I think Americans share a common illness. For some reason, we are raised to believe that people should be happy all the time. I think this is hammered into our brains through the media, with its legions of sunny smiles and perfectly happy lives. If we are not one of the beaming fools shown in advertisements, movies, or sitcoms then we are given a signal that there is something very wrong with us.
The idea that there is something wrong with not being happy all the time is incredibly toxic because it makes us feel bad about feeling bad. You can’t expect to be content when there is constant pressure to be content and you can’t expect to be happy when there is constant pressure to be happy. This makes for a sick contradiction a bit similar to a double bind and causes an incredible amount of unhappiness and discontent.
This might not be an accident. Since any amount of unhappiness is considered abnormal, capitalism is more than happy to provide a solution. In fact, the entire system is designed around it. This ‘solution’, as we are all aware, is indulging in a vast array of products that claim to make you happier, all for a few swipes of a credit card. The process goes a little something like this:
- Society tells you that you should be happy at all times.
- Because no human can be happy all the time you eventually feel unhappy.
- Bam — now you are deviating from the unrealistic standards society has created, which society then convinces you is a problem.
- Society can then conveniently sell you a solution, in the form of consumerism.
- You get to ride the glow of a new purchase for a few seconds until the appeal wears off.
- Back to work to earn more, so you can buy
- Rinse, repeat.
It kind of makes society sound a bit like a coke dealer, doesn’t it?
The big problem is that we can’t be happy all the time. There are a multitude of reasons for this, from the so-called ‘hedonic treadmill’ to the fact that, well, humans are mortal, and anyone happy when their relatives and friends die isn’t much of a human at all. Shit happens and we don’t need to be happy about it.
Shit, coincidentally, is what people who try to sell us happiness are full of. If the human condition implies that we literally cannot be happy all the time, then why does our entire society seem to treat unhappiness as an aberration? Why do people tell others to cheer up as if unhappiness is a choice that can be revoked at any time?
This is a symptom of the perfectionism inherent to consumerist societies. If we expect consumer choices to provide us with a sense of identity, it is only natural that we might think our whole sense of identity is something that can be maximized given enough cash, enough purchases. We don’t like feeling bad — so in an optimal world, would we not aim to reach a state of maximum happiness?
The simple answer is that trying to maximize your happiness makes maximum happiness impossible.