Is Our Obsession With Happiness Making Us Less Resilient?

My grandfather was convinced about the unnatural distribution of suffering where happiness seemed almost illicit.

3 min read
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My early memories of my grandfather was how he interpreted the world through the reminiscence of a series of losses - loss of livelihoods following a famine, bereavement over losing a sibling from an unknown illness, loss of childhood owning to a violent, persistent abuse, and finally, countless stories of youth who lost the opportunity to dream a future (during the Naxalite movement of Bengal, 1967).

My grandfather was convinced about the unnatural distribution of suffering where happiness seemed almost illicit, happening to other people.

He felt no obligation to shelter anyone (even children) from life’s vicissitudes and believed that experiencing trauma was part of a seemingly “normal” childhood.

It is perhaps his acceptance of life’s subservience to fate that led him to join the Indian judiciary system where he was known to deliver dispassionate decisions to his clients regardless of their socioeconomic histories.

As he grew older, these stories of death and deprivation were told and retold, sometimes with more vehemence.

To be sure, memory offers an interesting springboard to elicit stories, intertwined with social histories that often serve a vehicle for constructing self-hood and maintaining continuity in the face of change.

Memory scholars have noted how reminiscence is both a social and a performative act as it is inter-generational.

For example, memory-based narratives of those surviving wars, political insurgencies and epidemics have shown the relevance of upholding the ideal of “remembering hope” but at the same time shaping younger generations’ engagement with historical memory and political imaginary.

Seen this way, memory is both a phenomenon and a method. It offers a lens to reflect how - as a society - we have come to use memory in a selective way that remains trapped in the elusive quest of eternal joy.

I ask if this selective amnesia due to our incessant obsession with happiness and positive thinking (aptly marketed by the self-help industry with the range of gurus, books and life coaches) is making us less resilient as a collective.

To do so, I will return to another grandparent, my own father. My grandfather’s meaning-making through memory is in stark contrast to my own father, now a grandfather to my four-year old son.

My father’s stories of reminiscence spark hope, longing and happiness. He is routinely found narrating stories to my wide-eyed 4-year old of imaginary demons who can be conquered by goodness of the heart or recounting the joys of fishing in the local pond or boyhood tales from his village where children climbed tall coconut trees, bathed in the river and danced in the rains.

One time, while jumping on puddles in the aftermath of monsoon rains, my son stepped on a grasshopper. I noticed my father’s assiduous attempt to explain to my bewildered son the reason behind the motionless creature and weaved a fantastical tale of how it will come back with bigger wings so that it can touch the skies.

His narration of death was a hopeful one beaming with possibilities of growth and positivity. I wonder if such a shielding is necessary, since young children are known to be more resilient, partly due to their inability to disentangle fact from fantasy.

What is the Difference Between Happiness & Satisfaction?

The larger question is, what does this denial and a tempting recourse to idealised versions of future lead us in our ultimate and perhaps undeniable goal of being happy. Behavioural scientists offer useful guidance.

They make a distinction between happiness (which is momentary and hence fleeting) and satisfaction (an effective state that is built over-time and hence more enduring).

Based on this distinction, social scientists caution us that a series of happy tales does not automatically add up to life satisfaction.

Notably, memory is the key since feelings (of happiness/pain) pass but satisfaction is retrospective. This is an important learning during times of crisis when a return to memory and nostalgia can be forgiving.

As we cope with the ongoing pandemic and grapple with the uncertainties of its many unforeseeable futures, it is important that we go past the cultural dialogue that is fundamentally avoidant.

Instead, let us contest the “tyranny of positivity” by drawing on memories of both hope and despair to evolve into resilient selves.

Tannistha Samanta is an Associate Professor with the Department of Social Sciences, School of Liberal Education, FLAME University. Her interest lies in family sociology and gerontology. She tweets @tannistha14

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