The Demented Pursuit of Happiness


The Demented Pursuit of Happiness

Illustration: Juergen Dsouza

“Happiness is a personal choice,” intoned the woman at the Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) session with a manic smile, as I filled up the form while trying to ignore the frantic jingling of her Santa hat. “Positive thoughts have a positive impact on your brain.”

Dicey, I thought. I’d never been the sunshine type, but after all, it was a freezing December in England and “Mindfulness and Positive Thinking” classes had become the rage with all the miserable, overworked, and sun-deprived college kids around me. Moreover, traditional therapy hadn’t worked. So I thought to myself “Why the hell not?”, and signed up to be injected with some ridiculous happiness.

On a wet Wednesday morning, I presented myself to be uplifted in a bleak hospital room. A white woman with a Zooey Deschanel pixie fringe, a Maria-blasted-Von Trapp voice, and a grin that stretched from ear to ear sat in the middle and began immediately asking me about things that bothered me.

I began with a disturbing racist incident, where I’d been mildly harassed by four white guys in a park.  No reaction. A Cheshire cat smile stayed plastered on her face. I turned the gear up and went onto loneliness, the recent death of a relative. Still, nada.

Then I decided to go in for the kill. Last week, I’d heard my mother casually say to a friend that she wanted to kill herself.  I waited to give dramatic pause. If this didn’t get her going I didn’t know what would.

Maria Von Trapp jumped up excitedly and yelled, “Sit down right here!”

I looked around confused. She was pointing to a sandpit in the centre of the room, a classic little patch of kiddie playground with shiny toys, Lego bits and miniature cars. “Tell me what happy things these remind you of,” she said.

“Umm, I’d really rather talk first, if that’s okay?” I began. “Like I was saying, my parents are on the brink of senility, and I’m not sure…”

“Ah, a recurring negative thought. Unhelpful. Let’s break the pattern!” she insisted, her eyes now shining with craziness. Or so it seemed to me.

“Well — it’s not so much a negative thought, as it is a situation which…” I tried to explain but she cut me off.

“You need to stop thinking in cycles. Close your eyes and picture yourself as your own mother and father. Can you do that?”

What was this woman smoking? She wanted me to sit in a sandpit and picture myself as my mother and father and then what? Braid their hair? Lovingly whisper in their ears that insanity is unhealthy?  As I stared at her in disbelief she went on…

“You can do anything, be anyone, as long as you’re positive. Because being positive… is contagious!”

So is your lunacy, I wanted to tell her.

“Now, what are your goals from life?” she suddenly changed tack, figuring I wasn’t going to sit in the sodden pit of smelly sand.

I don’t know about you but the next time someone tells me to “be positive” I’ll positively sock them in the face. 

“Tell me, what are your goals?” she demanded. It occurred to me that this woman might be reading from a Mindfulness-for-Robots manual. Or perhaps a leaflet for a zombie cult who preached how to be content through the apocalypse. What was going on? Was this 2001: A Space Odyssey I was watching? I had to shake myself a little to believe that it was really happening.

I had a sudden impulse to quote Woody Allen from Annie Hall “I feel that life is divided into the horrible and the miserable. That’s the two categories,” and stomp out of there.  But instead I smiled awkwardly and made a run for it, leaving La-La Lady to splash happily in her bubble-gum-broth.


I don’t know about you but the next time someone tells me to “be positive” I’ll positively sock them in the face.  Modern day coping mechanisms somehow almost always involve coerced happiness and it’s fucking exhausting. A friend once got embroiled in Jeevan Vidya philosophy, swallowed their tagline whole – “You are the architect of your destiny” — and spent his time gazing plaintively at his hands, muttering “Mein bahut khush hoon.” Another friend got caught up in the Landmark ‘Change your Life in 3 Days’ craze and decided to quit all “negative” influences in her life, including booze, partying, and decadence of any sort and promptly fell into a deep depression — because her friends forgot she even existed. How does this crap get real people with real, horrible stories of miscarriages or abusive parents to feel better?

The happiness industry is booming like never before. Miserable people all over the world have ensured that Art of Living Happiness Programmes rake in billions, and self-help books fly off the shelves, year in, year out. But secretly I think they all go to Bermuda and get some sun, sand, and sex-on-the-beach and get healed. There’s no other explanation. Nobody has ever healed through delusion and repression. I much prefer my scientist friend, who has an incredible anti-bullshit approach to life. She always makes me feel so much better by laughing hysterically. The day I told her a relative was contemplating euthanasia, she made several morbid jokes comparing him to her lab rats, and had me in fits of laughter.

A few days after my disaster with Von Trapp, I hovered shadily outside the Mindfulness class. “Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy,” I heard someone intone.

Right about then, I had the sudden urge to infiltrate this anti-pity party, wearing a pink tutu and sprinkling some moondust and fairy glitter on the participants. At least that would have given the poor sods something to be joyful about.