The Downside of “Happiness”

It's more complicated than it seems

I have had many exes I knew were wrong for me (too controlling, too conservative, too sweet), but I’ve only had one ex who knew I was wrong for him. In short: I wasn’t happy enough. Part of B’s charm was his own happiness. He had a boyish playfulness, combined with a strong willingness to make sure those around him were happy. Happiness was a thing he valued. I didn’t think to disagree.

About halfway through our relationship, I graduated from divinity school and didn’t have a job, or even any idea of what kind of job I might want. I did some freelance editing and stayed with B in his room at one of the Harvard undergraduate dormitories, where he was working as a resident advisor. Most of my close friends had moved away. I slept in most mornings and stayed up late watching the new website Hulu. I felt guilty that, at twenty-four and mainly unemployed and technically cohabitating, I was setting a bad example for the students living on the floor. I cried a lot and long into the night. In the end, B’s own desire to appear happy meant that he didn’t tell me he was unhappy (with me, with my own unhappiness) until he was so unhappy that he broke up with me. We weren’t right for each other.

Dan and I are right for each other, in part because we are each more prone to the occasional sullen angst. Mine tends to happen on the subway at 7:30 in the morning when the woman next to me is watching a television costume drama on her phone that reenacts the 1937 Japanese invasion and she isn’t wearing headphones and the air above ground is the orange-gray muck of something like thirty times more polluted than the legal limit in the United States. Is this life? I want to know. Is this what I’m meant to be doing? At my stop, I join others in shoving our way out of the train.

These moments of Shanghai subway despair are fleeting, but there have been periods of my life in which I have been truly sad. I’ve never suffered from major depression, not from the crippling nightmare that I have watched in others, but I haven’t always been very happy. I’ve had—as the many euphemisms go—a hard time of it, been in a bad way, down in the dumps. Sometimes the reasons were clear, but other times unhappiness came—what Winston Churchill called the “black dog”—and settled in and nosed my palm and kept me up at night and wouldn’t let me alone or tell me why, exactly, it had come.

Here in my writing, I am tempted to clarify something. I’m tempted to add, “But I’m a pretty happy person overall.” Why am I tempted to write this? Why do I feel I must be clear, publicly, that I am generally happy? I think this impulse comes from a sense that happiness is success and that to fail to be happy is to fail to be successful. And in our American cultural narrative, this failure is usually your own fault. Maybe you’re not trying hard enough. Maybe you’re pursuing the “wrong” ends. Maybe you’re just lazy. (Or maybe you’re poor because you’re lazy, right?) Maybe you’ve got a chemical imbalance that needs to be fixed. Anything for the goal, which is the finale of the American credo. We could say it together—life, liberty, and, well, you know the rest…


I recently stumbled across the book The Promise of Happiness, in which philosopher Sara Ahmed considers how this cultural promise of happiness is actually problematic. She argues that this focus on happiness relies on false notions of what happiness is and how it comes about. Ahmed also identifies four groups of people who fight for social justice and challenge the moral imperative to be happy: “the feminist killjoy, the unhappy queer, the angry black woman, and the melancholy migrant.”

Although the genealogy of a word can only tell us how a word was born and not what it means to us today, Ahmed notes that the word happiness comes “from the Middle English word hap suggesting chance. The word happy originally meant having ‘good “hap” or fortune,’ to be lucky or fortunate.” Happiness, in its oldest English understanding, does not come from effort of will or hard work or careful strategy, but is a result of happenstance. It is not earned, but given to the fortunate.

I like remembering that happiness and happenstance share a linguistic root, because we live in a society in which the game of happenstance is rigged. Like Ahmed, I want to advocate for more honesty about happiness: when and why some might be more happy than others, and how the structure of our society perpetuates myths that happiness is available to all (or to most) in equal measure. It may in fact just be easier for a white, upper middle-class, male Harvard alumnus to be happy than it is for a single mother working the night shift. This is not to say that single parents cannot be happy (or in fact, happier). It’s true that there are any number of unhappy folks who are also wealthy. But until Mr. Harvard willingly trades places with Working Single Mom, we can’t deny that material comforts and economic and educational opportunities—for ourselves and our children—play a large role in our possible happiness.

We feminists already know this. Ahmed writes that “to inherit feminism can mean to inherit sadness. There is sadness in becoming conscious not only of gender as the restriction of possibility, but also of how this restriction is not necessary.” When we stare squarely and clear-eyed at structural inequality, we become angry, and rightly so. “Feminists do kill joy in a certain sense,” Ahmed argues. “They disturb the fantasy that happiness can be found in certain places.” The same is true for those who fight for equality in all forms. We are what Judith Butler calls “troublemakers”; we understand that unhappy voices are important ones.


Of course, philosophers have long argued over what happiness is exactly. Is happiness the feeling of pleasure? The absence of melancholy? Or is it something else, something more in line with what we would call “well-being”? Maybe happiness is just one effect of living a life that is challenging and rich in experience. Happiness isn’t the only effect of this kind of living, of course: To face real sorrow, to fight for justice that has not been fulfilled, or to live with physical or emotional suffering is to experience the world in what Thoreau would call its “meanness.” To experience the world’s meanness is painful and difficult work. We might mourn for years; we might sit with others in their grief. We might encounter unimaginable frustration and unfairness. We might be burdened as caregivers. Our own bodies will eventually betray us. All this, joy but struggle too, is a part of the good life.

Ahmed’s claims have helped me to think about how marriage and happiness are intertwined. Or perhaps how they aren’t. A few weeks ago, Dan and I sat down to write our wedding vows. In preparation, we looked at the traditional Protestant vows. Damn, they’re good. I wasn’t sure if we could construct something better. These are vows of steadfastness. For better or for worse means either way and whatever hap-pens, happy or not.

I can’t make Dan happy, and he can’t make me happy. We won’t promise to do so. Of course, I hope not to drive Dan into a state of wild unhappiness. Insofar as our lives are linked, our happinesses are linked as well (happy partner, happy life?). In addition to my own happiness, I want happiness for Dan because I love him. But part of my work as his partner is to recognize his unhappiness and to sit alongside him in it, when he needs me to do so. This is not to say that I shouldn’t try to help Dan as much as I can, but it is also a recognition that happiness is fleeting and at times elusive. We won’t always grasp it, and we’ll forgive ourselves if we don’t. Our lives might not always be happy, but they will be full with experience and with one another.  

Featured Sponsored Content

Please read our comment policy before you comment.

The APW Store is Here

APW Wedding e-shop

go find all our favorites from around the internet, and our free planning tools

Shop Now
APW Wedding e-shop

Planning a wedding?

We have all the planning tools you need right now.

Budget spreadsheets, checklists, and more...

Get Your Free Planning Tools