Oct 11th, 2015, 06:44 PM

The Oversimplification Of Happiness

By Madeline Barnett
(Photo: Pixabay)
Stop Telling Your Sad Friend To "Cheer Up." You're probably just making it worse.

I often hear people give vague and un-researched self-help guidance like, “Happiness is simple. If you want to be happy, be.” This oversimplified advice also frequently comes in the form of obnoxious pictures of sunsets paired with an overlay of inspirational text. Even the man himself, Abe Lincoln, dumbed down the issue (no offense, Abe) claiming, “People are just as happy as they make their minds to be.” That’s not true, and happiness is not simple. If happiness can be achieved by simply altering one’s mindset, why then is “The pursuit of happiness” one of the most basic foundations of American rights?

Self-help is a $10 billion per year industry in the U.S., and the the majority of people purchasing self-help books have already purchased one within the last 18 months. These simple statistics alone help demonstrate that the ever-elusive state of happiness is more difficult to achieve for certain people than others. It could also suggest that self-help efforts are usually futile.

“Happiness” is a broad term with different definitions, but here we will examine the emotion based on the context of “contentment,” particularly contentment with one’s self.

Yes, happiness is an emotion and, as such, unhappiness and happiness alike are often treated as an idea rather than something tangible. With this perspective, it is easy to assume that one can alter their state of mind if they try hard enough. In reality, though, for many people, being happy is as difficult as being a professional tightrope walker who just had both their legs amputated. Some people have to work harder than others to reach a place of contentment, just like some people have a naturally glowing complexion while the rest of us are sitting at home caking on acidic mud masks and washing them off with our own tears. (I’m talking about other people, here. I have obviously never done that.) Anyone claiming, “Happiness is simple” has most likely been genitically predisposed to the emotion and is therefore giving biased advice.

(Photo: Pixabay)

The elusiveness of self-contentment struck a new cord for me as I was walking out of my very beginner French course a few weeks ago. The class is full of intelligent, funny, and painfully well-dressed college freshmen around eighteen years old, and I am auditing the course as a graduate student. Instead of feeling confident and experienced when I walk into this class, I feel awkward and out of place. Their unjaded optimism, big city dreams, and seemingly never-ending shoe collections make me want to throw my entire wardrobe into the Seine and start my life over from freshman year of high school.

Claiming that these undergraduates exude sheer contentment and have zero insecurities would of course be a false statement, and it is not the point I wish to make. What was important about this realization is the fact that, when I was a freshman, I longed to be in the place where I am at right now. And now, as a graduate student with a few years of professional experience under my belt, I am nostalgic for my undergraduate years, thinking that if I could go back in time I could somehow make better choices. At the same time, I look to some utopian idea of my future self, wishing I could skip ahead a few years to when my career is more established, I know exactly what I want, and I have a unshakable plan to get there. Then will I finally be content.

Contentment is a tricky thing, and I am not alone in feeling this way. Only 33% of Americans claim to be “very happy,” and the self-help industry has clearly failed at achieving its’ goal of boosting that percentage, as the number of Americans diagnosed with depression increases by 20% every year. Over simplifying the problem by claiming that happiness can be achieved by a quick change of mindset is not only degrading to the person who is experiencing feelings of unhappiness, but is also incredibly ignorant.