“How to Be Happy”
The four simple words put an end to my aimless scroll through the refreshed The New York Times’ homepage. My eyes stop and fixate on the title, studying the preview with a mix of suspicion and temptation. I wonder if it’s the familiarity of the word “happy” or the promise of the word “how” that draws me to this particular article. I cannot be sure.
I recognize this clickbait — I’ve seen countless posts like it before. Yet it calls to me, and despite having a pretty good idea of what I’m about to set my eyes on, I take the bait. I click on it.
A “guide” to happiness pops up on my screen, with colorful illustrations and bubbly graphics accompanying the listicle formatted text.
I knew it.
Looking through the step by step guideline written in bold letters, I squint uncomfortably. I have seen this before; even the layout seems familiar. So many articles with the same message: There is always some number of habits, some number of “recommendations” from “professionals” that claim to help people be “happier.”
It’s as if the process of reaching the emotional peak is universal.
But what exactly is happiness? Society has been constantly altering the meaning of the term. Generally, the social notion of total happiness involves, at its bare minimum, good health, financial stability, respectable career, supportive family and social relationships. On a constant strive toward this ultimate success, many of us use this far-fetched idea of happiness as a driving force for our everyday lives. Happiness serves as the motivation to take part in the world that is falling apart — the ultimate, unrealistic goal stretched upon our extending lifespans.
Today, our society advertises happiness more heavily than ever before. Perhaps we yearn for some reassurance as we drive further and further away from this notion of the ideal, perfect mode of a “happy” society.
Whether it is climate change, racial and social class inequality or economic depression, we, as humanity, are facing more threats than we can keep up with. On top of all of these long-term problems, the sudden emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic has devastated our health care system and increased the global rates of depression and anxiety by a whopping 25%. Considering everything, one might assume it is impossible to promote positivity. But it is exactly at times like these that the desperate need to emphasize hope emerges.
Unfortunately, when it comes to positivity and hope, we sometimes go too far. Often, the media promotes the toxic belief that everything will be “just fine,” as if our overflowing problems are all under control. Accordingly, people are expected to be “just fine” too, and the key to being “just fine” is simple: Keep your emotions under control.
From the types of articles we encounter to the development of apps and technological devices that track our moods and emotions, there are so many pressures everywhere to “label” your emotions and manipulate them to reach your goal of ultimate happiness. In a way, we are almost “forced” to constantly put a smile on our faces.
In this process, however, we overlook a certain reality: The more people obsess over the notion of happiness, the more difficult it becomes to reach. As we dismiss the depressing episodes of life, urging each other to move on, get up, get going, we simplify our feelings, reduce them into categories and generalize them. On the way to ultimate happiness, we become so focused on our destination and so critical of our “imperfect” feelings that we forget what “happiness” even means. We are so used to this pressured desire to be happy that we don’t realize how we often view our negative emotions as invalid, shameful or wrong.
No matter how many times your social media or news feed screams “positive vibes only,” human emotions don’t work that way; it is simply impossible to stay positive all the time. It is also not healthy because, as humans, we are emotionally intelligent and sensitive — meaning we are inclined to feel all sorts of different feelings.
For any feeling, it takes time to process. It takes extra time to sit through hurt, wash out sorrow, dust away resentment and gather yourself to heal. Hypnotized by the utopian notion of constant happiness, we often forget that. We expect people who are feeling down to be able to switch gears in a matter of seconds. This doesn’t help. In fact, when such expectations come into the picture, our light-hearted words of “comfort” can only bring discomfort.
Sometimes, when I feel overwhelmed with hardships, people try to “help” me feel better. They tell me: “Everything will be OK!” or “don’t be sad!” These words make everything worse; I immediately feel anxious to fake a happier expression on the outside while thinking something must be wrong with me on the inside. I realize people don’t understand what I am going through, and perhaps they never will. I feel lonely.
Since when has happiness been reduced into a mechanized product? For all I know, happiness is a personal thing. It is a feeling that is entirely yours, and yours to keep.
When I think of happiness, I think of memories special to me — my own definition of the feeling: dreaming of my grandfather’s voice, walking in the summer heat of Seoul, wild car rides to Los Angeles with my dad, staying up talking nonsense with my sister until she dozes off or waking up to a loving text from someone I’ve missed.
But happiness for me doesn’t only reside in memories. I also pick it up daily, from that long-awaited email response, an extra shot of coffee, a partly cloudy weather, photos of my dog, my mom’s hilarious typos and sometimes even from the sarcastic, self-deprecating jokes I throw around to make my friends laugh.
That’s just me. Unique to me. But of course, that’s not all of me.
We are all so much more complex than emotion tracking apps or happiness guides assume. There is no need for anyone to feel like they have to showcase their happiness, anger, grief, sadness or any other feeling for others to judge. At the end of the day, what do they know about it?
I hope that we can soon realize that “happiness” does not have a single, universal definition, but it is rather a subjective feeling one embraces at the right moment in their life. Surely, the journey to find happiness shouldn’t be depressing. More importantly, your goal to improve your mental health doesn’t even have to revolve around happiness. Taking care of your mind has no formula; it can simply mean feeling everything at the given moment or allowing yourself to practice peace. Whatever the best way is for you, it’s valid.
It is enough.