The Happiness Cult is Making Us Miserable


The great Sigmund Freud once said that the best any of us could hope for is ordinary unhappiness.

The Happiness Cult is upon us, and ironically it is making it harder for us to be, well – happy. You cannot walk through a bookstore or browse online nowadays without coming across some kind of pop culture claiming to have unlocked the secret of happiness. There are countless blogs, podcasts, books and websites that promise to help you on your happiness journey. What these self-help books describe as happiness is merely a brief dopamine reward trying to disguise itself as self-actualisation.

In response, a counter culture is emerging. The anti self-help movement.

In a culture of mandated positivity, if you are unhappy, then you only have yourself to blame. This message is very dangerous, as if people are not experiencing happiness, it can lead to self-blame, helplessness, hopelessness and worthlessness. If we do not feel well, we feel guilty. This way of thinking places an unrealistic sense of control upon the individual, regardless of whether their circumstances are a result of social, organisational or structural circumstances.

Happiness is dynamic. It is not a static state of emotion, it waxes and wanes. In manic amounts, happiness is associated with risk taking behaviours such as gambling, substance use and unprotected sex. Just as extreme levels of anger or sadness can overpower the good things in life, extreme happiness can also have detrimental effects.

Happiness is healthy and adaptive up to a point, but like everything, it requires balance. In extreme amounts, happiness can entirely eliminate one’s concern for theirselves and others. The Psychological diagnoses of mania and psychopathy highlight effectively how too much of a good feeling can result in bad feelings.

Mania is defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders fifth edition, as a distinct period of abnormally and persistently elevated, expansive, or irritable mood and abnormally and persistently increased activity or energy, lasting at least one week and present most of the day, nearly every day (or any duration if hospitalization is necessary). The following symptoms are also characteristic of mania; inflated self-esteem or grandiosity, decreased need for sleep, more talkative than usual, flight of ideas, distractability, increase in goal-directed activity, and high involvement in risk taking activities.

New research is emerging stating that happiness is not necessarily always a good thing. Recent research has focused on the potentially maladaptive facets of happiness, and has found that experiencing happiness in the wrong context, for example, an unsafe environment, can be incredibly dangerous where emotions such as fear and anger would be more helpful. Research has also found that the constant pursuit of happiness can paradoxically lead to a deterioration in overall happiness. Lastly, some types of happiness may be contextually inappropriate in certain cultural contexts.

What is the overall message?
“The happiness cult” is something I will be posting much more about as self-development and self-help is increasing in popularity and is something that we are constantly being bombarded with. As with most things in life, too much of a good thing can be detrimental. Obviously, we need to experience happiness for our overall psychological wellbeing, however, we need to have a balance. There needs to be a shift away from the message that we should be happy or be pursuing happiness at all times and the implication that if we are not “happy” then this is somehow wrong, and we only have ourselves to blame.

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