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Smile Or Die: Happiness, Anxiety

February 10, 2011

A friend introduced me to these great series of videos from RSA Animate that animate short lectures. As someone with a photographic learning style (see: The Vegan Stoner) – this is kind of amazing for me. The one which was sent to me (below), entitled “Smile or Die,” raises interesting points about happiness, many of which have been recurrent cultural (and economical, the author argues) themes since the advent of books like The Secret, which activist Barbara Ehenreich abhors in the lecture below.


There was an excellent article recently in The Slate about anxiety levels in America – they are the highest anywhere in the world, with 18% of Americans experiencing an anxiety disorder in any given year.

The author points out to three key reasons, the most interesting of which is the aversion to bad feelings, generally, which struck me. There is an incredible emphasis on feeling good, to the point where feeling bad has been stigmatized, exploited, and essentially stricken from our accepted range of emotions. The New York Times had an excellent piece last year that pointed to the evolutionary need for sadness, and how we have started prescribing antidepressants for sadness, rather than depression alone. Hate that feeling of running a problem over and over in your mind? The value of sadness lies in the need to ruminate and ponder over a problem long enough to resolve it.

The question is: why are we so averse to anxiety and sadness?

I think the answer is two fold. Perhaps we are so beset with first world privileges and consistently having our needs met that the denial of anything, including happiness, now seems unnatural. Do we feel deprived when our lives are less than perfect?

I don’t  mean to discount the literally millions of people in developed countries (especially America) that are still denied some very basic rights, however, lets think of life circumstances in a broader fashion. In the Slate article, the author notes that Nigerians have a five times lower rate of anxiety than Americans – a country where many of the necessities that are taken for granted here, are not always a given. Is it easier for persons in countries less fortunate than ours to accept the inevitable ups and downs of our emotions (and, indeed, life) because they experience the swinging of the the duality pendulum more commonly, and so find it easier to accept that life will not be all-good-all-the-time?

Secondly: feel-good feelings have been seriously exploited for money, money, money. See: antidepressants, and every ad, ever. Here’s my favourite song about Feeling Good by Levon Helm.

The Secret

Ehenreich talks about the optimism like a disease, and points to The Secret as a facilitating mechanism. If you don’t know about The Secret, its essentially that you will get whatever you want, if you can effectively put it out there to the universe.The book is extremely hokey, and I think this has created a lot of disdain for the idea and the author. I, too, do not think if you envision losing weight, without paying attention to your diet, you just will. That’s just one example – it gets worse (see: tsunami happened because the people of Indonesia somehow willed it to).

That said, I think the essence of The Secret, if taken with a grain of common sense, is valid. You take responsibility for what is happening in your life, right now. There is something to be said about awareness and distinguishing between what you think you want, what you really want, and what you are putting out there. The difficult part is, having the clarity and third-person awareness and objectivity  to truly elucidate and separate these intertwined notions.

Essentially, its a testament to the power of the self-fulfilling prophecy, which is admittedly in line with my personal belief that desires – bad and good alike – exist within our lifetimes and span well beyond them (karma and reincarnation). This is not an argument for blaming others for their circumstances – frankly I don’t think that’s any of our business – its about understanding our role in our own lives.

Do I think that we should be eternally optimist? No. A focus on perpetual happiness is a life led with delusion. Should we step back, take responsibility for our shit, and try and figure out how we may be the cause of some of our problems? Hell, yeah.

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