25th March 21: My therapist shocked me tonight into recognising that I just don’t talk about my self, my relationships, or my life when I am happy. Whilst most people chat to friends about that kind of stuff, I just send out the occasional picture, or say I am alright. When thinking about the things that make me happy, I realise that instead of expressing how much joy they bring me, I just hold all of that emotion in. His question had me thinking, and made me realise that from an early age anything good that I did, anything positive that made me happy, I repressed. I hid that shit, lest my family, or my friends, dismiss it, denigrate it, or shame me for it.
This realisation from a recent therapy session obviously stunned me, sending me on the path to try and discover just what happiness is, how it manifests, and hopefully the intersectional barriers which prevented me from allowing happiness into my life. Yet, during my research, it quickly became apparent that there is strangely little written about the psychology of happiness, and even less from a racial, or intersectional lens.
Where there is material around happiness and difference usually involves the creation of scales of measurement of happiness. For example considering the link between race and happiness, I came across a paper which seemed to indicate that whilst happiness is often linked to better health and wellbeing, that this was a white phenomenon and that black participants who might well have been healthy, often failed to report similar levels of happiness as their white counterparts (Cobb et al., 2020). This intersection of race and happiness is quite obviously underlined by pictures from the media where one is taught that the closer to whiteness one is, be it via literal proximity, the ability to act of feign whiteness, of shadeism, that the happier one will be. It also provided evidence that happiness in these instances had become racially pinnaclised.
This was though mirrored by explorations of class and happiness, where in a capitalist society the collision of all three revolved around the dream of a better life, and therefore happiness, a projection which meant working class women often dreamt of a better life if they bought one more lottery ticket, played one more round of bingo, married that average looking man who worked in the city (Casey, 2008). As Johnson (1987) writes, in a patriarchal (and I will add capitalist) society we are told to find happiness in the external. It is embedded in how we look as women and as men, in the bling we buy, the car, the partner, the house, the holiday we take. We migrate to warmer climes, we become expats, all in a quest for a better, more lazy life. All in a quest for happiness.
4th April 2021: This week I have realised how far I go to keep any sense of happiness to myself. I don’t tell even my closest friends as I am afraid of losing what I have, and I keep one foot outside as my sense is that people will leave me before they actually do. I know there are roots to this in slavery, and being a male slave happiness had to be hidden from those outside lest it was cruelly sold away. I know that I had parents who never asked about my love life, who never enquired as to who I was seeing, what did we do, were we happy, the normal things within a relationship. I have learnt, or I hold, the legacy of a slave’s silence about happiness whilst I am simultaneously overburdened by the legacy of stolen separation. I therefore need to be less fearful of simply being happy.
That happiness has become commodified is nothing new. The co-option of happiness as a means of systemic control goes back for generations and sits within differing cultures. Returning to the idea of class happiness, de la Boetie (2015) several hundred years ago saw class as a predictor of happiness. Happiness in this form was embedded in the idea that to serve those above was a to gain satisfaction and therefore happiness. Like the butler who gains his happiness by being part of the same household his father served the generation, happiness in servitude is passed down the generations, in service to a subject with implied worth, knowledge, and power. By this same token, there also resides the fear that this kind of happiness is something which can be taken away or lost in an instance, through a misstep, a mistaken action, or a misspoken word. Those in service are therefore often walking on eggshells in order to not lose the happiness of their hard-gained position.
During slavery, happiness was also used as a tool of subjugation, but in this case the myth of the happy slave was one where should said slave resist its seemingly natural position then it was often pathologized as mad. As Quispel (1999) saw, this myth of the happy slave was actually created to justify the oppression of the racial other, locating his work both in South Africa and South America. Presented under the guise that without the presence of the colonisers blacks would revert back to their otherwise primitive state, this mythmaking of happiness was actually a collage covering up one of the most distinctive pillars of white supremacy (Lowe, 2008). Black happiness was therefore a performance, an adaptation, a lie.
26th April 2021: In my exploration of happiness, I have been thinking a lot more about the subject. I don’t often acknowledge how happy I am when things go well. I tend to overthink things and drive myself into a space where I am focused only on what is going wrong, ignoring what is going right for me; in my life, in relationships etc. This week I would therefore like to say I have a good life, and I am happy. I get to run on the beach at sunrise on a spring day splashing in the surf. I get to play with my daughter at Birling Gap and watch her enjoy herself and grow ever more confident in the world around her. I get to sit in my garden and meditate as the birds fly by, as the sea rolls in in the distance, as cars pass and the wind blows through the trees. I eat well, eating more fish and more regularly than I ever have before, and I have a Kingsize bed to sleep in at night. I drive a nice car which takes me out into the countryside and to places that I have never seen doing things that I have never done before. My life is good. This life is a good one, and I have to say thank you for all the happiness that I have within it.
It is when this happiness is driven by our own narcissistic fantasies that it becomes oppressive, driving us ever onwards, ever outwards. The narcissist within us attempts to reach through that false fog of happiness to find its measured worth, a worth built upon the shifting sands of externalised things or people. Even within this house of cards, for the narcissist, happiness becomes a relief against the suffering of the external world which is taunting us towards such. It is a temporary safe port against bereavement, separation, isolation or loneliness, where we either dive into the extravagances of the external world, or create rich internal ones, both of which centre ourselves and separate ourselves from our distress and discomfort (Storr, 1988). Fantasy here allows us to bask in the mirage of joyousness and pseudo relationship whilst avoiding the melancholic mire that is reality and our own emptiness.
One of the odd things about lockdowns is that it has led many people, including myself, to re-evaluate what it is to be happy. In an interview I recently did about the International Day of Happiness for the Independent Newspaper, I was asked what to think about just what is happiness (Jackson, 2021). Pondering the question, I realised that the psychology of happiness is an internal one. That happiness at its core is a simple thing, but our psychological wounds make this as elusive as it is to hold a bar of soap in the rain. The fear is that it will slip out of our hands, that it will slide away down the sidewalk, or that it will disappear down a drain. We hang on to said bar, failing to notice the beauty in the sound of the rain on the cars around us, the sounds of the birds, or the roar of the thunder above. We become so focused upon this one so called slippery aspect of happiness that we neglect every other aspect of cheer, of reverie, of ecstasy which rotates around us, for happiness is a constant, it is transgenerational, and as it is an aspect of love it is an ever present facet of the universe we live in (Johnson, 1987).
Today: Happiness to me is recognising that I no longer have to run away from what I want in life, or that I have to anxiously fight to keep what I have. Happiness is a divorce from the ancestral shackles that left my inner child so bereft and lonely generation after generation. Happiness is a separation from past addictions which served to save me from the fear of loss, the fear of hope, the fear of receiving that which I’d asked the ancestors for. Happiness is being able to receive that which makes me happy. To just sit in to, sit back and relax, as that which makes me happy rotates around me, and radiates from within me.
Casey, E. (2008). Working class women, gambling and the dream of happiness. In Feminist Review (Vol. 89, Issue 1). https://doi.org/10.1057/fr.2008.2
Cobb, S., Javanbakht, A., Soltani, E. K., Bazargan, M., & Assari, S. (2020). Racial difference in the relationship between health and happiness in the United States. Psychology Research and Behavior Management, 13. https://doi.org/10.2147/PRBM.S248633
de la Boetie, E. (2015). The Politics of Obedience: The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude. Mises Institute.
Jackson, A. (2021, March). Can you be happy all the time? The Independent, 1. https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/happiness-eastbourne-east-africa-b1819944.html
Johnson, R. A. (1987). Ecstasy: Understanding the psychology of joy. Harper Collins Publishers.
Lowe, F. (2008). Colonial object relations: Going underground black-white relationships. British Journal of Psychotherapy, 24(1), 20–33. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1752-0118.2007.00061.x
Quispel, C. (1999). Faithful servants and dangerous beasts: Race, nationalism and historical mythmaking. Patterns of Prejudice, 33(3). https://doi.org/10.1080/003132299128810614
Storr, A. (1988). Solitude. Flamingo.
This Blog is copyrighted by Dwight Turner Counselling Ltd (c) and is influenced by my ongoing exploration into The Other.