“The War on Unhappiness” (Harper’s Magazine/PDF)

Meme with a victim-blaming (gaslighting) sentiment typical of the “war on unhappiness” movement.

Following is a PDF file of an excellent (and long) article from the September 2010 issue of Harper’s Magazine tracing the rise of the positive thinking movement, and how it’s been taken to ridiculous and heartbreaking extremes, leading to the victim-blaming mentality and society-wide narcissism so pervasive today.   This attitude that we can all be our own gods and have everything we want if we’re just “happy enough” even infiltrates its way into churches, where “Christian” preachers like Joel Osteen are basically telling their flocks that if they only plaster on a winning smile and just be happy all the time, all their problems will evaporate.

Just like magic!  Magical thinking saves the day!


Besides being a blatant lie (your problems are NOT just going to go away, but you might be able to delude yourself they don’t exist), the nasty flip side of this is that if you are a victim of any misfortune — illness, financial problems, loss of a job, a divorce, mental illness, any other losses of any kind — that it’s your own fault because you weren’t positive or “happy” enough.

Even worse, such victim-blaming tactics turn even darker: they allow a person to not have to take any responsibility for the way you feel.  If they say or did something that hurt you, they don’t have to say they’re sorry, because after all, saying you’re sorry is admitting guilt, and guilt is a Very Bad Thing.  No, so instead, they GASLIGHT you by telling you it’s YOUR problem that what they said or did upset you.  “I’m not responsible for the way you feel,” they say. “That’s YOUR problem.”  Case closed.   Door slammed in your face.

My parents, especially my mother, was notorious for projecting blame back onto me,  but both of them did it long before it became a thing. And of course, no emotions except happiness were allowed. The sad irony is that no one in our family was happy — we were all fucking miserable. But showing misery was verboten because in a narcissistic family, well, you just don’t show your feelings because no one wants to deal with them!

Now don’t get me wrong.  There’s nothing wrong with positive thinking, of course.  It’s a great skill to develop and will make your life a whole lot better than wallowing in a cesspool of self pity and marinating in a stew of misery all the time.   But taken to extremes, anything good can become bad.    This is a perfect example of another of those excesses Americans are so famous (and infamous) for.

The War On Unhappiness: Goodbye Freud, Hello Positive Thinking
By Gary Greenberg

Click to access harpers.pdf


Further reading:
How Positive Thinking “Nazis” Jettison Responsibility
Where I Stand on Positive Thinking

15 thoughts on ““The War on Unhappiness” (Harper’s Magazine/PDF)

  1. I love this post. Just yesterday we were in the car when “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” came on. I turned it off and said, “If it was that damned easy, don’t you think I’d be happy by now.”

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  2. So often I can relate what you write to something pertaining to my own family.

    The last attempt at discussing my feelings with my sister was much like this…from her side of course. And I didn’t say much, once I expressed an emotion she didn’t like.

    I was expressing fear of something. Her immediate response? “You have to stop that.”

    In fact within that phone call she did actually say that I do have a choice about how I feel.

    I’ve recently figured out that the abuse I went through, particularly in those last months involved mostly gas lighting. So it explains why my recovery from this specific (ongoing) incident has been so difficult.

    Ok, gonna go read the article at that link now.

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  3. I wonder if this notion that it’s normal to be happy all the time is behind the overprescription of antidepressant drugs. I am NOT knocking the use of antidepressants when they are warranted and when they do actual good, and I know many people who could not possibly function without them. But I think some doctors are too quick to prescribe them in cases where they are not warranted (such as when someone is legitimately sad over something, such as the death of a loved one) just because it’s faster and easier than dealing with the situation, and drugs are faster, cheaper, and easier than the alternatives. It seems as if too many people think they’re supposed to be happy all the time, and if they’re not happy, that means there’s something wrong and they need to fix it, the quicker the better. They either self-medicate (as my younger brother did, abusing drugs both legal and illegal until he died in his forties of multiple organ failure), or they get their doctor to prescribe antidepressants. And since suicide is one of the risks of antidepressant use, I’m wondering if that’s at least part of what’s behind the recent increase in suicide in this country.

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  4. I just responded to a post on a blog about this exact thing! I said that it’s unrealistic to expect to be happy all the time and that as humans we have a full range of emotions that must be experienced and expressed if we truly want to live a full life. I also said that people are generally as happy as they decide to be (said the optimistic part of me!!!)

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    • I think it’s unrealistic too, and also dangerous. Stuffing emotions is bad for your health on every level, and leads to a false personality and even narcissism. Not that we should go around raging or crying all the time, there’s a place for those intense emotions — but stuffing them or denying their existence is NOT a good thing. Its simply not possible to be happy 24/7, and anyone who says they are, or denies they ever have negative emotions are in denial, or projecting those negative emotions onto others.


      • I didn’t learn healthy emotional expression till I was an adult. I was a stuffer and had the occasional explosion as a result. It bothers me when sometimes I get told I don’t have the right to feel a certain way. Some people make the mistake of thinking that the destructive expression of the emotion means the emotion itself is wrong. The key is to develop healthy expression.

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        • I think lots of people make that mistake. No emotions are wrong if they’re expressed in a way that doesn’t hurt or offend others. So, you’re right. Learning healthy expression of all emotions is they key. As for the stuffing thing, I used to do the same thing as you — stuff them, then explode, usually in ways that I was ashamed of later and had to apologize for.

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