I am interested in the notion of “happiness” as a goal or as an ideal state. “The History of Happiness”, by Peter N. Stearns” (Harvard Business Review, January-February 2012), traces prevailing attitudes towards happiness, in the west, as well as cultural differences. A quote I found interesting, and the one that begins the article is this: “A modern Russian adage holds that ‘a person who smiles a lot is either a fool or an American’.” (page 104).

In my disconsolate teenage years, a close relative, not an American, said to me: “Well, who said you were going to be happy all the time? Where did you get that idea?” Well, I guess that I got the idea somehow; I certainly did not make it up. Apparently, Americans took the lead, beginning in the 1920s, in promoting “the importance of being happy and the personal responsibility to gain happiness.” (page 107). The pursuit of happiness as a goal was new in the 18th century, beginning with our Declaration of Independence: “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

So, is happiness a human state of perfection? Is it something we should try to cultivate in our organizations? We construct our culture through stories and language: “Don’t worry, be happy.”

What really jumped out as I read through the article is how ingrained the notion of happiness is, in our culture: the smiley face; destinations like Disney World, which emphasize having fun and making people happy; parental worry if a child appears to be unhappy. “Happiness is as essential as food if a child is to develop into normal manhood or womanhood” (page 108). So, in defense of myself as a teenager, I did somehow expect that I was supposed to be happy and came by that expectation “honestly”, as they say.

What we know to be normal is what we learn from the family and culture in which we grow up. It’s hard to see these influences as choices or to imagine that there might be other perspectives.

If there is a cultural expectation that we be happy, what does it mean if we are not? Stearns says (page 108), “Understanding the happiness imperative as an artifact of modern history, not as an inherent feature of the human condition, opens new opportunities to understand central facets of our social and personal experience.” If we have constructed the notion of happiness, then it is not pathological to not be happy. Sadness and melancholy are part of our emotional landscape as humans. In fact, it may be dangerous to think of sadness as pathology. Stearns says, (page 109) “We know that at least one-fourth of depression diagnoses are mistakes, confusion of normal sadness with a pathological state.”

So, what are we striving for? Appreciative Inquiry, my favored approach for helping individuals, groups and organizations who are trying to make various kinds of changes, builds on our strengths. Building on strengths and looking at things positively is not the same as striving for happiness. When we are working from our strengths, and expanding our capacity to do what we care about, we may also be learning to manage adversity. To me this speaks of life in all of its fullness, not just happiness.

In my work in organizations, I am not promoting happiness. I am advocating for connection, partnership, dignity, careful and compassionate communication. Life contains all of it and it’s all temporary … I have found that I may experience happiness or contentment or sadness for a while and then it changes. It is all an exquisite balance. This ever-changing balance is what gives life its marvelous dimensionality.

Martha Lask’s Blog

Occasional musings about books, articles or tools that might be of interest; I welcome your comments.

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