The Cult of Happiness

Hugh's latest book in my hands.
Hugh’s latest book in my hands.

One of my favourite authors is Hugh Mackay. We have a lot in common. A passion for understanding how the human mind works and how we relate to one another.

The first book of his that I read was The Art of Belonging. It was hard to get through because it was so good I had to stop constantly to take notes and underline important passages. Last year I arranged to listen to him speak at a public seminar, but two days before the seminar, I had an accident and almost killed myself. During the nine months it took to recover, I enjoyed some email conversations with Hugh. When he told me he was writing a book about religion, I became incredibly excited. Why would a book about religion excite me? Hasn’t that topic been covered numerous times? My interest however is in what religion does to a person, how it makes them feel, how it makes them react and interact. Does it make them judge others more, or less? Does it increase one’s happiness or decrease it? What does it do for the social life of a person, whether in or outside of a religious group? How is it connected to our identity? Is faith actually arrogance with a polite label? The questions go on and on, but the core of my interest are the psychological and sociological effects of belief.

After a few false starts, I was finally able to meet Hugh Mackay.
After a few false starts, I was finally able to meet Hugh Mackay.

When I heard Hugh was hosting another seminar to release this new book, I was the first to secure a ticket. I was also curious to see if he’d recognize me, as we’d never met in person. I was up the back of the room in the public library, yet he seemed to spot me immediately as I listened eagerly to each and every word. There are so many things I could quote you, but I’d like to hone in on just two points which truly resonated with me.

One, is that for the past three decades we have been sold “Us”. Well, that’s how I word it. What I mean—well what Hugh means—is that through advertising, we have been told we are Unique. Special. Important. We deserve everything. We deserve perpetual happiness. And because of this, we deserve to have “stuff”. Because other people aren’t just coming along and giving us this “stuff,” we need to buy it. All those pretty things, nice things, shining things, moving things, beeping things, glowing things, things on wheels and things that taste good, we deserve them, because we are so darned amazing. So we buy it, the pretty thing. But in doing so we have also bought into the corporate party line, that we deserve their item, for the sake of our happiness, because we are so very special. When the thrill of that item wears off, which it will, we make another purchase, we buy the shiny thing and then after a while that item no longer makes us feel special so we buy another. Eventually we run out of money. We’re told (sold) that we are so special we should use credit, and so we get into debt to buy the thing on wheels.

Have I made you completely defensive? Are you wagging your finger at the computer, berating me? Can I hear you yell, “Are you telling me I’m not special?” Followed by a defeatist exhale of “Well, what’s the point of anything if I am not special?”

No! I am not telling you you’re not special. Please don’t close this tab just yet. You are special, but perhaps we need to review our expectations of what the world owes us. Which brings me onto Hugh’s second point, happiness. Oh, how I found myself nodding to this one, I almost stood up and started singing “Hallelujah”.

There has been a recent surge of “optimism cures all” in the past ten years. ‘The Secret’ was a massive success and I personally read the book, loved and applied much of it into my own life, with great results. Also, the internet is saturated with endless memes about being happy and positive. One post after another after another, hundreds and thousands of positive reinforcements scroll onto people’s devices every second of every day. “There are TED talks and entire shelves in book stores” (direct quote from Hugh there) dedicated to the topic of happiness, how we deserve it and how to achieve it. I confess I have a pile of these books under my bed, many of which I did not get past the first chapter and they’re waiting to be delivered to the next Rotary second-hand book stall. They all contain a recipe for eternal happiness.

Why shouldn’t we be happy? We deserve it, right? We may only live this one life (or not), so don’t we deserve to feel blissful every moment? Being interested in psychology, let me change the topic slightly and ask another question instead. Does not having an extreme perception of, well anything, cause problems in other aspects of our life? I have found the side effect of this level of forced optimism is that when you don’t feel so good, you think something is wrong with you and you have some kind of fault. Many times I have been subjected to the following internal dialogue: “I am not happy, that’s bad. I deserve to be happy,” and the added self-flagellating thought, “I must be doing something wrong, so it’s my fault, I am bringing this upon myself”. When we inevitably find ourselves unhappy, we think there is something wrong with us and we blame ourselves for being unhappy, so we feel guilty about being unhappy. Are you starting to see a circular flaw in this equation?

Hugh suggests that being perpetually happy is actually an impossibility. If we were perpetually happy, we would not know we are happy. We would be flat-lining in an emotional sense. We would always feel the same so we would not understand that happiness is a positive emotion as there would be nothing to compare it to. It’s the contrast between the different emotional states that helps us judge and understand an emotion. Although we are special and unique, let’s try to remove the corporation’s beautiful commercials from our mind, the ones that exaggerate our ‘amazingness’. There are billions of amazing, unique people in the world. It might be better for global peace if we realize we are special, but that does not mean we are more important than other people.

Many of you will know that I am campaigning to stop the use of single-use disposable plastic. My research has not just been about the chemical make-up of plastic and how it is recycled, a vast component is the psychology behind why we use plastic. We have been sold the concept of our ‘specialness’ and this over rides our human decency and ability/desire to look after the needs of humankind as a whole. If we buy a cup of coffee in a disposable cup with a plastic lid or a bag of frozen peas or a packet of spaghetti from the supermarket, we are saying “I think I am special. I am very busy. I don’t have time to use my own cup, or insist the cafe use my own ceramic cup. I am too busy to make a purchase that does not involve plastic. I am too busy and important to make my own pasta or insist the manufacturers pack these goods in something that will not poison the environment. This whole attitude and obsession with the self is the root cause of our environmental issues and also the core of why we feel we deserve all these things, including perpetual happiness. This belief has been sold to us by those who want our money. They taught us we’re too busy and too important to think about the harm our actions will cause on others, even on our progeny. Have you ever given thought to the fact that oil will at some point, run out? So the oil in a take away cup or disposable plastic wrapping may not be able to generate life sustaining warmth and energy for our grandchildren. But we don’t question it. Who wants to question their own ‘specialness’?

What does Hugh Mackay suggest is the answer to this modern dilemma? That we actually do not need to be happy all the time. Being unhappy is a natural part of the human experience. It’s OK to be miserable or even angry.

Recently I was invited to enrol in a course by my friend Joe. I’d met Joe the year before, our professions lead to our paths crossing and along with working together on a project, we’d started to develop a friendship. Joe convinced me the course was going to be awesome and told me it would be great if I came. I was anxious about doing the course—it was well out of my comfort zone—but I knew I could rely on Joe for support during a time where I would be in a foreign environment, while learning new skills. The course cost me a lot in time and money, but it was something I was really looking forward to. However, something happened that changed the dynamics between Joe and I. As the months ticked by leading up to the course, Joe received a significant promotion, and with it came power and popularity. My new friend had been swamped with people offering him adulation and anything else he desired. Joe, who had previously been appreciative of my friendship and kindness, had a sudden and distinct shift in his behaviour and attitude toward me. He now had many other people offering him what I already had, and suddenly I was of no worth. Actually, I had quickly become an annoyance. The positive shift in Joe’s own life, ricocheted negatively into mine. I burst into the foyer on the first day of the course, ready to explode with excitement and expected to find Joe in the same mind set. But Joe was no longer the person I knew (or thought I knew). He had been invaded by the ‘ego’ virus and was clearly intent on making sure that I knew he no longer desired or required my company or kindness. The ‘cold shouldering’ continued for the entire duration of the course. I was trapped with someone who deliberately and consistently spoke down to me and turned their back on me at every possible opportunity. I was hurt. I was angry.

Our cult of positivity has convinced us that if we think negatively, bad stuff will happen, but I wasn’t thinking negatively, I was actually extremely happy! Joe however had made the decision to treat me in a demeaning manner. The one thing I came away with from this experience, is that I have the right to be angry. It’s OK to be angry. I am allowed to be angry and sad and hurt. There is nothing wrong with that. Permitting myself to feel these negative emotions, actually allowed me to return to a happy state. So hats off to Hugh and his research. I don’t have to be perpetually happy and the contrast of feeling bad, has given me a benchmark to know what happiness feels like.

I have Hugh’s new book Beyond Belief in my hands. Even though I have had some challenges recently, I am feeling totally happy. Why? Because I know I don’t have to be.

My copy of 'Beyond Belief' signed by the author.
My copy of ‘Beyond Belief’ signed by the author.
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