You’ve seen the images: Instagram models laughing with a cup of coffee in hand and their designer clothes they bought and will maybe wear twice. A man in a suit with a corner office admiring the city below. A woman grinning in her SUV that easily fits her children and all of their toys, bags, and even some camping gear.
The stock images, the social media pictures, the quick tweets and updates, the polite small talk, the happy-face emoji texts, and even the sad-face emojis that are still cheery-themed — we are constantly barraged with ideas on what it means to be happy, or at least how to seem happy to others.
To contrast this, rates of depression are actually skyrocketing in the United States. They’re climbing higher year by year — you hear about the drastic increase of suicides in the veteran community, and though it may be increasing even faster there, it’s happening across the board.
So where are these images of happiness coming from?
A lot of people like to blame “the man” — the indefinable figure of a corporate power/monster hell-bent on getting us to sell our souls to them. What they really mean is regular advertising, like with the mom and her SUV. Of course the car manufacturer wants to show happy people in their cars, and so they use actors who play the part. The idea is to connect positive feelings with their product, and it works, but a side effect of this is the blossoming culture of materialism above all else. Thankfully we’re not being forced into any of that, just sort of incidentally tricked into it. Companies can push their agendas all day long; how we choose to digest it is ultimately up to us, so long as we put in the effort.
However, corporate marketing isn’t the end of it. We often wind up marketing ourselves quite a bit across social media. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and even among the anonymous names of Reddit, if you were to peruse through peoples’ feeds you would probably find that they seem successful, content, and fairly joyful on a day-to-day basis. Who am I to say they’re lying?
Criticizing posts on social media isn’t some way of me telling everyone to air their dirty laundry on Facebook or Instagram. It’s just a reminder (and I am likely preaching to the choir here) that the lives presented on these mediums are not always completely accurate.
There are plenty of other reasons why we have weird ideas of what makes us happy — social and societal expectations being a big one.
But these are a list of “don’ts” that don’t really give anyone a path forward. If these things don’t make me happy, then what does make me happy?
When I try and answer that question myself, I often fall right back into the trap I see many of my peers falling into — the pursuit of comfort, material goods, or some other superficial desire that makes me “happy.” More money, a prestigious job, and pictures of my girlfirend and I having the time of our lives in a foreign country, something like that.
Like my dog who is drooling over the chocolate in my hands, I really have no idea what’s good for me.
So I look to people who seemed the happiest to me, on a deeper level than the most smiles on Instagram or the cheery small-talk at work. I ask myself, “Who are the most profoundly joyful people I know?”
The answer surprises and confuses me a bit, at least at first, but at the end of the day it always makes sense. The happiest men and women I have come across have been the Karen people in the war torn areas of eastern Burma/Myanmar, who I briefly worked with in 2015. They have suffered generations of civil war, culminating in the longest standing civil war in modern history. Many Karen living today have grandparents who have never seen complete peace in the area.
Right now they’re teetering on the edge of a shakey cease-fire that could easily bubble over into severe bloodshed, but they still mill around their daily tasks with smiles on their faces. Many of them live incredibly hard lives, but they take it with grace and joy.
I remember the toothless smile of one woman whose eye had been poked out by a shard of bamboo. Her first husband had died in the fighting; her second husband died of malaria. She had a dozen pregnancies, and if I remember right only nine of them survived. Her smile was wide and warm, and she was a gracious host to a stranger (me) in her village.
It’s not that we ought to “be glad for what we have,” though I think we should. It’s that perhaps the things we are pursuing don’t lead to happiness at all. Maybe comfort and sex and fame (or prestige) do not equate to a fulfilled life — maybe it’s something else.
The real question is: what do the Karen have that we don’t? I have my own ideas, but I think it’s something people ought to consider on their own.
Images courtesy of Storyblocks.