Ingeborg van Teeseling

The pursuit of (monetising) happiness

More than ever, the idea of happiness is a marketable product. However, in 2017, the means in which we sell it has got rather out of hand.



Today will see the launch of a new airline. It is called Angelhaha and is the brainchild of Chinese-American choreographer Qinmin Liu. It only caters to artists and it only flies to art events. I could say a lot about that. Like: not a lot of artists I know can or want to pay $3,000 for a one-way ticket from New York to Miami. Especially not if the normal price is about $200. Also: who would like to fly on a pink plane, organised by somebody who says that “service is performance”? Anyway. That is only weird and quirky, right? Lovely and eccentric, idiosyncratic and alternative. What isn’t any of those things, is Angelhaha’s slogan: “Fly with happiness“. That made me angry. In fact, I would like to advocate here for the banning of the term. No more happiness! Stop it with the happiness! Contentment, joy, satisfaction: maybe. But no happiness.

As we can see with Angelhaha, happiness is, more than anything else, a product at the moment. Granted, there once was a time when happiness was a descriptor of an emotion – usually fleeting, always enjoyable. But that ended in the 1990s when the positive psychology movement in the US embraced happiness. They turned it from something nice into a nasty, narcissistic goal. Its headquarters is Seattle, where the so-called Happiness Alliance resides. Look up their website and be prepared to vomit. They’ve got a “value statement”, in a “word cloud”, and “tools and a toolkit” to obtain happiness. And, of course, “you can send gifts of gratitude” – called money by the rest of us.

For the Alliance, happiness is not something that might hit you momentarily, when you suddenly realise the day is sunny and you’re not in pain. On the contrary, it is something that you need to work on, that has to be your one and only goal in life. Not taking care of your children, not going to work, not trying to be a good partner and friend, or even having a bit of fun. No, as Pharrell Williams sang, “happiness is the truth.” (“If you feel like a room without a roof.” By the way: what does that mean, anyone?) And that is exactly my problem with happiness and its pushers: they prey on the desperate and the vulnerable. And they make a lot of money in the meantime.


There once was a time when happiness was a descriptor of an emotion… But that ended when the positive psychology movement turned it from something nice into a nasty, narcissistic goal.


The American equivalent of the happiness movement has the Live Happy radio show, complete with “happy activists”, who can show us – the stupid gits who are not up to their happiness level yet – the way. There is a magazine that tells us it is all about “inner strength” and “holistic emotional resilience”. Don Watson, Paul Keating’s speechwriter and the author of the unsurpassed Watson’s Dictionary of Weasel Words, would probably know what to do with that. His examples of BS, if I remember correctly, were about as clear: “negative patient outcomes” for death, for example.

Words, as we know, are important. In fact, they can lead people down the garden path and make them feel inadequate. Listen to the language the British “Action for Happiness” uses, for instance. They say that all we need to do to be happy all the time is to “increase our wellbeing”. Sorry? If it wasn’t so serious I would laugh. They’ve also got an action plan. Action 7: bring mindfulness into your day. That is another one of those words, “mindfulness”. What the hell does that even mean? Action for Happiness has a handbook, of course, that you can buy. It will teach you “giving, relating, exercising, awareness, trying out, direction, resilience, emotions, acceptance, meaning and purpose” – all “authentic”, obviously. And you can join a group where you can learn that. All it needs is a pledge. And a fee to sign up. So you can, maybe, in the future, become a “happiness activist”.

What sort of smug, narcissistic navel-gazing is this? “Look at me: I am happier than you, I am a superior being.” Nothing about poverty, societal reasons for people to be unhappy, mental illness, stress, being busy with life even. On the contrary. Look on Amazon, that boasts 250,000 hits on the word “happiness”. One of the first is a book about “the happiness project”, with the subtitle, I kid you not, of “Why I spent a year trying to sing in the morning, clean my closets, fight right, read Aristotle, and generally have more fun”. What do you think? Mania or hubris? Or just egotistic swagger? Or maybe you want a subscription to Happinez, the magazine? Yes, with a z. So playful, right? For a “positive, wise and loving life”, a “journey” of “authentic and sustainable happiness”.


Also on The Big Smoke


Unfortunately, one of my favourite people on television, Kevin McCloud of Grand Designs fame, has also jumped on the happiness bandwagon. His company, that builds houses in the UK, is called HABhousing – “happiness, architecture and beauty”. It boasts “homes that lift the spirits”, featuring a “fabric-first approach”, “sustainable drainage”, “holistic One Planet living principles” and “fruity streets”. No roofs, doors or windows then, I’d say.

Of course, Australia has its own version. He is called Dr. Happy and is the “founder of the Happiness Institute“. In fact, he is its “brand ambassador” and “chief happiness officer”. Dr Tim Sharp makes good money from happiness. He is an adjunct professor at two Sydney universities, is a regular on commercial television and has worked with Coca Cola, Telstra, Westpac, Coles and Officeworks, to name but a few. I don’t care about that, by the way. Big companies have deep pockets and if they want to spend their dough on hokum, that is their business. But the good doctor also gives talks, and does consulting and coaching, and a lot of people are desperate enough to believe that spending their money this way is going to save them. That, I think, is morally wrong.

Yesterday I noticed that happiness is now even a thing for nerds. MIT has designed a smartwatch that can predict your happiness levels and give suggestions for changes in behaviour if the dial goes into the red. The “Happimeter” has nine different “mood states” and is available in a shop near you. That makes happiness not only easily accessible, but almost mandatory. And if you’re not happy, all the time, I might add, it is your own fault. That, I would say, is a recipe for depression and misery. So don’t fall for happiness. Or if you do, follow Einstein’s formula. In 1922, when he was in Japan and didn’t have money for the bellboy, he wrote this advice for a good existence on a piece of paper:

“A calm and modest life brings more happiness than the pursuit of success combined with constant restlessness.”

A few weeks ago, that note made $1.7 million at auction. Now that is something I can get behind: sanity and money for history and true wisdom. Go Albert!


Ingeborg van Teeseling

After migrating from Holland ten years ago and being warned by the Immigration Department against doing her job as a journalist, Ingeborg van Teeseling became a historian instead. She endeavours to explain Australia to migrants new and old at her website, and runs, telling people's life stories.

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