Happiness and the Self-Help Industrial Complex

Recently I read a self-help article on choosing happiness. In it, the author faced incredible difficulties dealing with the illness of a family member.

The Self-Help Industrial Complex

He said he worried, but one day “woke up,” realized his anxiety was useless, and immediately eradicated all his “negative” thoughts. Instead, he chose to focus on the good things in his life. This story embodies the ethos of happiness and the Self-Help Industrial Complex. Let me elaborate.

Prayers of Gratitude

Thinking positive is fantastic. It’s something I practice daily. I focus on my blessings, which are many. I don’t dwell excessively on setbacks, I look at them as challenges. Saying prayers of gratitude when I go to bed at night and wake up every day is an ingrained habit.

Pain is Positive

Still, I don’t have any problem with experiencing a full range of emotion. I acknowledge the painful parts of my life and allow myself to think and worry about them. For me, this is a simple part of self-maintenance. It’s also integral to healing. When I recognize what’s not working, I can comfort myself and if I wish to, attempt to fix it. That’s why the so called “negative” emotions are incredibly wonderful and helpful. Pain tells us to take our hand off the hot stove. It’s a signal for instigating change.

The Process of Practicing Positivity

Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with thinking positive. In fact, it carves neural pathways that help us lean towards good things in the future. That’s a great practice. Yet, it’s only that, a practice. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with you if you can’t change your life outlook in a day. We practice being positive, the way a monk practices meditation. The practice changes the monk’s brain,1 calming it over the years. It’s a lifelong process.

Choosing Negativity?

There’s another issue with happiness and the Self-Help Industrial Complex. This motto, “choosing happiness” implies that those who aren’t happy choose not to be. Oh goodness. If life were only that simple. Do you think the majority of people who aren’t happy will themselves not to be? Sometimes things happen that aren’t awesome. And it’s ok to think about them. It’s a good thing!

Life Is All Unicorns and Rainbows

So the next time you focus on something “negative,” it’s ok to let yourself do so without judgement. Because it’s simply amazing that we can experience a range of emotions. Life isn’t always unicorns and rainbows!

America the Anxious

In her book, America the Anxious, Ruth Whippman points out that thinking we should be happy all the time is turning us into a nation of nervous wrecks. She coins the term “the Happiness Industrial Complex” and provides an insightful and in-depth analysis of it. Hers is one of my favorite books of the decade and I highly recommend it.

Self-Help vs Self-Attack

Being happy is an organic emotion, not a mindset. Along those lines, do you blame rather than comfort yourself when you’re in a funk? Are you perpetually “working harder” on being happy? The self-help culture’s obsessive focus on happiness can often lead to the opposite: self-attack.

What Are Your Strategies?

What are your strategies for overcoming challenging times and situations? How do you support yourself, so that you’re not under pressure to be relentlessly positive and happy all the time?

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Thanks so much for saying this all out loud.


42 responses to “Happiness and the Self-Help Industrial Complex”

  1. I recently came to the realization that life will have some deep valleys and big hills to climb, that’s inevitable. What’s important is to carve out intentional joy. Find and do the things that make you feel good – music, dancing, traveling, whatever it may be. If we don’t have pockets of joy, the hard times are even harder. Thanks for sharing your insight Elana. xo

  2. Great article! I have thought for some time that this new trend is unhealthy. When you ignore the bad stuff or pretend it doesn’t matter/exist, you are just suppressing your feelings. It is better to feel, acknowledge your feelings, and then look at why they are there. Give yourself compassion/sympathy. Then ask yourself if anything can be done to improve the situation. Unfortunately some things can’t be fixed. Recognizing and accepting that can be a big relief.

    • Linda, well said! Suppressing our feelings doesn’t usually work all that well; I totally agree that it is better to feel and acknowledge, then recognize and accept that some things can’t be fixed. Thanks for being so thoughtful :-)

  3. So very much agree with the comments. We are in the dark of the winter, and the down feelings around the Soltisce and holidays are real and to me seem normal. We need the down and inward time. I have found my feelings and my food are seasonal. And trusting my gut in relationships, I do not have to get along with everyone is also real. Pollyanna is a good movie, and it does not reflect true life. And I am actually a positive personality with down times. I like it all. Thank you for this insightful blog.

    • Claire, I could not agree with you more! This dark time of year is is a natural time for inwardness and introspection. Thank you for your thoughtful comment.

  4. I wish I had something to add but I don’t. I’ll be thinking about this for days I’m sure! I really liked this post … coming off a rough year, this makes it easier to not blame myself for not being able to be happy when things were going all wrong. Thank you for sharing. ❤️

    • Chrissy, thanks for your comment and for sharing your thoughts! So glad we’re on this healing path together :-)

  5. When I was going through treatment for leukemia the first time – that’s right. I’ve had it twice – while I was in the midst of everyone sending me prayers and positive thoughts and “you’ll get through this” kind of stuff, my son who was in middle school at the time said, “Wow. This cancer really sucks for you, doesn’t it?” It was the first honest response I got from anyone and it felt so good to know that he realized that yeah, it does suck. A lot! Then he showed me a funny animal video. He didn’t tell me to cheer up or hang in there. It was the sweetest, most honest thing. I’m sure your boys do that kind of thing for you all the time. Thanks for this post. It’s perfect.

    • Constance, kids are absolutely the best aren’t they?! So real. Yes, my boys do that kind of stuff too and it’s totally priceless. Thanks for sharing your experience here, grateful for you :-)

  6. This year has been a challenge for me as my estranged father died. A lot of “well meaning” “concerned” people were telling me how to feel and what I should do. IDK how many times I was told that my decisions would cause me regret. They haven’t, but they have caused me stress because people just won’t drop it. It’s supposed to be my feelings and my relationship. Not theirs.
    I have said repeatedly that all I grieve for is wishes. He wasn’t the father I needed nor did he wish to be.
    I’m the type of person who feels what I feel and deals with that. And I encouraged my kid that way too. Feel it, and deal with it as it is. Don’t numb or sugarcoat it. Just feel it. It’s part of being human. We all will see someone die. Death and taxes. They come to s all, don’t they? So learn how to cope, rather than do the happy happy thing. It is what it is.

    • Eleanor, “don’t numb or sugarcoat it” I couldn’t have said it better myself. Thanks so much for showing up here and adding to this important conversation!

    • Eleanor, my estranged father died this year, too, and I’ve experienced many of the same thoughts that you have.

      • @Amy It’s a lousy thing to have in common, but thx for saying what we feel isn’t isolated. I think we’ll come out on the other side of this sooner because we’re being honest with ourselves. :)

        • Eleanor, I love that! Yes, it is so important in healing to be congruent, being dishonest with ourselves causes cognitive dissonance which is a big strain on the nervous system, and thereby the entire body.

  7. I was having debilitating panic attacks after the birth of my 4th baby that left me lying in bed most of the day thinking one of my kids would eventually find me dead there. All I could do was worry about my health and if I would ever recover And be a normal mom again. No amount of positive thinking could have pulled me out of what was going on because after several tests I found out that my cortisol levels were through the roof and I had an overgrowth of bacteria in my guts. Now that I keep my stress levels low and got rid of the gut issues (thanks to 30 days on the GAPS diet) I can focus on more gratitude, I can actually appreciate life because I feel like I’m finally out of the fog that my physical health issues had caused. It’s only now that gratitude, prayer, eating healthy and exercise help me stay more centered. Motherhood will be hard and there are many ups and downs and I can finally feel all of it fully!

    • Cindy, motherhood is full of so many ups and downs and as you say, the key is to feel all of it fully!

  8. Thank you for posting this, it is a very important conversation to have! I really feel this especially in the last year – as someone who has been dealing with chronic illness for awhile I do practice gratitude and positivity, but allowing the other feelings and acknowledging them to ourselves and each other is healing (it has been for me at least, although it is always a struggle not to keep it to myself because we are taught not to complain or be “weak”). I value the online communities so much because they are lifelines, and posts like this are valuable- thank you!

    • Marissa, thanks for sharing your thoughts with me! I value you and all the members of this online community, Elana’s Pantry. There is so much wisdom for us to share on our journey :-)

  9. OH MY Goodness ! What you were saying is so o o Very Helpful.
    This came at the right time ! I am about to have surgery to correct something that needs correcting. I am trying to think positive during this whole time.
    I have got to admit. Before I go to bed, I “review” all of it. The consultation then the actual needed surgery.
    Thank you, Thank you, so much for this artical.
    I am going to print it out to read this often.
    Love, Shirley

  10. Great post! I experienced a serious back injury a year ago, following on another two years previously of bad anxiety related to some big life changes. I am mending – slowly but surely – and my doctors tell me that within the next year, I should be completely recovered. That being said, the nerve pain that I had during the first three to four months of 2019 were…let’s just say I never, ever want to go back to that. It’s hard to “choose happiness” (or even comprehend what that means) in the midst of unrelenting physical pain. What I learned was to meditate on this: “Things are as they are; may I be with things just as they are.” Doing this, I believe, saved my life. It wasn’t about choosing happiness, rather, it was about yielding to what was, and learning acceptance. Now that I’m mostly feeling better, I still turn to this meditation. I feel that I have no other choice, but at the same time, I also feel a great sense of something – freedom? Strength? – in choosing to accept things as they are.

    • Karen, thank you for sharing these words with me, “it wasn’t about happiness, it was about yielding to what was.” I’m grateful to be on this journey with you :-)

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