is it acceptable to focus so heavily on happiness, while brushing these other emotions aside? The reality is that we humans are equipped with the innate capacity to experience a wide range of emotions, not just the ones that make us feel good. Not only are these other emotions valuable from an evolutionary perspective — anger is highly useful, after all, in defending against intruders, for example — but they also represent a normal, healthy response to many of the circumstances we encounter in life. When a drunk driver crashes into us on the freeway, we should feel anger; when our boss passes over us for a promotion, we should feel disappointment; and when our partner or friend rejects us or a when a loved one dies, we absolutely should feel sadness. Why are we so quick to dismiss our (and others’) suffering and focus on happiness instead?
Of course, we should feel happy: and we should probably feel that way much of the time. Or maybe “content” is a better word for what should be our default setting. But happiness and sadness are not binary; they exist on a continuum, and although it may seem counter-intuitive, the ability to feel sadness and anger and disappointment is directly tied to our ability to experience happiness. If we ignore, deny, or suppress our “negative” emotions and focus only on happiness, we are diminishing our capacity to feel and to be human, and that is no recipe for happiness at all. So let’s talk about happiness, yes, but let’s talk about sadness and anger and disappointment too. Our ability to truly be happy may ultimately depend on it.