The Internet happiness lobby is really stressing me out. In the course of researching something completely unrelated, I’ve blundered into a cotton-candy whorl of insipidly blithe articles on how to paste a permanent smile on my face. There’s this circular argument about the benefits of optimism (being upbeat makes you—wait for it—upbeat); this on how exercise is “the single most proven way to get happier”; and this about techniques for tackling envy and reclaiming positivity. The new issue of Marie Claire claims that drinking ayahuasca will reveal hard truths about your imbalance of masculine and feminine energies, whooshing you to well-being on a wave of cosmic tough love. Forbes has ranked the 10 beamiest states. On Facebook, cheery notices inform me that various friends have signed up for #100HappyDays, a new project that exhorts you to post a picture of something mood-lifting every day for 100 days. “Why would I do that?” asks the website, all yellow sunshine and playfulness, before rattling off its list of implausible answers: “be in a better mood,” “become more optimistic,” “receive more compliments,” “realize how lucky [you] are,” “fall in love.”
None of these articles has any chance of actually making anyone happy, of course. The envy one is annoying because it prescribes vague, unpracticable cures like learning that praise and love are not finite. (I know that. But I still get envious.) The ayahuasca one is annoying because lots of people don’t have $200 to spend on a single cup of enlightenment sludge—and some still cling to the fond belief that they can find joy without hallucinating a spirit animal. The piece on optimism is annoying because it describes in great detail all the ways our sanguinity is misplaced:
Yet data clearly shows that most people overestimate their prospects for professional achievement; expect their children to be extraordinarily gifted; miscalculate their likely life span (sometimes by twenty years or more); expect to be healthier than the average person and more successful than their peers; hugely underestimate their likelihood of divorce, cancer, and unemployment; and are confident overall that their future lives will be better than those their parents put up with.
And then, the writer proceeds to tell us why the ebullience she’s just smashed to smithereens was so great while it lasted.
Hope keeps our minds at ease, lowers stress, and improves physical health … optimists are healthier and live longer … Expecting our future to be good reduces stress and anxiety … it keeps us moving forward … and helps motivate us to pursue our goals.
Maybe her goal was to give the most solipsistic pep talk ever. But, in fact, that contradiction—the call to happiness that leaves you sadder than you were before—seems baked into most of these pieces. By now we know (or think we know) that only 12 percent of our happiness lies within our control. The rest is genetics and recent events. Stories that insist on the importance of contentment are like those frustrating magic maps in fairy tales that only show you the route if you already know where you’re going.
Last September, Andy Ward wrote a piece for Medium entitled “Stop Telling Me to Be Happy.” He argued that browbeating people into finding their inner felicity doesn’t work—just as showering them in impossibly vague, expensive, or otherwise unfollowable tips doesn’t work. The essay opens with a funny dream sequence in which a sick guy begs a pharmacist for help, and the pharmacist whispers, “Just don’t be sick.” “If that were the cure to depression,” Ward asks, “wouldn’t Zoloft be out of business?”
I can think of a few more reasons why the happiness lobby needs to simmer down. Sadness can be cathartic. Occasional heartache helps you appreciate the good, and it can show you, as you slog through it, your own strength. Plus, all that sunbeam worshipping has a normative effect: It may deepen the shadows around depressed people and discourage them from seeking help. Not least, from a narrative perspective, happiness is boring. Who really wants to read about your perfect and fulfilling life, purged of envy, glowing with positivity, rinsed in endorphins from your awesome daily exercise regime? (I am, however, interested in the intense emotional dislocation and estrangement from your humanity that must come with suppressing every negative feeling. Looking at you, Unikitty.)
I understand why the Web overflows with happiness articles. All around us online, people are manicuring and curating and polishing their lives. They post images of their cute kids and mod renovations to Facebook; upload vacation pics to Instagram; hop arm-in-arm into rollicking Twitter canoes. We get jealous. Comparing our insides to everyone else’s glimmering surfaces, we decide that we suck. Then the websites swoop in to grab our clicks by promising to heal our jealousy/sadness/boredom. They will instruct us in the art of well-being! But the lessons don’t take, which bums us out, so we dive back into a new trough of self-improvement articles, and on and on it goes.
To me, this cycle resembles nothing so much as the ancient dance of lady magazines and beauty products. The media surrounds women with airbrushed knockouts, gives them inferiority complexes, and then offers them creams and dyes to fill the gap. Likewise, the Internet culture of “I’m having the best time ever at my beach house, here are pictures” is great at breeding feelings of inadequacy, which in turn create a need for Lifehacker articles telling us how to live richly. Happiness is the new size zero. No journal that helps you count your blessings with charts or tutorial in how to “stop giving a F@$% what people think” is going to get you into those jeans.