No, Happiness Is NOT a Moral Obligation

No, Happiness Is NOT a Moral Obligation October 12, 2016

This video has got to be one of the most godawful things I’ve seen in a long time.

The full transcript can be downloaded here, and it’s a doozy. Let me quote some excerpts for those not interested in (or able to) watch the video:

Most people think of happiness as essentially a selfish issue: “I want to be happy — and I want to be happy for me.”

I’d like to suggest that in fact happiness is far, far more than a selfish desire. In fact, it is a moral obligation.

. . .

It is no fun being raised by an unhappy parent, or being married to an unhappy person, or being the parent of an unhappy child, or working with an unhappy co-worker.

Our happiness affects others — profoundly. That’s why happiness is a moral obligation. We are morally obligated to at least act as happy as possible — even if we don’t feel happy. People can’t be guided by feelings because it is how we act that affects others — not how we feel.

. . .

No matter how unhappy you may feel at any given moment, you can — and have to — make a decision on how to act. We may not be free to control whether we feel sad or happy, but we are free to control whether or not we present a happy countenance to others.

. . .

We all have the capacity to control how we express ourselves, no matter how we feel. I can prove it. Imagine someone who is just acting miserably to his or her spouse when somebody comes to the door. Have you ever noticed how nicely such a person will treat the stranger? How were they able — in a split second — to go from inflicting their awful mood on their spouse to acting beautifully toward the stranger who’s at the door? Obviously we can control our moods.

Or, how about this? Let’s say you are chronically in a bad mood and I offered you ten thousand dollars a week not to be in a bad mood. Do you think this would affect your ability to be in a good mood? I suspect so.

. . .

Being happier is good for us and it is what we owe everybody who is in our lives.

. . .

So, yes, indeed, we do have a moral obligation to be, or at least to act, happy. The happy make the world better and the unhappy make it worse.

I cannot even imagine what watching this video, by conservative talk show host Dennis Prager, must be like for individuals suffering from depression. The message is, in a nutshell, that if you don’t act happy and at least fake a good mood you’re dragging those around you down and that is wrong, selfish, and immoral of you. What’s missing is the reality that you do matter—that putting on a fake smile doesn’t change the pain you may feel inside, and that that pain is real, and worth talking about. I would not want to live in a world where everyone puts on a fake smile, laughs, and effects a good mood while each is inwardly miserable.

I often tell my young grade school daughter that it’s okay for her to be in a bad mood, but that it’s not okay for her to hurt others while she’s in a bad mood. By that I mean that being in a bad mood does not give her license to kick or hit others, yell at others, or destroy other people’s things. It’s okay to be upset. It’s not okay to hit people or break things when you’re upset. It’s okay to be in a bad mood. It’s not okay to scream at your family members when you’re in a bad mood. But in his video, Prager suggests that simply being in a bad mood hurts others. This is toxic. It’s one thing to encourage people to think about how their moods affect others, but it’s another entirely to suggest that they have a moral obligation to act happy.

Let’s bring this back to depression. Prager points out that people who are in a bad mood at home with their family will often put on a good mood when a visitor stops by, using this as evidence that people should be able to just fake happy all the time. During my teenage years, my father struggled on and off with what I now recognize as untreated depression. He was so walled off, so morose, we children often felt we were walking on eggshells around him. But then a family from church would come over for dinner and he would be a completely different person, smiling, laughing, telling stories. It was like night and day. Prager’s solution, as laid out in his video, is that my father should have just faked that happy when he was alone with his family as well. This would have been a terrible idea. Faking happy full time would have thoroughly exhausted my father, and it wouldn’t have fixed his underlying problem—his depression. He would still have been miserable. What he needed was help.

I came upon Prager’s video because it was posted on Ladies Against Feminism (LAF), an anti-feminist website run by patriarchal conservative evangelical quiverfull women who homeschool their children and believe that women’s place is in the home. I’m not surprised they posted it. In this movement—a movement in which I grew up—internal happiness is not important. What’s important is whether you’re doing what God has called on you to do—with a smile, of course. As a child, I was told that obedience was “immediate, complete, cheerful, and without complaint.” If I was told to set the table and did so with a frown on my face, I would be punished. Being in a bad mood was enough to get you sent to your room until you could come out with a smile on your face. What mattered was not the inside, it was the outside—which is ironic, when you consider that the Bible says God looks at the heart.

When I look back at my childhood from my perspective as a mother today, I’m sometimes startled by all of the conversations that never took place. When my daughter is in a bad mood, I ask her what’s wrong, and if she wants to talk about it. If she says no, I encourage her to remember the many self-care techniques I’ve taught her over the years—to have some alone time if that would help, to take a nap, to rest. Later, when her mood has passed, I again ask if she wants to talk about it, and we try to figure out, together, what led to her frustration. If it was a conflict between the two of us that led to her mood, we brainstorm how each of us can approach similar issues differently in the future. Sometimes we pinpoint other causes, like too much time on the computer without a break, or a lazy day spent on healthy snacking, or a conflict at school. These conversations and moments are important.

I want to teach my daughter to be aware of her emotions, and help her become attuned to what leads to one mood or another. I want to teach her self-care and self-regulation. I want to help her learn how to healthily manage her emotions. And I genuinely care about her happiness—not put-on, outward happiness, but inward, underlying happiness. I would never in a million years teach her that she is morally obligated to appear happy. I would never in a million years order her to appear happy, as I experienced in my own childhood. I cannot tell you how revolutionary it feels, after my own upbringing, to tell my daughter that it is okay for her to be in a bad mood. There is a huge difference between teaching her not to hurt others while she is in a bad mood, as I do, and telling someone that their bad moods themselves hurt others, as Prager does.

The irony, perhaps, is that I was initially slightly excited when I saw that LAF had posted a video arguing that happiness was a moral obligation. Could it be, I wondered, that LAF is actually going to acknowledge that individual happiness matters? So much of what is posted on the website is about duty and place (when happiness comes up it’s to de facto claim that women are happiest in the home). But then I watched the video. The argument here is not that individual happiness matters. It’s that you are morally obligated to fake happiness. In other words, giving up a career, staying home to raise (and homeschool) a large brood of children, and submitting to your husband isn’t enough. You have to wear a cheerful smile too, even if it’s fake.

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