Is Happiness the Truth?

The ubiquitous ‘Happy’ by Pharrell Williams contains in its chorus this disquieting line:

Clap your hands, if you feel like happiness is the truth

Is happiness is the truth? And once that bold idea is introduced, why be so coy as to insist only that we ‘feel like’ happiness is the truth, rather than confidently know it to be so? America itself makes a similar gesture in its founding document, the ‘Declaration of Independence’ (1776), which speaks boldly of ‘certain inalienable rights’, only to stop short of enshrining any more than the ‘pursuit of happiness’ among them. In ‘Happy’ world, we have every right to pursue happiness and to feel like it’s the truth, but full receipt and confirmation are never quite to hand.

In Civilization and its Discontents Sigmund Freud tells us that “what we call happiness, in the strictest sense of the word, arises from the fairly sudden satisfaction of pent up needs. By its very nature it can be no more than a temporary phenomenon”. The temporariness of happiness positions us always in pursuit of it: but if our natural state is less than happy, why do we strive? Could happiness itself be one of the ways in which we are placated and distracted from reality?

The Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser famously stressed that power perpetuates itself not merely “through violence, but through the reproduction of a given set of values”, in the form of “Ideological State Apparatuses” (ISAs). While his main examples are education and religion, today we would have to include mass media pop music of the kind Pharrell produces. If for Pharrell “happiness is the truth”, presumably it is supposed to be so in contrast to the material goods, career aspirations and other apparently shallow pursuits that we might mistake for it. But on the contrary, we only continue to pursue those things as model capitalist citizens because we believe they will make us happy. Material things are not there to distract us from ‘true’ happiness, but rather act like Stations of the Cross with a higher transcendental ‘truth’ of happiness promised at the end of all this pursuit. It is in the nature of ISAs that we are able to hold two such contradictory views of happiness simultaneously.

Freud also remarks that:

It is no wonder that, under the pressure of these possibilities of suffering, people are used to tempering their claim to happiness […] that one counts oneself lucky to have escaped unhappiness and survived suffering.

The necessary ideological complement to a song like Pharrell’s is the way the misery of others is no longer downplayed in culture, but is all around us in harrowing news stories, charity appeals, and demands for Fairtrade goods. At least in part, these ISAs have the effect of teaching us not to be happy, but to “count ourselves lucky” and be thankful to the universe that we are not more unhappy.

Illustrated by Stef Murphy (‪@StefMurphyArt‪); check out her work here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/91710845@N03/

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