Episode 93: Is Happiness a Moral Obligation?

If our attitude largely determines our reality…do we owe it to ourselves to strive for happiness?  And if our mood and demeanour impact others… do we owe it to the people we love to try to be happy?

This week, Clay and Sarah ponder to what extent happiness is a moral obligation.


In this episode:

* our culture of enforced positivity (and the dark-side of the self-help world)

* important way we name emotions (i.e. what is happiness anyway?)

* is Happiness an obligation or a right (see the Declaration of Independence)

* what Albert Camus, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Simone de Beauvoir all had to say about Happiness as a Moral Obligation

* enforced cheerfulness in the workplace (Clay says this is OK!)

* can we experience overall ‘Happiness’ while still experiencing the normal range of emotions — anger, sadness, disappointment etc.


Elizabeth Barrett Browning, like the artist Frida Kahlo, gives us an interesting case of one who experienced both loss and continual illness throughout her life, yet continued to insist on the importance of hope and positivity.  Browning herself wrote — “After a course of bitter mental discipline and long bodily seclusion I came out with two learnt lessons…the wisdom of cheerfulness and the duty of social intercourse.  Anguish has instructed me in joy and solitude in society.”

My own experience in the power of meditation and mind-training seems to echo this perspective. There is a wisdom in taking active steps to emphasise the positive, to focus on the ‘glass half-full’.

And yet, it also seems true that there is little wisdom in denying our myriad of other feelings.  Anger.  Sadness. Grief.  Disappointment. These are also part of the web of human experience.

In her TED Talk on Emotional Courage, Susan David notes that “normal, natural emotions are now seen as good or bad.  And being positive has become a new form of moral correctness… It’s a tyranny of positivity.”

Danish Psychologist Svend Brinkmann has also argued along similar lines that positive thinking has turned happiness into a duty and a burden, and instead points out that “Happiness is simply not the appropriate response to many situations in life.”

Ignoring our true feelings and putting on a mask of fake positivity is not the way forward.

Yet perhaps it is first and foremost our way of conceptualising Happiness these days that is causing most of the trouble and confusion.  If we consider Happiness as a state of personal thriving and overall well-being, a state that can encompass moments of sadness, disappointment and anger without driving the individual into a state of overall ‘unhappiness’… then maybe we can begin to return to our original question.

Is it our duty — both to self and those we love — to attempt to live in a state of thriving and well-being?

Albert Camus thought so.  Within his search for meaning within what he saw as an indifference Universe, the lens he most often used was the cultivation of happiness and the eradication of its obstacles.  He wrote of a “demand for happiness and the patient quest for it…”  Camus also reflected that “one needs to be strong and happy in order to help those who are unfortunate.”

What do you think? Is the search and cultivation of happiness & well-being a moral obligation? Or do you consider it, not an obligation, but a right that each individual can pursue?