The H-word: Happiness

On May 22nd the magazine DIVA and the mental health charity PACE are holding an evening event called The H-word. The H-word in question is happiness, and the plan is to have a discussion about happiness, health and well-being and about how people can support each other towards ‘happier, more meaningful lives’, with a particular focus on lesbian, bisexual and queer women.

The focus on these groups is appropriate because both women, and lesbian, bisexual and queer people, are particularly highly diagnosed with mental health problems such as depression and anxiety (when compared with men, on the one hand, and heterosexual people on the other). They also self-report higher levels of distress and lower levels of happiness and well-being than other groups.

My brief presentation at the event will focus on the social aspects of such suffering. Women’s experiences of depression have been linked, for example, to the ways in which women are socially expected to demonstrate distress (sadness and fear, rather than anger), and to aspects of conventional femininity such as having identities which are strongly bound up with other people’s well-being and feeling a lack of agency over their own lives. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGBT) people have higher rates of such problems because of the challenges of living within a heteronormative world and related experiences of homophobia, biphobia and transphobia. Recent research has found that rates of depression, self-harm and suicide are particularly high amongst bisexual and queer people, which is likely linked to their lack of visibility in wider culture. It is difficult indeed to have one’s identity questioned, ridiculed, and/or disregarded by heterosexual and lesbian and gay communities alike.

Suffering is often exacerbated when distress which has such a strong social component is regarded as being something which is internal to the individual themselves. Currently there is a powerful cultural tendency to see all distress as being internally caused. Many people believe that when they are depressed or anxious there are only two possible ways of understanding this: Either they are ill, and they need help, but at least this means that it is not their fault. Or they are not ill, and therefore don’t need help, but this means that they are to blame for their own suffering (the ‘pull your socks up’ attitude). Both of these understandings are internal: either there is something physically wrong, or there is some kind of personal deficiency on the part of the individual. Such understandings can prevent us from seeing – and addressing – any social element to our suffering. They also catch us in a double bind whereby we have to accept that there is something wrong with us or that we are blameworthy, neither of which is a great outcome. Also, either understanding continues to haunt the other even if we dismiss it. If we accept that we are ill we often worry that somebody will discover that we are not really ill and will be ‘found out’ for faking in some way. If we accept that it is up to us to deal with our problems we often fear that there might really be something wrong with us and that that will be exposed.

An alternative to this internal perspective is to see all forms of human distress as complexly biopsychosocial. Of course there are some physical vulnerabilities which we have to experience distress in certain ways, and social experiences like being the victim of prejudice write themselves on our psychology and biology in various ways (affecting brain chemistry, thought patterns, and the way neurons wire up, for example). However, our biology is intrinsically interwoven with the ways in which we experience the world, and the ways in which it treats us. The statistics on mental health problems in women and LGBT people alert us to just how important these social aspects can be, and may leave us asking whether ‘depression’ or ‘oppression’ is the more useful word to apply. Opening up the possible role of social forces also opens up potential for other ways of addressing struggles than the common individual modes of drugs or therapy. Both community involvement and activism because important possibilities to consider.

This finally leads us to the H-word and why I find it somewhat troubling. We hear a lot at the moment about the importance of individuals achieving happiness through positive psychology. However, there is a real danger that this throws us back into an internal understanding of such things: ‘Everyone should be happy and here are some techniques you can use to achieve it. If you can’t achieve it then there is something wrong with you’.

In her book, The Promise of HappinessSara Ahmed talks about the ways in which happiness may be more available to some rather than others (often those who can more easily conform to the ‘norm’). She suggests that we require ‘feminist killjoys’ and ‘unhappy queers’ if we are to reach a more equal society where pleasure isn’t always found at the expense of others or by conforming to problematic power hierarchies.

There is a related idea in the mindfulness approach which I find useful. Buddhists believe that it is actually the craving for happiness which is the cause of suffering. Our consumer culture constantly tells us what we need to be happy (more money, fame and success, the perfect partner, the ideal body, the product they are selling etc.). As Sara Ahmed points out, such things are more accessible to some than others, but even for those who can get them they are never enough. Mindfulness advocates an alternative approach of bringing our attention to the here-and-now, rather than constantly striving after whatever we think we need to be happy. It also advocates being with whatever emotions we’re experiencing rather than privileging one (happiness) over all others.

I was interested that the H-word event description talked about finding ‘happier, more meaningful lives’ as if these two things necessarily go together. From another perspective we might regard constantly grasping after happiness as the very thing which will prevent us from achieving it. It might be that in order to have a meaningful life we need to let go of the quest for happiness. If we turn our focus to welcoming all emotional states and what they have to tell us, and to compassionately seeking to improve society through mutual support, perhaps we may find that happiness sneaks up on us after all.

Find Out More

An interesting piece by Suzanne Moore in The Guardian on the way that the happiness agenda personalises what are social issues.



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