SMILE LIKE YOU MEAN IT
Enforcing an unnatural sense of happiness on others is counter-productive. Joy emerges as we learn to give our lives away.
American political thinker Barbara Ehrenreich is a woman on a mission. Her trenchant critique of consumer capitalism has taken a new form after her encounter with breast cancer. In her book Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World (Granta, 2010) she has expressed dismay at the way women in the US are compelled to look on the bright side of cancer and to see a positive attitude as fundamental to the healing process. Ehrenreich was angry at her diagnosis, gloomy about the future and preferred sustenance from these darker feelings. Faced with the emotionally numbing experience of having cancer treatment, people can perhaps be forgiven for grasping whatever it is that gives them support but Ehrenreich makes an impassioned case for allowing people to be themselves rather than forcing them to adopt a false sense of bonhomie in order to make those around them feel less embarrassed and uncomfortable.
The imposition of an unfailingly sunny attitude to life can be an insidious way of blaming the victim for the way things turn out. ‘If only she had been more positive about the situation it would have had a different outcome’ is a stance we have all taken but which may not do justice to the complex and interwoven social and economic realities which govern our lives more than we find tasteful.
Today’s emerging science of happiness is coming in for mounting criticism and Ehrenreich’s critique of the sub-culture of breast cancer is another challenge to it. It is surely right that we adopt a less materialistic view of what makes for a good life. Gross Domestic Product is a clumsy way of judging the welfare of a nation and the tiny Himalayan country of Bhutan has even gone so far as to replace GDP with an index of happiness as the key national measurement of success. But how exactly do you define happiness and measure it? These are important questions for a society which aspires to be post-consumerist but they feel elusive. Introducing teaching into the national curriculum about happiness presupposes that we have the shape to our answers but this is far from true.
The danger in measuring happiness is that we allow the prevailing culture to set the criteria. The cult of the individual tempts us to define happiness in isolating and self-regarding terms. How my environment can be adapted to service my desire for happiness is a shallow approach that can easily ignore other people. The modern obsession with the present over future distorts moral purpose. Furthermore, the old utilitarian principle that pleasure is good and pain is bad eschews the profoundly spiritual role of self-sacrifice in personal development.
Many Christians are uncomfortable with the new emphasis on happiness in public policy because they fear that it will be defined in hedonistic terms. A more rounded view is called for which describes human flourishing in relational ways. If we can use the word happiness at all as a goal, it may lastingly be found in the heart-stopping walk we must make through the cross where we lay down our hopes and aspirations, our being and our relationships in worship of the God who died for us.
Those who enforce an unnatural sense of happiness on others are trying to make them catch something that may lack any substance. This can be as elusive as straining for the balloon blown by the wind.
Our well-being is predicated on the death and resurrection of Christ and the promise of a renewed world; it is the Holy Spirit who fills us with joy in this hope. The point of life is to give it away. And then watch it return.
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