Happiness is Just Four Tricks Away! (Special Bonus Rant: Business Insider Edition)

Content note: animated gif

I don’t feel obligated to protect the identity of the original author here, since it’s just a widely available article.

He’ll be fine.

So, the original title of the piece we’re working with today is “I’m Taking Yale’s Class on Happiness – and Halfway Through, These 4 Tricks are Already Working.”

Good for you, buddy.

I knew there had to be a trick to substantive, lasting, soul-fulfilling happiness!

And it seems so right that a white dude named Justin should be the one to reveal those tricks to me.

After spending just a few weeks taking an course created by an elite institution.

You see, hacking happiness works like flying with pixie dust (an equally actual thing).

It’s just as simple as changing your habits.

I wonder which bad habit Justin started with first.

The “too much melanin” habit? Perhaps the “too much estrogen” habit? Maybe the “not enough money” habit, or the “neurodivergence” habit?

“Again, the point here is that these positive habits have been tested and proven to work, based on psychological science.”

The creator of the class he’s taking has “collected all the psychological science out there,” so I’m glad that’s been taken care of.

Mmmm. Delicious, objective science. Home of the placebo effect.

Which is totally irrelevant here.

The science is in, because science is about finding absolute answers and shutting down further inquiry, and the history of psychology research is also free from bias, caveats, or limitations.

Unrelated, maybe don’t look up “replication crisis.”

Anyway, it’s comforting to know that it only takes five weeks to get the gist of this happierness thing. That’s way faster results than I got from that cult I joined last year.

The four “tips and tricks” Justin has chosen to feature in this piece of substantive journalism for Business Insider, a publication with no investment in maintaining a docile and uncritical workforce, are:

  • Focus on Your Strengths
  • Invest in Experiences
  • Learn to Savor More
  • Express Gratitude and Spread Kindness

So simple. So practical. So efficient.

I’m sure some asshole could find a lovely sunset to superimpose this list onto, and then we’d really be in business.

Regardless of circumstance, happiness is equally available to anyone who follows these easy steps.

It doesn’t matter whether they were born already owning a yacht or if they’ve lived their entire lifetime without access to professional health care. It’s still true that both of those hypothetical people have strengths and things to be grateful for!

A cynical person might suggest that “happiness” as an end goal could be seen as a convenient diversion for rich people by rich people to avoid engaging with the real reasons that unhappiness is so persistent in the world in the first place, and maybe even as an excuse to blame unhappy people for their own failures rather than accepting at least partial complicity in perpetuating oppressive and exploitative systems.

But that’s just not backed by the entirely unflawed, objective, and apolitical science of psychology.

I wasn’t sure if there was any way I could savor this listicle masquerading as an article any more than I already did, but then I read the advice in the voice of the Hedonismbot from Futurama, and added the words “in bed” to the end of every sentence, as per fortune cookie tradition.

  • Focus on Your Strengths … in bed
  • Invest in Experiences … in bed
  • Learn to Savor More … in bed
  • Express Gratitude and Spread Kindness … in bed
Animated gif of the Hedonism Bot character from Futurama, eating bunches of grapes and saying “I apologize for nothing!”

Closing thoughts:

There is plenty of trustworthy research that supports some aspects of positive psychology.

And the goal of understanding how to help humans feel less bad about living their lives certainly has value.

And I grant that the kinds of suggestions provided in the article are purposefully framed to be as generalizable as possible, in order to be applicable across more circumstances and contexts, so that they aren’t as easily dismissed by a jerk like me saying, “That’s not actually practical for most people.”

Still, I can’t get over how it’s decontextualized to the point where the reasons why we need to study and practice something as fundamental as “experiencing good feelings” are secondary to the goal of “experiencing good feelings.”

The fact that positive psychology is so widely embraced and promoted by rich white people definitely gives me pause, when it is also largely a framework that blames disenfranchised individuals for not having felt or thought right.

On this blog I’ll frequently reference Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America. In this excerpt, she describes some encounters she had with Martin Seligman, the “father of positive psychology.” She writes, “When one audience member proposed renaming positive psychology ‘applied behavioral economics,’ because ‘it’s popular in business schools and goes with high salaries,’ nobody laughed.” The popularity of positivity psychology and its disdain for ‘learned helplessness’ reminds me too much of social Darwinism as a means of justifying beliefs that disproportionately harm members of already marginalized populations.

I’m not here to question whether there’s merit in recognizing strengths, having experiences, savoring things, and expressing gratitude.

I advocate for all of these things.

Just, maybe feeling happy after understanding and practicing these habits isn’t as much a “trick” as it is a normal consequence of not ceding control of your good feelings to a ubiquitous conglomeration of rapacious systems that benefit from your misery.

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