Happiness, Beauty, and Oppression

On magazine covers and adverts and other such cultural dandruff, I’ve often seen an intriguing phenomenon: the grouping together of health, happiness, and beauty. These are what you will acquire from the latest miracle diet, secret lifestyle tips, or biomedicalised yoghurt.

It’s an odd grouping, when you think about it. In particular, I was struck by the idea of linking happiness and beauty (try googling the phrase “when you look good, you”, and read the first page of results unanimously answer that “when you look good, you feel good”).

It’s not just that they’re not the same thing – you can be ugly and happy, or miserable and beautiful. It’s that they have quite different structures – or so we might think. What I mean is that to be beautiful is to look good to some observer. Even if that observer is yourself, looking at your reflection or your legs, there’s still an analytical distinction between the you-that-sees and the you-that-is-seen. Beauty is mediated by a viewpoint that is, substantively or formally, external.

This is why it’s relatively common to see criticisms of beauty, of the beauty industry, of beauty ideals, of the cult of beauty as a means of oppression. But happiness, surely, is different – it’s a prime example of an unmediated, intrinsic good. When you feel good, that feeling is good, after all.

I want to suggest that ‘happiness’, like beauty, carries suggestions of a relationship, potentially a power relationship, to outside people. I’m not arguing that in a particular culture or cultural product it does actually function as a means of oppression – that verdict I leave open. I just want to show how it could make sense to think of it that way.

So first, we need to put some cracks in the obviousness of happiness as a direct, simple, personal good – what might be expressed by saying that ‘after all, everybody wants (their own) happiness, that’s what drives us.’ This sort of claim, that happiness is sort of necessarily what we’re after, works with an exceedingly abstract, maybe even meaningless, definition of ‘happiness’. We pursue happiness because happiness just means ‘whatever we pursue’.

That’s fine on its own terms, but we also use ‘happiness’ and ‘happy’ in very different, very concrete ways. To be ‘happy’ is a particular emotion, a mood, a particular set of physiological responses and neural patterns, which typically are pleasant but don’t apply to every possible pleasant experience.

In particular, ‘happiness’ is associated iconically with the smile. Smiling stands, perhaps, at the extreme pole of concreteness in our concept of ‘happy’, opposite calculable ‘utility’ at the extreme pole of abstractness.

But now observe that smiling is an enormously social activity. People are far more likely to smile when talking to or facing someone than they are when they’re just feeling happy on their own. That, after all, is why the urge to smile is sometimes a response to a very negative emotion: embarassment. In this case, the smile functions to appease, to try to ‘break the tension’ as much as possible.

That’s not to say all smiling is appeasement. But there’s a reason why the same expression is linked to embarassment and to happiness – in both cases it works similarly, to reduce tension. Tension, bear in mind, is often what we expect (and hope for) from things which are challenging, difficult, novel, or otherwise important.

Recall the point made in this post, that anger is a privilege: some people are accepted and respected when they express anger, while others are looked down on or rejected. Seeing someone angry would certainly be the sort of thing that tends to raise ‘tension’.

So I’ve pointed out the two extremes of what ‘happiness’ means – abstract utility and a concrete pattern of muscle contractions. Presumably, when we hear or use the word, we have some mixture, some ambiguous in-between, in mind. It follows that encouraging people to be happy, or telling them how to be happy, or offering to help make them happy, shares this ambiguity, this shiftiness of meaning.

And one side of that shiftiness, the once concerned with the concrete, specific, expressions of the emotion ‘happy’, is strongly associated with a tension-defusing, unchallenging, social role.

If, in our heads, the image of ‘happiness’ is the energetic, unperturbed, smiling person, then happiness is a way of acting more than it’s a way of feeling, and it’s a way of acting towards others that aims to make oneself as unthreatening as possible, i.e. which actually functions partly, just like beauty, by the mediation of an outside person, the person who isn’t challenged or threatened, the person who your sweetness gratifies and reassures. And that can easily be part of oppression.

(To put it another, more grammatically-minded way: ‘to be happy’ can be turned easily into ‘to be happy with’, which means ‘to accept’, ‘not to complain’)

Now as I said, this doesn’t directly imply that any particular reference to ‘happiness’ is in fact participating in oppression of any particular victim. It’s just meant to outline how it might be, to enable a critical stance towards ‘happiness’ as an ideal and as a marketable goal, in the way that is already commonly done for ‘beauty’.

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2 Responses to Happiness, Beauty, and Oppression

  1. Abigail says:

    I may have seen an example of what you’re talking about just yesterday, when on a whim I Googled “How to overcome cynicism,” and found the results were enough to make anyone cynical. First a Law of Attraction based self help page that tells you all you need to do is decide to feel happy and then you instantly will. Next is a Livestrong.com article on Handling Hostility, Sarcasm, and Cynicism, which tells you your view of life is irrational — you should “become less cause-oriented,” “recognize that the underdog can be successful if that person takes control of his own life,” and basically learn to expect less from life, care less about injustice, and surrender your “need for control”. Next on Google there’s overcoming cynicism in the workplace (which is bad because it will damage your relationship with your boss, and thus your career prospects). Then of course there’s “Selling Innovation: How to overcome cynicism and grow your business.” What most of these come down to is either new age wishful thinking or an admonition to know your place.

    On the other hand . . .
    Acting happy can also be a sign of confidence and thus somewhat threatening, though, can’t it? Open posture that takes up a lot of space, loud voice, energetic movements — these are all more masculine behaviors, but also ones I’m more likely to display when I’m feeling particularly happy and relaxed. I think about when two of my cats are in a staring contest, and then one plops himself down on his side and starts washing while ignoring the other’s glares. It’s like he’s saying, “I’m so badass I don’t even need to defend myself against you.”

    Beauty is that looking good is something you’re supposed to do all the time, but it looks to me like happiness is conditional — people who follow society’s rules are supposed to be happy, while those who break them are supposed to be ashamed. In the evangelical Christian subculture which I was raised in there’s an enormous amount of literature devoted to the cultivation of gratitude — learning to be happy with your lot in life, particularly in relation to marriage and gender roles. In recent years there’s been a lot said about how fake many churches and Christian groups can be, because people find it hard to be “real” while conforming to the expectation to be overwhelmingly happy all the time. On the other hand there isn’t quite the same approval for people who are living in sin and happy about it. Rather than counting their blessings, they’re supposed to be coming to grips with the misery we know they feel deep down inside.

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