the trouble with happiness

For a few years now, I’ve been thinking about (and writing and teaching about) happiness and it’s limits…as a concept, goal and demand placed on most of us to smile (or die). Much of this work is connected to my interest in queer ethics and my extreme dislike of self-help literature. One of these days, I will do a larger project that engages critically¬†and creatively with the limits of happiness and its connections to the U.S. self-help industry. Soon, I hope. For now, I wanted to bring it up again because I recently started watching a documentary on instant Netflix: The Happy Movie.

I haven’t watched much of this film yet (maybe 10 minutes?), but I’m already troubled by the filmmaker’s failure to provide a substantial definition of happiness. The film opens with a series of people on the street claiming that they “just want to be happy.” But, what does that mean? Whose definitions of happiness get counted? And whose don’t? How is happiness directed towards particular (and limited) goals, like making lots of money or having a successful career (or, like one person interviewed on the street suggests, achieving “the American Dream”). I’m not against happiness (I like feeling happy), but I’m extremely skeptical of happiness studies and how scientists’ efforts to measure happiness are generating a whole industry of products and experts that can help you “turn happiness into money” through seven easy steps¬†(FYI: Marci Shimoff, a leading happiness expert, did the voice-over for this documentary).

Before writing more about this documentary, I want to watch it. And, when I do, I want to think about it beside a few critical engagements with happiness that I’ve encountered in the past few years:

Sara Ahmed: The Promise of Happiness
Barbara Ehrenreich: Bright Sided
Jeanette Winterson: Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal?

In addition to these critical assessments of being happy and the happiness industry, I’m also thinking about a song that my son recently sang with his fourth grade class: Happiness. It’s from “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.” I remember singing it in fourth grade too (when I lived in Salem, Virginia). I had forgotten about this song until I found out that FWA would be singing it. “Happiness is…2 kinds of ice cream….”