This column is dedicated to my friend, Angry Tim.
At any given time of day there’s a pretty good chance that I could be feeling grumpy and cynical about the world, enraged, even, about the state of things.
Things bug me. Manicured lawns, ugly architecture, bad food in restaurants, plastic junk at Wal-Mart, too many RVs, tourism, trendiness, a forest of dead trees, suburbia, yappy dogs, poverty, wealth, sickness, pollution, waste, selfish people, cheery people…
I’ve tried to be happy. A ‘normal’ person these days, particularly a woman, is happy.
I feel the overwhelming pressure to be happy. The idea that none of us has any excuse not to be happy is prevalent.
There are thousands of books out there telling us how to be happy, including bestsellers like The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Little Book of Happiness or Little Book of Bliss, Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff, and Chicken Soup for the Soul.
And if those books fail (because of some lack of dedication on our part), there are pills to make us happy.
Apparently, the Canadian consciousness has accepted this pressure to be happy — and the happiness industry’s way of getting us there too.
Drugs long ago surpassed books in the race to get happy. Nearly half of our population is on happy pills or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors.
The number of SSRI prescriptions dispensed in Canada went from just under nine million in 1999 to more than 15.5 million by 2003. And two-thirds of those users were women.
Worldwide, depression drugs generate nearly $20 billion a year.
In her report, The Marketization of Depression: Prescribing SSRI antidepressants to women, researcher Janet Currie says the reason behind the increasingly widespread acceptance of antidepressants is twofold: there is an increased acceptance of depression is a biologically-based phenomenon and there is aggressive marketing by the pharmaceutical companies.
In Canada, “depression is the fastest rising diagnosis made by office-based physicians,” Currie says.
Visits for depression almost doubled between 1994 and 2005, says her report, and 81 per cent of physician visits for depression in 2004 resulted in a recommendation for a prescription antidepressant.
The irony of this phenomenon, which Currie denotes in her report’s title, The Marketization of Depression, is that the quest for true happiness is actually the enemy of this industry — and of the state; what is really being pushed is unhappiness.
“Governments are the biggest players in the happiness conspiracy,” says psychologist John F. Schumaker in his book In Search of Happiness: Understanding an Endangered State of Mind.
“Any political action aimed at a more people-friendly or planet-friendly happiness is certain to be met with fierce resistance.
“The best consumers are itchy narcissists who hop, skip and jump from one fleeting desire to another, never deeply satisfied, but always in the process of satisfying themselves.
“Our entire socio-economic system is designed to spew out this type of ‘ideal citizen.’ Contentment is the single greatest threat to the economics of greed and consumer happiness.”
Some wisened-up subversives are rejecting a happiness steeped in consumerism and are attempting to eke out a life based on necessity, oneness with the Earth and sharing.
It is a brave endeavour in a world where materialism and success are the only acceptable brands of higher meaning.
The world condemns cynical people. And happiness converts will try to sabotage the success of anyone who rejects their happiness cult.
But at least we have some brilliant minds backing us up.
Albert Einstein said: “Happiness never appeared to me as an absolute aim. I am even inclined to compare such moral aims to the ambitions of a pig. The ideals that have lighted my way are kindness, beauty and truth.”
John Stuart Mill said: “Better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.”
Schumaker notes that some of the so-called happiest societies on Earth have been poor and simple societies where people are not barraged by media and the pressure to consume, to achieve and to be happy.
Studies in recent years of ‘happy societies’ reveal the importance of social connectedness, spirituality, simplicity, modesty of expectations, gratitude, patience, touch, music, movement, play and ‘down time,’ he says.
He notes in his book examples of ‘endangered happiness’—remote civilizations, including the Himalayan nation of Ladakh, which once had social structures defined by these characteristics but were dismantled and destroyed by the introduction of consumer capitalism.
“If Ladakh is ever going to be developed, we have to figure out how to make our people more greedy,” said the nation’s appointed development commissioner.
The developers triumphed, and now instead of being notoriously happy, Ladakh is facing epidemics of crime, family breakdown, declining mental health, land degradation, unemployment, pollution and sprawl, and a widening gap between rich and poor.
In Canada, we need only look in our own backyards to witness a similar phenomenon.
Colonialism destroyed the lives of many people under the guise of saving them. The happiness industry promises to do the same. It is making us so obsessed with the goal of being happy that the presence of any other emotion is making us depressed.
J.D. Salinger said: “I’m kind of a paranoic in reverse. I suspect people are trying to make me happy.”
Juliann Fraser is a writer living in Whitehorse.