If you’re a woman, you are probably familiar with the annoyance that is having a complete stranger, almost always male, occasionally terrifying, tell you to “smile” or “cheer up” when you’re doing something like walking down the street doing a mental comparative analysis of various brands of cat food. The dude isn’t really telling you to smile; he’s telling you he’s threatened by you unsmiling. He’s seeking to shame and control you as a means of regulating his unbearable inner world.
This happens to all of us, male and female, in a way, every day, through the incredible American cultural pressure towards happiness. “I just want you to be happy,” say our friends. “How are things, good?” ask our coworkers. Even if you’ve been up all night crying into your top sheet because life is extremely difficult right now and you were too depressed to get up for another box of tissues, you do what everyone does: You smile and say everything’s fine, then lock yourself in a public restroom stall to cry a little more.
Our society, focused primarily upon the peddling of things unnecessary to those who can’t afford them, uses happiness to sell stuff, through the dark prince of propaganda: advertising. We are inundated every minute of our waking life with images of shiny, happy people. Got irritable bowels? Just take this pill and you, too, will be joyfully riding a tandem bike in the woods with a super hot girl! Legs hairy as a yeti? Just use this depilatory and, presto, your kids will love you so much they’ll smilingly take their lunch boxes from you as they trot towards the school bus helmed, of course, by a smiling and not at all creepy driver.
This grinning delirium, we are told, is the goal. Of everything. Just get happy, and the rest will follow. We write McFerrin anthems to it, and when the singers of those anthems get too old to look happy (even if they’re still smiling, those pesky frown lines!) we find younger stars to Pharrell it all over the airwaves again. C’mon. Get happy! Americans are more fixated on this one-dimensional emotional ideal than any other culture. We pop antidepressants at a higher rate – much higher – than any other culture. We are desperate to be happy, and never stop to consider that it is the very expectation and requirement of happiness that is making us so unhappy to begin with.
There are many problems with mandating happiness.
One: Life is hard sometimes, and it’s okay to allow space for pain and sorrow. In my own family in the past month we’ve had a murder and a cancer diagnosis. That shit sucks ass. It is okay to be unhappy under unhappy circumstances. In fact, it is necessary, healthy and human.
Two: Sometimes, the only rational response to something is fury. There are many people walking around alive today because anger carried them through pain and abuse that would have otherwise destroyed them. Rage, properly directed, is the catalyst for every liberation movement in human history, and the basis for all comedy worth watching.
Three: To be peaceful is not always to be blissful. Sometimes, peace comes to us in the guise of poignancy, melancholy, despondence. Sometimes, our greatest accomplishment is simply getting through another day in full acceptance of all that is, and this can be a kind of disconsolate pleasure.
Four: The cultural insistence upon a Happiness Goal is not only unrealistic, it is highly invalidating and judgmental. Our discomfort with a full spectrum of human emotion leads us to heap shame upon ourselves and others, for feeling the things that everyone else is also feeling and hiding. This causes undue suffering and self-hatred, and lots of lying. This causes many of us, over time, to learn to doubt our own experience of ourselves, and life, which leads to an insecure sense of self in the world.
Those who read this blog regularly know that I am an awe-struck humanist defined by my unique spiritual smoothie of Buddhist and reasonably Christian fruits. I am at home with the mystery of it all, comforted by our relative insignificance among the vast unknowables of space-time. I am also, as an artist, drawn to all emotions, because without a full spectrum of feelings there is no creative endeavor worth a damn. Happiness is wonderful, when it arises. But so, too, is everything else. To feel is to be alive.
It’s okay to be whatever you are, wherever you are.
It’s okay to feel what you feel.