The dictatorship of happiness: how to overcome it and find your own way

If you’re on social media, you might have already noticed what a great platform it offers to showcase just how very happy you are to the whole world. In reality, it’s not as much about being truly happy as it is about showing everyone that you’re happy through photos, videos, text posts, gifs, links, etc. It’s all a performance devoted to the display of what we call “happiness,” but nobody really knows what that elusive feeling even is or how to define it, even though some people seem to be able to feel it every day – or at least, that’s the impression that they strive to share on their public profiles.

There is no doubt that social media devotes a lot of space to a topic that has preoccupied humanity since the dawn of time. However, in a certain sense, these platforms have generated a distorted vision of “happiness” (well-being, enjoyment, personal satisfaction, feeling comfortable in your own skin, etc.). We live in a happiness-obsessed society; we crave it, but we feel incapable of achieving it. Sometimes, especially on social media, we look like an army of mice running desperately on a wheel of happiness that doesn’t quite get us anywhere.

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“Stand up, breath, smile and go ahead. If you fight for what you want, sooner or later you’ll get it.” Does that type of motivational phrase sound familiar to you, as though you’ve read it on your Facebook timeline a hundred times before? There are a million variations of this type of message that get shared around social media and bombard thousands of people every day.

The dictatorship of happiness: how to overcome it and find your own way

A difficult truth

However, faux-motivational phrases such as these often have the opposite effect: they do not increase motivation or hope, they simply add stress. In addition, each of these messages does not stand out by itself, but as a mass they end up propagating a dangerous type of rhetoric that can end up inducing feelings of inadequacy and insecurity. Subsequently, people feel dissatisfied because they don’t appear to be responding as expected to the mandate to be happy that imposed by this ‘dictatorship of happiness.’ We become servile to this regime when we disconnect from a healthy perception of our real lives and instead compare our experiences to other peoples’ virtual ones.

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It’s interesting that we fall into these traps so quickly. In reality, it simply isn’t true that if you just fight for what you want, sooner or later you will always get it. This type of affirmation sounds really nice, and surely there are some people who are comforted or motivated by it, but put simply, it is a lie. The truth is that sometimes you try hard and get what you want, but other times, for different reasons, you try hard and get absolutely nothing.

“Enjoy every day as if it were your last,” “Enjoy everything that you can, to the fullest, because you will never live this day again,” “Today is the time; do not let this day pass without being the person you want to be.” Maybe there are people who feel motivated by these statements, but for the majority of us, these empty statements only add anxiety and stress. Trying to enjoy every minute of your life as if it were your last imposes on the reader an uncomfortable amount of pressure.

Remember when we talked about meditation and mindfulness in this blog? Obviously, that practice will not guarantee “happiness” (top secret: nothing will), but it can help you to get close. It is important to remember that one of the pillars of the practice of mindfulness is to not stress, to not overexert yourself and to not cling to this unattainable idea that you have to be happy all the time and extract every last drop of existential juice from every minute of your life.

The dictatorship of happiness: how to overcome it and find your own way

Gross National Happiness

We celebrate International Day of Happiness every year on March 20, ever since Bhutan (a small country located at the foot of the Himalayas) appealed to the UN for this important initiative to get more global awareness. Most other countries measure their level of wealth based only on criteria of productivity and economy (Gross Domestic Product), but Bhutan considers that the wealth of a country is also measured through a different set of criteria including psychological well-being, use of time, the vitality of the community, culture, education, environmental diversity, standard of living, health and the government. 

International organizations use many different happiness indices to evaluate a country’s material and immaterial success. These indices contain interesting information but can leave us in a mere superficial competition of “what is the happiest country” without realizing that it is not countries themselves that are happy or unhappy, but their people, and that these people feel happiness based on very subjective and relative concepts.

Therefore, we must add some perspective to these indices. After all, the rankings of countries in terms of their happiness change depending on what criteria are being used, and nobody is able to fine-tune the process so much that everyone agrees on the route that a society must follow to be happier. That’s why sometimes Bhutan wins, other times Costa Rica wins, and on other occasions the winner is, for example, Norway. They are three countries with cultures that are radically different in many ways, so it’s clear that happiness doesn’t look the same in every country.

The dictatorship of happiness: how to overcome it and find your own way

Read and agree

No, we are not going to attempt to define what happiness is.  It would be too complex, and there would not be enough pages to reach a conclusion about it. Truly comprehending and answering the question “what is happiness?” is the focus of several fields of study ranging from religion to philosophy to politics and economics.

Sometimes happiness, understood in a simple way, has to do with simply being comfortable with what you have. Many people have experiences that dramatically change their lives (a month-long back-packing trip, a few months at work in a country with technological and logistical difficulties, etc…). This allows them to reflect on what they value in their lives and what makes them feel at ease with themselves.

If we asked them upon their return what is necessary to be happy, they would probably respond to things like this: that you feel healthy, that you have a comfortable mattress to sleep on, that you have enough food every day, that the roof of your house never falls on you because of a storm or bombing, and that you are surrounded by other nice people in your daily life. With this positive mentality and a little open-mindedness, it is perfectly possible to lay the foundations for healthy and sustainable happiness.

We do not always recognize how fundamentally these experiences will impact our lives, but they open the door to an interesting reflection: happiness has to do, among other things, with the paired terms compliance and conformity. Compliance is a value; it indicates that we are satisfied, at ease, consciously accepting what there is, what we are and what is offered to us. Conformism, on the other hand, is a psychological process by which we resign ourselves to what we have, to what we are, to what we have, knowing that it doesn’t satisfy us but conforming in a way that is more like surrendering.

Happiness and desire

Another coupling that we can use to understand happiness is the one formed by ambition and greed. Both concepts have to do with what we want but still don’t have, and although they are often used as if they were synonymous, they have their own nuances.

Ambition is a force that propels us, feeds on our dreams and projects us into the future.  It connects us with our values, whatever they may be. In addition, although ambition may stem from dissatisfaction with what one has, it allows growth and doesn’t necessarily generate problems with other people, if expressed in a sensitive and ethical manner.

Greed, on the other hand, does not favor good interpersonal relationships because it makes us put what we want above our bonds with other people. Greed stems from contempt or rejection toward what one has: it is more emotional than reflective in nature, and it feeds on a voracious desire to constantly have more despite costs either to yourself or others. Ambition, therefore, can be a source of happiness, while greed can never be.

The dictatorship of happiness: how to overcome it and find your own way

Three levels of happiness

Martin Seligman, a prestigious psychologist studying positive psychology, developed a theory about happiness that is based on three levels: pleasant life, engaged life and meaningful life.

According to this scheme, the first level talks about the satisfaction we feel when we experience basic pleasures, either through having our physical needs met or enjoying relationships with other people and the pleasant activities we share with them.

On the second level, that of the engaged life, the person experiences happiness through the development of their personal resources, their qualities, their talents and strengths, which makes both their inner- and outer life shine.

The third level, meaningful life, goes beyond the previous two levels and is all about the pursuit of meaning in your life. In this level, we transcend our own inner happiness and well-being by dedicating our qualities to a purpose “greater than us.”

Psychologists always say that the development of your own well-being is a process, and there is no magic spell or recipe to teach you how to suddenly feel comfortable with who you are.

It does not matter whether you focus your happiness on immediate pleasures or things that will endure once you are gone. The important thing is that you remember that you cannot feel happy if you are always anxiously trying to feel happy. In this case, the best thing would be for you to visit a psychologist and share with him or her your anxiety: surely you can work together little by little and understand the particular ways in which you can overcome your anxieties and increase your well-being and happiness.

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