Happiness mania, based on the idea that “Everybody oughta be happy, so let’s fix ’em” hit apogee recently, then broke open like a piñata. It was bound to happen. Reality does not welcome nonsense with open arms or even a touch of grace. It blows things up.
by David Stone
for Assorted Idea, Large & Small
What went off the track with happiness mania?
Frankly, everything did, and anyone with a clear head could see it coming. Evidence was right in front of us every day. For example, when the most common reply to “Nice weather today” is “But it’s gonna rain later,” what makes you think people want to be happy? They don’t.
Let me emphasize: They just don’t.
The outrageousness of happiness mania hit its peak when Yale cognitive scientist Laurie Santos took a leave of absence for “burnout.” But no, she pushed back against a reporter for the New York Times: “Back up, back up. I took a leave of absence because I’m trying not to burn out,” she said. “I know the signs of burnout.” Oh? And the difference is…
Her Yale class, Psychology and the Good Life, hit the spin cycle and couldn’t manage the velocity.
“Why are there so many happiness books and other happiness stuff and people are still not happy?” Santos asked the Times. “Because it takes work! Because it’s hard!”
Oh, boy. Happiness is too hard to teach? Maybe we’ve got a little too much Ivy League in the sauce.
What’s wrong with happiness mania?
Outside academic circles, you may have noticed something natural that happiness mania hopes to overturn. People so dislike the idea of being happy that they devote hours every week fighting it.
Have you seen the TV lineup recently? Show after show lines up to piss you off, scare you or convince you someone wants to kill you. One show on HBO Max, Euphoria, gets viewers so upset they have organized calming-down parties. This is a show watched voluntarily.
Go to the internet and you find news headlines – today, that is – awash with stories about Russia invading Ukraine. It’s an important story, yes, but day after day after day at the top of Page One? Last week, it was a traffic jam in tiny Ottawa spun up to cataclysmic worldwide proportions. Next week, it’ll be another upsetting story. No good news, although plenty is available, will disrupt the despair party.
It’s like everyone tunes in for their daily dose of misery.
It’s genetics, stupid!
You might wonder why people fear happiness, preferring fear and anxiety instead. It seems counterintuitive, but it isn’t, nor really. It’s burned into our genes. Down in the mouth types, over the millennia evolved with greater chances of survival. True, they probably had less sex, the reasons for which there is no reason to go into. But they were more likely to live into ripened old age.
Because fear is a powerful survival instinct.
Look at it this way. The oldest known ancestors of people who watch Euphoria or even one of the countless CSI franchises and one of mine waltz out of an early village into some forest. Who’s going to make it? The scaredy-cat spending all her time watching out, crouching, expecting danger at every turn or my Peter Pan-ish distant cousin whistling along through the woods? Who’s gonna be lunch for a sabertooth tiger?
Goodbye, cousin Peter. You lived well but not for long.
The simple fact is that being anxious and, of course, unhappy carries unshakeable survival benefits. That’s why you see antecedents of ancient scaredy-cats sitting next to you on the bus, binge-watching gruesome TV series and why sitcoms are a vanishing breed.
Get used to it. You don’t learn genealogy away at Yale. You just get burned out.
David Stone is the author of A Million Different Things: Meditations of the World’s Happiest Man and 35 Ways to Find Inner Peace
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