“Don’t worry, be happy!” is probably one of the most iconic phrases in modern Western culture. We are continually bombarded with messages that encourage us to be happy, smile, and fulfill ourselves.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with the underlying idea. If it weren’t for the fact that this type of message has been disseminated and distorted to such an extent that the commandment “be happy” has become a new formula for domination, according to the philosopher Byung-Chul Han.
From revolutionary happiness to happiness that subdues
In the old days, it was thought that happiness was simply something that happened. In fact, the English term happiness comes from “happ” and “hæpic”, which mean occasion or fortune the first and equal the second, while in Spanish it comes from the Latin term felix, which sometimes means luck and other times destiny, but it shares also the same root of the Latin word “fecundos” which it means fruitful, fertile, life-giving.
It was with the Enlightenment that philosophers like Voltaire and Rousseau spread the idea that happiness was not a whim of fate or a divine gift, but something that we should all achieve here and now.
Curiously, the idea that “Human beings have the right to be happy and it is the ruler’s mission to achieve it”, as Queralt wrote, gave rise to the Declaration of Independence of the United States (1776) and the Declaration of the Rights of Man (France , 1789), which establish the right to “the happiness of all”.
However, at that time it was understood that social and economic changes were necessary to guarantee people the minimum conditions to be happy. In recent decades, this conception has been changing, so that the search for happiness has ceased to be revolutionary to become something more similar to a tool of domination.
“In the neoliberal society of performance, negativities, such as obligations, prohibitions or punishments, give way to positivities such as motivation, self-optimization or self-realization. Disciplinary spaces are replaced by wellness zones,” Han noted.
As a result, happiness is no longer understood as a social achievement to be seen as a positive emotional capital that should provide uninterrupted capacity for performance. The formal and factual powers realized that they no longer needed to establish iron prohibitions or punishments because the neoliberal propaganda of happiness was enough to promote self-motivation, so that the person himself submits, without even being aware of that submission, all for getting what he has been told will make him happy.
That person believes that he is free because he is “self-realizing” and looking for his happiness. He does not perceive that he is willingly exploiting himself by following the commandments of an external force. As Han said, in modern society “Freedom is not repressed, but exploited. The imperative to be happy generates a pressure that is more devastating than the imperative to be obedient.”
Excommunicating pain plunges us into a state of permanent anesthesia
Han points out that power assumes a positive form in the neoliberal regime. “Unlike repressive disciplinary power, graceful power doesn’t hurt. Power is completely unlinked from pain. It manages without the need to exercise any repression. Submission is carried out as self-optimization and self-realization.”
That kind of power operates in a more seductive and permissive way masked as freedom when in reality it is more repressive than the old disciplinary power, against which we could at least rebel because we were aware of its existence. As a result, the neoliberal device of happiness distracts us from the domain to which we submit ourselves, “voluntarily?” pushing us to a state of introspection where everything is subjectivized.
In practice, the commandment “be happy” ensures that each one deals only with himself, with his own problems and conflicts, instead of critically questioning the social situation. In unison, pain and suffering – which are the other side of joy and happiness – are privatized, becoming solely a personal matter.
This is how is transmitted the idea that what needs to be improved are not social or economic situations, but the moods of people. Society ceases to be responsible for the happiness or suffering of its members to transfer that responsibility onto the shoulders of each one of them. According to Zygmunt Bauman, it makes personal the systemic problems in which the individual feels trapped and defenseless.
And when that person falls into frustration or depression, the “escape route” is to resort to massively prescribed emotional painkillers to not think about the cause of that pain and suffering. Anesthetics that are not only prescribed in the form of pills, but are also supplied through the media, video games so popular in recent times or social networks.
As a result, Han points out that those who have visibility and, therefore, the greatest influence, are no longer the authentic revolutionaries who want to change things, but the motivational coaches and influencers on duty who ensure that discontent does not surface, much less anger in an increasingly unequal world.
This permanent social anesthesia prevents any kind of deep reflection. By numbing suffering and pain – powerful dynamic agents of change – is also eliminated the ability to react. “Neoliberal society immunizes itself against criticism by desensitizing”, as Han said.
For this reason, “Instead of revolution, what there is is depression.” While we strive in vain to heal our soul, we lose sight of the collective situations that cause social imbalances. When we feel afflicted with anguish and insecurity, we don’t look to society for answers, but we blame ourselves because we can’t be as happy or successful as the influencer we follow on social media.
“Chronic pain that could be interpreted as pathological symptoms of the tiredness society does not launch any protest” because suffering loses all connection with power and dominance, becoming a medical and personal matter. “The demand to optimize the soul actually forces it to adjust to established power relations, hides social injustices.”
In fact, the imperative to be happy further isolates people, forcing each one to worry only and exclusively about what makes them happy, instead of trying to understand what causes suffering for everyone.
In the end, the neoliberal idea of happiness ends up reifying it since it is nothing more than the sum of positive sensations that promise an increase in performance and satisfaction, remaining subject to the logic of optimization.
On the other hand, true happiness does not exist outside of suffering. “It is precisely pain that preserves happiness from being reified. And gives it duration. Pain brings happiness and sustains it. Painful happiness is not an oxymoron”, as Han pointed out.
“Deep bliss contains a factor of suffering. If pain is stopped, happiness is trivialized and becomes apathetic comfort. Those who are not receptive to pain also close themselves off from deep happiness”. Therefore, perhaps the time has come to ask ourselves if we are really looking for our happiness or are we chasing the mirage of happiness that the neoliberal system has popularized.
Han, B. (2021) La sociedad paliativa. Barcelona: Herder.
Han, B. (2021) La obligación de ser feliz. In: Ethic.