Happiness | Jeremy De Chavez

by Critical Asia

by Jeremy De Chavez, Dec. 2021】

In writing a brief account on happiness, one is tempted to comment on the relation of happiness with temporality. On that score, happiness has earned a notorious reputation for premature departures, even if it is, for many, a guest that could never really overstay its welcome. In his Civilisation and Its Discontents, a work that could be considered an extended reflection on the problem of happiness, Sigmund Freud referred to happiness as an “episodic phenomenon,” and necessarily so.[1] Freud observed that human beings could only endure a certain amount of pleasure before euphoric states regress into lukewarm joy (or in some cases, even pain), making him conclude that our “prospects for happiness are restricted by our constitution”.[2] For psychoanalysis, to structure a life around happiness is, in a sense, to play a game that one could never win, for our desire for happiness will always be greater than what we could take in. Happiness is thus always fractional, and it is so for our own good even if we are slow to realise it. But while our psyches impose a necessary cap on our pleasures (as the precondition for civilisation), many of us nevertheless align our lives toward the pursuit of happiness, and often at the expense of our own flourishing. This might explain Thomas Jefferson’s somewhat curious phrasing of what he thought are our inalienable rights: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Note that in his list only happiness is a pursuit. He does not go so far as to assert that we all deserve happiness (as we do life and liberty), but we do at least deserve to pursue it without impediment. In this sense, one’s relationship with happiness is anticipatory, and thus, as Sara Ahmed suggests borrowing a phrase from Lauren Berlant, happiness might be conceived as a “cluster of promises.”[3]

To think of the promise of happiness underscores a different relation of happiness with temporality. Happiness is not something that has come and gone (an understanding of happiness captured by Theodor Adorno when he wrote: “He alone keeps faith who says: I was happy”), but something yet to come. It is this relation of happiness to futurity that makes it a world-making activity since “happiness shapes what coheres as a world”.[4] That is to say, a certain version of the world is constructed in an anticipatory relation with certain objects (i.e., things, people, ideas, fantasies, etc.) that promise happiness. What is consequently exposed by Ahmed’s inquiry is that while the pursuit of happiness is supposedly open to all, happy objects, it turns out, are more accessible to an already privileged group of individuals. In her work, Ahmed analyses the experience of minorities whose lives bear the imprint of negative affects—feminist killjoys, melancholy migrants, unhappy queers—to show how those epithets are a consequence of their resistance to power, which is often framed as a rejection of their own happiness (and which in turn compromises the happiness of others). Think of the change in mood when someone calls out casual misogynistic jokes; or when migrants signify cultural difference, seemingly as a form of defiance to easy assimilation and the happy fantasy of multiculturalism; or when queer individuals are framed as the cause of the unhappiness of their families. These are situations often framed as obstacles to the pursuit of happiness of others. One is thus coerced to realign oneself to the promise of happiness in order to forgo those melancholy epithets. This realignment comes with the proviso that in capitulating to the demands of happiness one should make certain adjustments, and to do so voluntarily: “I choose to be happy!”.  The promise of happiness insists individuals to change so that things may remain the same.

From Jacques Lacan’s pronouncement that happiness is but a “bourgeois dream” to Herbert Marcuse’s notion of “happy consciousness” as a reflection of conformism to Lauren Berlant’s concept of “cruel optimism” as a self-destructive relation to the future, Theory has been overwhelmingly distrustful of happiness and its proximate concepts as the basis of a good life. The idea is that the intoxicating force of happiness will diminish our critical, and consequently our radical, impulses (for “Surely, surely slumber is more sweet than toil,” to quote Alfred, Lord Tennyson). But is it possible to rehabilitate the concept of happiness? To rethink the concept, as Adorno says, from the “standpoint of redemption.” This question again solicits the thinking of the relation of happiness with temporality. One way we might think about this is to reframe the adversarial relation between happiness and unhappiness as one of happenstance, which asks that we focus on the hap—luck, chancein happiness. Jean-Luc Nancy writes,

Neither happiness nor unhappiness, there is happenstance, the sense of happenstance, of the good and bad encounter, of the possibility—incessantly renewed—that there could be a good and a bad happenstance, that it could be necessary to choose one against the other, but, first of all, to choose to have this choice and not to have it, not to master the sense of the happenstance, the fractal combinatory of events that make up a world.[5]

To possess a strong sense of happenstance is to decouple the immediate association of happiness with the good. It also collapses the simple binary that our choices are reducible to an either/or: happiness or unhappiness. It is a way to liberate ourselves from the demand to be happy and to make others happy. It opens up the future to other forms and possibilities of what it means to live a happy life, so that most of us might live happily ever after. Maybe.

Jeremy De Chavez, University of Macau, Macau SAR, China


[1] Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, translated by David McLintock, Penguin, 2004, p. 22.

[2] Ibid., 23.

[3] Sara Ahmed, Promise of Happiness, Duke UP, 2010, p. 30.

[4] Ibid., 2.

[5] Jean-Luc Nancy, The Sense of the World, translated by Jeffrey Librett, U of Minnesota P, 1997, p. 151.

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