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Is our pursuit of happiness actually making us more unhappy?

With the rise of self-help – the industry is currently valued at $10 million dollars – we’re seeing more messaging than ever about our personal responsibility to improve our psychological wellbeing

Having struggled with depression and anxiety in my late adolescence, I spent my early 20s soul-searching, desperate to understand how to live my best life. Therapy, yoga, SSRIs, self-help – I tried it all – in fact, my personal search for happiness even led me to assisting an academic dubbed the ‘Happiness Professor’ after university. Fully immersing myself in each of these pursuits, it’s fair to say they all have positive and worthy benefits, but I can’t help but find their promise of an enlightened state of permanent happiness troubling. 

From pharmaceuticals to the wellness economy, every commodifiable element of the pursuit of happiness has also been turned into commerce for purchase at our convenience. It cannot come as a surprise then that the self-help industry is currently valued at $10 billion dollars with over 23,000 books in publication with ‘happiness’ in their title. Furthermore, as we’ve seen with the rise of ‘self-care’, the pursuit of happiness focuses heavily on individual responsibility, with this onus resulting in a never-ending to-do list of punitive tasks not only leaving us with little free time for anything else but also, more isolated and lonely than previous generations. Is our pursuit of happiness improving our psychological wellbeing or simply just making us more miserable?

Loosely defined as a sense of well-being, contentment or joy, happiness is described by many as a state of contentment, a brief feeling of pleasure or a moment of joy. “Happiness is a lovely thing,” says Sarah Stein Lubrano of The School of Life, “but it is very difficult to hold on to”. Lubrano tells me one of the problems with seeking happiness is that it is a fleeting emotion, which although pleasant to experience, is not sustainable. “Even in the best life we will face a lot of anxiety and some real disappointment and sorrow,” she tells me. “It’s important we experience negative emotions, otherwise we will not be able to appreciate all the other good emotions.”

“Happiness is a lovely thing, but it is very difficult to hold on to. Even in the best life we will face a lot of anxiety and some real disappointment and sorrow. It’s important we experience negative emotions, otherwise we will not be able to appreciate all the other good emotions” – Sarah Stein Lubrano, The School of Life 

While the jury is still out as to whether our pursuit of happiness is an innate human striving, one thing is certain: we have, as a society, been chasing happiness for thousands of years. In 348 BC Aristotle was searching for Eudaimonia, emotional well-being. In 1776 when the United State of America became an independent nation and Thomas Jefferson declared the right of all American citizens to ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’. Today, in our digital age, we even have an algorithmic expression of happiness. Although happiness has not risen since the 1950s in the US or Britain, as author of the World Happiness Report Professor Richard Layard denotes (another academic I propositioned during my own happiness search, he politely declined my help as a research assistant), the search for happiness has nevertheless become a modern cornerstone philosophy of western civilisation. 

In more recent years it feels as though our pursuit of happiness has become accelerated and all-encompassing with happiness becoming a cultural zeitgeist preached to us by the Gods of Self-Help and sold to us by brands offering the attainment of happiness in the purchase of everything from carbonated soft drink companies to mental health apps. “I believe we have set the bar ridiculously high for what happiness should look like- somehow believing we should be achieving an almost constant state of blissed-out contentment,” explains Ruth Whippman, author of The Pursuit of Happiness: And Why It’s Making Us Anxious. “We have made happiness the ultimate goal, in and of itself, rather than a by-product of living well, and this puts a huge amount of pressure on people.”

There are a number of reasons why we have become so obsessed with happiness in recent times. Romanticism, capitalism, and the continuing shifting away from a collectivist culture toward individualism are just a few of the belief systems influencing our pursuit of happiness. Stein Lunbrao explains that romanticism, which came to its fore about 300 years ago, encourages us to follow our impulses and emotions. Since happiness makes us feel good, it follows that a doctrine which encourages us to follow impulse would advocate the pursuit of joy. Capitalism’s influence is slightly different. As a system which encourages the commodification of goods, the promise of happiness has been co-opted as a marketing tool, used to sell us consumer goods (as well as motivate us to work harder so we can afford them.)

“We have made happiness the ultimate goal, in and of itself, rather than a by-product of living well, and this puts a huge amount of pressure on people. Happiness has become a kind of personal PR – ‘Look how great my life is everyone!’ is the ultimate trophy and a way to determine our own self-worth” – Ruth Whippman, author, The Pursuit of Happiness: And Why It’s Making Us Anxious

“In the west, we have developed a very individualistic idea of how we should go about finding happiness,” says Whippman “as though it should be some kind of personal, inner quest that we must set about on our own.” We can thank the self-help industry for this which promotes a very self-focused approach to happiness - ‘self-improvement’, ‘self-knowledge’, ‘self-care’, ‘self-help’ – self, self, self…

It’s possible to locate the roots of this approach to happiness with the coming of age of neoliberalism in the late 1970s. Under the reign of Margeret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, the west also saw a shift in cultural and economic values which has impacted our attitudes to happiness ever since. The move away from collectivism and toward individualism, an ideology which de-prioritises the importance of community and emphasises the moral worth of the individual in terms of their success and achievement, has had a profound impact on our attitude to selfhood. In the 1980s and 1990s, the self-esteem movement took over America and was pivotal in forming today’s thriving multibillion-dollar self-help industry. 

One way this self-esteem legacy is playing out today is on social media. Like many social phenomena, our pursuit of happiness has been exacerbated by the rise of the medium. Neatly packaged in digestible hashtags and inspirational quotes, happiness has become an individual fetish, devoid of its real value. Whippman has a name for this vapid kind of happiness – ‘McHappiness’ – “a shallow, self-promoting vision of total contentment, in which everyone is always #feelingblessed” she explains. “Happiness has become a kind of personal PR – ‘Look how great my life is everyone!’ is the ultimate trophy and a way to determine our own self-worth”

Unfortunately, the reality is that happiness is so easily attained. Personality traits, genes, and childhood experiences have a profound impact on our emotional wellbeing and our ability to feel happy. In fact, Whippman goes as far as saying that our cultural attitudes to happiness are in fact promoting a false narrative. She believes that the emphasis on self-responsibility as the key determinant in happiness is a false meritocracy because not everyone can make commitments either financial or temporal, to practice ‘happiness’ behaviours. 

“I think everyone, rich and poor, wants to be happy and the self-help movement is popular in poorer communities as well as richer ones,” Whippman explains. “But, I also believe that for the privileged, taking part in the happiness industry and the ‘wellness industry’ more generally have become hugely expensive status symbols.” Whippman tells me all of the focus on happiness being the responsibility of the individual i.e. if you aren’t happy, you somehow aren’t trying hard enough,  can easily slide into a kind of victim-blaming, “denying the importance of structural factors and circumstances to our happiness.”

So, if our current individualistic approach to happiness isn’t working, how should we be trying to achieve happiness? Or should we be shifting the focus all together? “On a wider level, we should be aiming to create the conditions for a happy society for all,” asserts Whippman. “Acknowledging privilege and discrimination, and fighting for social justice and a fairer, kinder world.”

Fundamentally, Whippman suggests we should be doing the exact opposite of focusing on ourselves. “All the research on happiness shows absolutely consistently that the strongest predictor of a happy life is our sense of community and relationships with other people.” It may sound basic, but simply aiming to live in a connected, meaningful way that prioritises relationships and other people will give you a better chance at happiness. 

This sentiment is the premise of Johan Hari’s book Lost Connections: Why You’re Depressed and How to Find Hope, in which he details his personal struggles with depression and argues for a social, rather than medical cure. A child of Thatcher, Hari was the product of an individualistic society which failed to acknowledge the value of community. “You aren’t a broken machine, you are an animal whose needs are not being met. You need to have a community. You need to have meaningful values… You need meaningful work. You need the natural world.”

Some believe we should shift our focus altogether, moving away from the pursuit of happiness and towards a broader appreciation of the lexicon of emotions? “What if, instead, happiness was something that we realised ebbs and flows,” writes Cody Delistaty in a recent Aeon article. “That negativity is fundamental to life and, ironically, to our happiness? What if we reconditioned ourselves: not to want but to be satisfied in all feelings?”

Perhaps it is time to quit pursuing happiness and start embracing the complexity of the human condition and the emotional lexicon that accompanies. Perhaps happiness is not all that it’s cracked up to be and in fact, there is great value to be found in the experiencing of other, more negative emotions. 

In his Aeon piece, Delistaty argues there are all sorts of positive benefits to sadness. He explains sadness is a “sharpening emotion” that keeps us alert and makes us investigate ourselves more profoundly and more unsparingly. That is to say, those who feel great sadness have an extra sensitivity and a more nuanced understanding of pain, loss, and fear – experiences we will all inevitably face in our lifetime. 

Having experienced all of these myself, I can personally vouch for the gift of sadness. As Delistaty notes: “To be sad is to be keenly attuned to the world.” Isn’t that a great place to be?