In Western culture being happy is one of the most important goals. It’s in all the smiling faces on ads – even for detergents.
The call to be happy starts when you’re little and accompanies your through life, making faces at you through every social media post. The expectation is so woven in the fabric of society that we frown upon ourselves and each other when we don’t feel on top of the world.
That is crazy. After all, life is a mixed bag and one’s reaction to it will also be a mixed bag.
The net result of this insistence on happiness “leaves us with the distinct impression that what counts as an indicator of success is whether or not we are feeling happy,” says Brock Bastian, associate professor in the School of Psychological Sciences at the University of Melbourne.
In tandem with the high value we place on happiness, Western society has very high levels of depression. In fact, depression is the leading cause of disability in the world according to the WHO.
Could there be a link between our obsession with happiness and so many people in our society suffering from depression? Research is pointing in that direction.
Bastian and others have been investigating whether Western cultural values might play a role in the depression epidemic for several years. “In a series of experiments, we found that the high value we place on happiness is not only associated with increased levels of depression, but may actually be the underlying factor,” writes Bastian.
The problem gets worse when we have social expectations that people should feel happy and not sad. Research has shown that these “social expectancies” can increase feelings of sadness and reduce well-being.
Research has also shown that social pressures to be happy and not sad can make people feel more socially isolated when they do feel sad. People who experienced negative emotions and also believed that others in society disapprove of these emotions felt even lonelier.
Society’s expectations are making people who are already sad feel even worse because they feel pressure not to feel what they feel.
We are told by psychologists not to fight our feelings or deny them, because suppressed feelings can cause all sorts of problems. We know this, but as a society, as mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, cousins, aunts and uncles, friends and co-workers, we ignore that fact and send the message that feeling sad or depressed is somehow wrong.
There are people who are always cheerful, no matter what. There are also people who a find reason to be angry in every situation.
There are also those amongst us who more often than most others experience sadness or depression.
Maybe we must accept the sadness in others and reassess our obsession with happiness.