Laura Freeman

The happiness police

Ever feel a moment of melancholy? There are many, many apps for that

The happiness police
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On a recent sodden weekend walk, I tried to cheer myself up by thinking: it’s not so bad. Not the slugs or the sky or the rain making its way down a gap between neck and waterproof. But I couldn’t do it. Losing heart, I turned back. Glump, glump, glump through the puddles.

It rained through breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner. Same the next day. And the day after. I wore grey and sighed at the window.

But I am aberrant. Melancholy is against the rules nowadays. I should have put on my yellow wellies, twirled my spotty umbrella, photographed myself in the garden and put it online with the hashtag #singingintherain. That’s what everyone else seems to be doing.

If, like me, you are a natural Cassandra, then the present Pollyanna tendency is a trial. I do not smile at smiley faces. Today is not the first day of the rest of my life. It is the 10,371st day of my life and it is raining.

I do not want to Keep Calm and Be Happy. I am not moved to ‘Clap along because I’m happy’ as Pharrell Williams exhorts from every radio from March until October. I am not chivvied along by ‘fitness inspo’, ‘wellness inspo’ or ‘bluesky inspo’ social media posts.

I am certain that starting my day with #almondmilk, #avocadotoast and #sunsalute #yoga will not make me cheerful, whatever the bloggers say. I do not aspire to, and I am unlikely to attain, the condition of H.O.T.ness. That is: being happy, open and trusting.

I do not want to apply my felt tips to the pages of the Colour Me Happy and Don’t Worry Be Happy colouring books. I would rather not stop and smell the flowers, so prettily photographed and filtered: #blossom #pink #summer. Having never had hay-fever before, this year I’ve been sneezing and itching. See what I mean? Everything gets worse.

I don’t want to ‘get happy’ or ‘get inspired’. I might conceivably want to be inspired, if I were promised a sufficiently invigorating novel or art exhibition, but definitely not ‘get’.

I do not want to watch a Ted talk on ‘The Three As of Awesome’, ‘Want to be Happier? Stay in the Moment’, ‘Less Stuff, More Happiness’ or ‘The New Era of Positive Psychology’. Others are not so churlish. ‘The Awesome Talk’, by Neil Pasricha, director of the Institute for Global Happiness, has been watched 2.7 million awesome times.

Would a mood-tracker app, downloaded to my iPhone, help? I could try Headspace, Live Happy, Happier, Lift, HealthyHappy or Happify. Each promises Science-Based Happiness, Positive Psychology and Mindfulness techniques to help me Fight Back Against Negativity and to Deal With My Constant Negative Thoughts. Susan K from St Louis, Missouri, doubled her happiness in just one month! 86 per cent of frequent users get happier in two months!

It’s easy. I’m to start with Three Super Simple Steps to Enjoy Life More. Once I’ve got the hang of those, it’s on to Five Skills That Will Increase Your Happiness. These are: Savor, Think, Aspire, Give and Empathize. With no ‘u’ in ‘savour’ and a ‘z’ in ‘empathise’, because these apps are, by and large, produced in life-liberty-and-the-pursuit-of-happiness America.

If we could only harness happiness, say the makers of these apps, we could ‘thrive’ in our relationships, be more productive at work, live a more ‘fulfilled’ life. This takes as its starting point the idea that we are at our best and most effective when happy. Which is odd, when you consider the many prolifically creative — and also saturnine and melancholic — minds in all fields of scientific, artistic and literary endeavour, and the devoted couples united in their fervently held belief that the world is hurtling towards hell in a handcart.

Where is the Eeyore app sending regular demotivational texts? ‘Don’t blame me if it rains.’ ‘It will rain soon, you see if it doesn’t.’ ‘Well, anyhow it didn’t rain.’ I would derive satisfaction from seeing my glum thoughts double, treble, quadruple in a month.

Are men bombarded in the same way with orders to get healthyhappy? Those parts of the happiness industry that make their money through social media and smartphone apps seem particularly aimed at women. Not so much jolly hockey sticks as jolly selfie sticks.

If Pollyanna were around today, she’d have a vlog and an Instagram feed and a collection of ‘Glad Game’ branded sports leggings. A notion has arisen that happiness is like weight training — if you work hard enough, you will develop rock-hard happiness abs.

This online insistence on daily, complete, perfect happiness contributes to a pressure on women not just to look like immaculate dolls — that’s hardly new — but to be always cheerful, smiling, upbeat and positive.

Of course it is meant benignly. Who doesn’t want to be happy? What sort of misanthrope rails against happiness — and about people pursuing it in such innocuous ways? Not the adrenalin-surge, instant-hit, sugar-high happiness of drugs or drink or sex or foot-flat-on-the-gas, fast-car hedonism. Just a little colouring in, a few positive affirmations, a phone loaded with happy-clappy appies.

I worry, though, that we are making the normal business of being human, with its daily, weekly, monthly cloudings and brightenings, into an illness. Let us not have grief, nor heartbreak, nor disappointment, nor rainy-day moods.

Just as we have medicalised the irrepressible energy of the noisy younger brother into ADHD, the shyness of the gauche teenager into being ‘on the spectrum’ of autism and the anxious habits of the fastidious soul into OCD, so we are in danger of recasting low spirits as a disorder of mind and temperament. Of course there are people whose lives are made appallingly difficult by autism or Asperger’s syndrome, who are held back by crippling obsessive compulsive behaviour, just as there are those who are overwhelmed by depressions and despair. Extreme, unmanageable unhappiness deserves every sympathy and all the weapons in our medical and holistic arsenal. But feeling hopeless on grey days, wretched on long commutes, neglected when children do not call or abject when a boyfriend breaks things off — that is life, it is not a failing of will nor a failure to ‘thrive’.

Is it helpful to tell a bereaved family to Think Positive? To Change their Outlook? To Take Control of Negative Thoughts? To Turn Their Frowns Upside Down? Or is it wiser, kinder to allow time to be sad and introspective, to remember and to regret what one did not have time to ask or say?

We look on the Victorian grief-mania, the widow’s weeds, the shrouding, the mourning, with a certain alarm. Was all that wailing necessary? We have now gone too far in the other direction with our horror of any drooping of the Facebook-ready smile. Last year, 61 million prescriptions for antidepressants were written in the UK, twice as many as ten years ago. Around one in 11 British adults is thought to be on some sort of anti-depressant.

While such drugs are useful life-jackets for debilitating psychological distress, the numbers do suggest that a great many people are being prescribed antidepressant medication simply because they feel, well, ropey. Ropiness is not a disease, and it passes. But it is not helped by being made to feel inadequate and ashamed because you are not permanently walking on Instagrammable sunshine.

What is a catastrophising Cassandra to do in the (smiling) face of all this joy? It does feel like failure to admit that one’s glass is not only not full to the brim of wheatgrass juice and cashew milk, but that one’s glass, on getting up in the morning, is often empty.

I am not incapable of or averse to happiness. I simply think it is not so easily hooked and reeled in on a hashtag. You cannot download it or schedule it into your Google calendar. It is more elusive, more serendipitous than that. It happens when you are completely taken up with something else: family, work, faith, a hobby or passion. I’m not convinced it can be pursued as an end in itself. And you won’t find it looking at a smartphone.