Be happy. Don’t complain.
What would you think if an employer, spouse, the authorities or your government told you to do that? What if they ordered you to do it, or shamed you, in front of your peers, if you didn’t? You’d be justifiably suspicious, to say the least. Why should you be happy and not complain? Isn’t that a red flag signal that there may be plenty of things to be unhappy about and worthy of complaint. Doesn’t that tell you, loudly and clearly, that those in the position of power, in the relationship, simply want you to acquiesce to the unacceptable? Isn’t it just a tiny bit abusive?
When the media manipulates us, exhorting us to be happy and to not complain, that’s seen (or more correctly, portrayed) as a cool, new-age, right-on, self-help thing that all the modern, groovy, hipster kids are doing, to help us better manage our lives in the real world. What if it’s all just a planted psy-op, issued, bought and paid for by the same employers and governments that we’d be rightly suspicious of, if they told us to be happy and not complain, directly? Does the insidious cloaking of the agenda make it any less alarming?
Fast Company magazine, those hucksters and cheerleaders for Ayn Randian, unfettered, blood thirsty, visceral, carnal, neoliberal capitalism, invite you to not complain for a whole month. They would say that, wouldn’t they? It’s good for you; they claim (or is it really only good for them?). Here’s their oh-so-sage advice:
The only people that want you to go a whole month without complaining are those with a vested interest in you complying with that idea. These are the very people that make things happen which you ought to complain about. Consider who pays the Fast Company magazine and what keeps them in business. It all takes on a different complexion, when you shine that light on it.
Complaining without changing anything is useless. I think we can all agree on that. However, ignoring what you ought to complain about, or simply refusing to complain about it, is the same as not changing it. That’s just what they want you to do, isn’t it?
Then, there is the “100 happy days” project. http://100happydays.com/ It asks: “could you be happy for 100 days in row?” To what end? For what purpose? Why am I being asked to do this and by whom, to satisfy what agenda?
My view is that people who focus on the positive for 100 days, but who do nothing to change the situation that makes them unhappy (other than blissfully ignoring it) come out the other side of the 100 days facing the same old rotten situations and dissatisfactions, but with 100 days having elapsed to allow those situations to get worse. The route to happiness, in my view, is to consistently work to change that which causes us unhappiness. Sometimes, that isn’t very happy work, but it is in the long term, if it does just a tiny bit to reduce the sources of unhappiness. It’s worthwhile work, in any case.
In defence of such projects as 100 happy days, I have respected and wise friends that say (and I am partially paraphrasing here) that this is a mindfulness project only. The idea is to change focus for 100 days. It is acknowledged that this alone does nothing, but the knock-on effect is that it can help you see the possibilities. I find that hard to dispute. It’s from that slightly wider perspective that changes in action can come. In other words, the practice of seeing the more positive aspects of life, each day, even if facile, useless or just plain bizarre to a sceptical observer, can be a great step towards action. When people don’t feel things are possible, they don’t act. 100 days of happiness focuses on helping us to believe change might be possible. So from happiness springs forth possibilities? That may be so and if it works that way for you, catalysing change, then so much the better. I hope so.
Are people passivated and placated by mindfulness exercises, or really empowered by them? I’m not so sure, or at least I remain unconvinced. To me, it has the whiff of, “Go back to sleep. Don’t think about it. Look at this pretty flower instead and be ever so grateful for having a life at all, albeit one of being manipulated and deceived, constantly, in abject subjugation to the 1%.”
For some people, regrettably, mindfulness is just a displacement activity. It’s a way of not getting on with the changes that are needed. In some senses, it can be seen as a supreme self indulgence and abrogation of your responsibility, to everybody else, to do something that makes things better for everyone. Heaven knows there are enough things that need changing.
If you need to be happy before you can see the possibilities for action, isn’t that similar to waiting for inspiration, before you make art? Don’t the best artists just start and get on with it? If you think something should be changed, in the world, shouldn’t you just start and get on with it, whether or not the work seems to make you unhappy?
Doesn’t true happiness derive from changing the conditions that cause unhappiness?
We all know that learned helplessness is a bad thing, but doesn’t mindfulness and 100 days of happiness and not complaining for a month, at the very least, put you in danger of learning the helplessness that we recognise to be a bad thing, through these highly effective and potent action avoidance techniques? To me, it’s like playing Guitar Hero on your X-Box, instead of learning to play an actual guitar.
Being extremely unhappy about something can give you the drive and energy to make radical changes. It is a driving force, not to be feared. The only people that fear the power of dissatisfaction, disaffection, agitation and righteous indignation are those that benefit from you being in the state you’re in. Use your unhappiness and anger to power your will to make significant changes. The storming of the Bastille was not undertaken by mindful, happy people.
(Let’s be clear: I’m not saying go forth and be violent, but I am saying get off your backside and make change happen, before you’re happy. I don’t think violence is the solution to anything, but effective action is.)
Those nominally in charge fear an angry, motivated mob more than anything, because they are utterly helpless against it, when it comes down to it, which is why they take constant and pernicious steps to quell the discontent. However, the widespread belief that most things are basically all right is the reason why so many things are comprehensively messed up. Our inaction allows these little devils to pollute, poison, short-change, steal, cheat, lie, manipulate, kill, swindle, embezzle, rig and despoil, unimpeded and with impunity. We acquiesce in their crimes, while remaining happy and uncomplaining.
I do recognise that people can be paralysed by despair and that a little happiness can alleviate that feeling of helplessness, but ultimately it’s a decision you have to own and make. The happiness can just as easily conceal and defer the despair and do nothing to address the root causes of it. Similarly, people can get locked into a downward spiral of incessant, continual complaint, without lifting a finger to put things right. In this case, complaining is the displacement activity, when what’s really required is a decision to take direct and immediate action to correct what they’re complaining about. My point is that we’ve too simplistically seen negativity and complaining as the problem and happiness and not complaining as the solution, when this is viewing the issue from the wrong axis. The real issue is fear and learned helplessness versus taking positive, decisive action to change things.
Change is always necessary, to produce good art and to produce a good world in which to place all that beauty. Making great art, but delivering it into a world you have done nothing to improve, is like redecorating the Titanic, prior to its inevitable sinking. (It was the Olympic, anyway, in one of the greatest and most murderous insurance frauds of the twentieth century, but that’s another story.)
I think change is always possible, just like there is really no such thing as writer’s block or the fear of a blank canvas, if you choose to banish it. To be effective, you just push through the fear – the fear of writing something, of committing to painting a stroke or of changing something significantly. Commitment has little to do with happiness. You don’t need happiness to make a difference.