The tyranny of happiness: why positive psychology needs to see its shadow

We had a staff training day a while back. It was about happiness. Sounds lovely, doesn’t it? I was excited about a day purely focussed on the wellbeing of staff. But let’s just say, for me, it missed the target. Perhaps it felt like I was the target.

Let’s call the teaching and motivation of the day the happiness drive. It seemed to have three mottos:

Motto #1: “You have control over your happiness”

Motto #2 ‘Certain practices make you happier.”

Motto #3: “If you’re happy, you’ll be successful.”

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love a side to this. I love the empowerment it brings. I love that it encourages owning our responsibility for our lives. I love the practical tips. And I especially love motto #3’s reversal of capitalist consumerism: if you’re successful, then you’ll be happy...until we move the goalposts for success again.

But I believe the happiness drive - and its big brother, Positive Psychoology, has a shadow that also needs appreciating. Otherwise it has a capacity to do great, though unintentional, harm. And not just individually.

Positive Psychology and the Jungian Shadow

Positive Psychology, has become a big force in the psycho-therapeutic fields. And I love a lot of what it’s about:

‘a scientific approach to studying human thoughts, feelings, and behavior, with a focus on strengths instead of weaknesses, building the good in life instead of repairing the bad, and taking the lives of average people up to “great” instead of focusing solely on moving those who are struggling up to “normal” (Peterson, 2008, quoted here: What is Positive Psychology & Why is It Important? [2020 Update] )

Doesn’t that sound great? It feels inspiring, uplifting, empowering, practical, trustable. But this is exactly the point.

You see, a Jungian principle I believe is also always at work: whilst the theory has a persona - “what oneself as well as others thinks one is” [CW9 para 221] - it also has a shadow - the parts that we or others don’t think it is, but it’s there and, if unappreciated, will have an often overpowering impact in the life of the thing (see The Shadow). Further, the more ‘positive’ the persona, often the bigger the shadow.

So, I believe Positive Psychology needs to appreciate its shadow, otherwise it will cause inadvertent harm. Otherwise it becomes tyrannical. Let’s look at what might be in its shadow.

Individualising responsibility: ‘it’s your fault’.

The happiness drive can obscure the array of contributing factors beyond the individual that leads to unhappiness: systemic pressures, opportunities and oppression; personal and generational history; genetic predispositions.

I cannot but help think that such a narrative is convenient, particularly for leaders. It validates these ‘happy’ leaders who must be successful because they are happy (an all too easy implication of motto #3). It keeps us from the shame of success and privilege: the responsibility for reflecting upon our participation in systemic causes of unhappiness, and so working to dismantle these, e.g. in our businesses. Finally, it masks our anxiety-inducing yet fundamental dependency and interdependency on so many things that are out of our control. (See Michael Sandel's The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good for parallels in meritocracy)

Thus, simplistic Positive Psychology teaching can be truly harmful. It heaps further guilt and shame upon the unhappy or unsuccessful. It denies our responsibility for using our social power to make systemic or relational changes that will actually help people - after all, we’ve given them the tools to be happy and so successful. And, it makes us all fragile to the vicissitudes of a life we can’t ultimately control. Of course, it’s difficult to realise all this when you have the rhetoric of scientific evidence (which we cannot argue with, surely?). But, unless we do, the happiness drive becomes a convenient tool for disempowerment, demonisation and denial.

An unhappy game: ‘You need to do this as well!’

A second shadow is that the happiness drive can become just another tactic to be successful. The practices are another thing to do to get better results. A way to get more income. A way to help the business or culture more. A way to get more of the stuff that society prescribes as ultimate and necessary for you to have worth.

The problem is that many are already trying very hard for another person’s goals. And this whole game of performance and success is often what breaks us. So, no, if this is the context of the practices, we will never do them well (i.e. they won’t ever make us happy) because doing them is part of us playing a game that is inherently self-compromising. Unless we realise this, the happiness drive will become another helplessness drive.

A meaningless goal: ‘You should be happy!’

The final problem is that Positive Psychology can have a cut-down version of human flourishing. It can assume that in a good life (or even a ‘great’ life) we don’t feel the ‘bad’ emotions. The norm isn’t ‘negative’


But this is simply not true. The good life is full of the whole range of emotion flowing within us as we interact with the world and people around us. From guilt to grief to anger to fear to joy to more pride to stress to sadness to delight. We might want to get rid of a lot of these emotions. They are often hard to feel. But they are the necessary background and even foreground at times to a meaningful life. Indeed, often it’s the intensity, not the type, of emotion that determines how meaningful we feel it to be - and drives any meaningful acting (see How strong emotions bring meaning to our life for more)

The happiness drive becomes self-depriving. Human flourishing doesn’t look motonone happy, ‘fine’, ‘normal’, ‘OK’. It looks like everything flowing freely in response to the ups and downs of everyday, flowing life.

Integrating the shadow

For Jung, the shadow actually holds a lot of our potential (or our ‘strengths’ to use a Positive Psychology favoured term). So the goal isn’t to deal with the shadow so that it doesn't impact us, but to become conscious of it and somehow integrate its potential. This, I suggest, must be the goal of a sensible Positive Psychology.

For, the happiness drive, or Positive Psychology, does invite us towards something great:

  • Motto #1 invites us to embrace our personal power for flourishing. When we recognise how our lives are impacted by relational, social and historical factors as well, we can use our strengths and power to positively change our systems and relationships too.

  • Motto #2 offers practices that can act like paths towards our fears, our sense of interdependency, our inner values, our inner energy (including all of our shame, hurt, longings, anger etc.) and our fundamental OK-ness and belonging. These are the things that make for a meaningful, impactful, flourishing life - if we can learn to be with them, let them be however they are, and let them tell us their wisdom.

  • Motto #3 invites us to discard the pursuit of success and instead pursue something else. When we acknowledge the shadow, this goal is not simplistic happiness, but wholeness and meaning from which an individualised, self-originating definition of success can emerge.

Perhaps we could attempt three alternative mottos that seek to integrate positive psychology with its shadow:

Motto #1: Power can be given, taken away and withheld, yet is always within us.

Motto #2: Practices are inner paths to meaning. But who knows what that will look like.

Motto #3: Wholeness brings personal meaning.

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