A Subjective Summary of Sara Ahmed’s Introduction to ‘The Promise of Happiness’

We may often feel that the purpose of summary is rarely anything more than a glorified ego-trip of performing an understanding of a text. And I accept that. Indeed. The use of summarizing here is to understand what I’m reading and how I feel about the words in my hands. Sara Ahmed’s move to tackle one of the most ambiguous concerns in the history of philosophy is big–bigger than big. Since “happiness” as it’s simultaneously reified onto a person and buried in an ethereal subconscious eludes me, her book finds me at a time when I absolutely need to understand. So here I am, and you are too if you’re with me. Hellos and what not; I’m glad for your company, if but from a silent afar.

Ahmed starts us off by asking in her heading “Why Happiness, Why Now?” Her question is good not only in the pertinence of it, but in the permanence of asking. The now becomes a forever present, which is a smart way to begin her eventual relationship to this philosophical elusive. She will want us to realize how happiness is a thing so much as it is no thing. (It slips away to gray.)

At times, Ahmed projects how happiness exists more as a state. She does this at these times by asking: “Do we consent to happiness? And what are we consenting to, if or when we consent to happiness?” (1). The multiplicitous nature of happiness exacerbates its ambiguity. These questions can teach us to consider happiness in its forms and shapes. To think of happiness as a thing means we can see it–know it is there–and then consent to its arrival into our lives. However, we often experience happiness less like a thing and more like a state only recognized in hindsight (keep a grip on this hindsight action).

She continues, “If happiness is what we wish for, it does not mean we know what we wish for in wishing for happiness. Happiness might even conjure its own wish. Or happiness might keep its place as a wish by its failure to be given” (1). Simply by wishing for it, happiness will always take the shape of a perpetual abstraction. Its elusiveness commands power over us because we live in a constant state of desiring it. The speech act of wishing formed in prayer, in declaration, or even in silence connects us to the abstraction in our attempt to regain a sense of power. Because we are always using language to reify the unknown,  happiness is no stranger. (If anything, it is the utmost reification.) Ironically, it is this act that transforms the ambiguity into objectification.

Ahmed runs down an overview of how philosophers have grappled with happiness as a concept. I won’t go into an argument over how well she does this. Her writing speaks for itself and if you need extrapolative detail, getcha some and read her. I’ll just quote her one quite elegant summation: “Around these specific critiques are long histories of scholarship and activism which expose the unhappy effects of happiness, teaching us how happiness is used to redescribe social norms as social goods” (2). Ahmed has now moved toward a few node-dispersions. Happiness has 1) a philosophical history; 2) a history in activism; and 3) has been appropriated into the capitalist machine as a form of object production.

We must note that her node-dispersions lead her to directly relating happiness to politics: “a politics that demands others live according to a wish” (2). Returning to ambiguity (politics is as politics do, innit?), happiness must-needs depend upon speech to manifest itself as a thing in order to live. The thing of all thing, of course, being what we live every day. Thus the speech act of wishing for happiness takes up an oppressive camaraderie: you must want what I want for it to be so. Imma tease this out a bit as I progress through my interactions with Ahmed’s book, but for now, we can assume that she’s defiantly embracing the juxtaposed nature of performance and objectification of ambiguity politics. (confusing? You’re going to be okay. Patience, one-day-at-time-so forth-such is the nature of the beast-etc.)

Where we at now is where Ahmed really starts amping happiness up as a critique of capitalism: “If we have a duty to promote what causes happiness, then happiness itself become a duty” (7). The duty involved in ensuring happiness becomes a thing forces politics into labor. And what is labor but a surplus mass of folk working toward an endgame goal of production to accumulate “happiness wealth.” Ahmed  informs us that wealth creates a sense of “crisis” in our striving for happiness. When we fail to accumulate happiness, we believe we are failing at life, and this grows into a sense of happiness poverty of which we must escape. In this state of poverty, then, nostalgia for what was takes shape: “The demand for happiness is increasingly articulated as a demand to return to social ideals, as if what explains the crisis of happiness is not the failure of these ideals but our failure to follow them. And arguably, at times of crisis the language of happiness acquires an even more powerful hold” (7). So we begin by looking back into our lives to see where we did gone wrong–where we lost our happiness wealth.

This will be a time period of questioning our actions and our relationships. We will critique those around us for their part in our shared failure of what was a bunch of reified smiles. And here is when Ahmed shows “how happiness becomes a disciplinary technique” (8). We can aim to be happier because “[w]hat is at stake here is a belief that we can know ‘in advance’ what will improve people’s lives” (8). Our beliefs about happiness solidify hope into broken dreams. Were the people around us better at the means of happiness production, we wouldn’t have lost our joy capital. So we place blame. But a form of ignorance surfaces; what blaming the others in our lives does is cancel out the labor involved in actually being happy.

Oh, or does it? (insert me winking and weeping both at once)

Perhaps we start trying to find happiness in doing good and slapping a smile on our faces for the hope-to-feel it. Ahmed ain’t necessarily cool with that though. Rather, she tells us that “[y]ou might note here that correlations (happiness with optimism, and happiness with altruism) quickly translate into causalities in which happiness becomes its own cause: happiness causes us to be less self-focused, more optimistic, which in turn causes us to be happier, which means we cause more happiness for others, and so on” (9-10). A cycle incurs cycle. As happiness in an external form is a love’s labor lost, we place it again externally upon our faces and our actions. The cause of happiness is happiness and what can that even mean when happiness is not actually a thing?

Ahmed does not quantify do-gooding actions as good or bad, per se. Her move is to return to the personal nature of happiness: “Where we find happiness teaches us what we value rather than simply what is of value” (13). It’s this personal subjectivity that should teach us about ourselves before it teaches us about one another. Ethically, we owe it to the ambiguous nature of happiness to critique our own conceptions of our being happy before we place it on one another. (If anyone needs to learn this, it is me and you.)

So Ahmed’s Introduction is her way of teaching us to read ourselves better. Her main purpose in writing this text requires our labor: “Reading happiness would then become a matter of reading the grammar of this ambivalence” (6). I start thinking that she wants us to feel that maybe we don’t know how we feel, or we question our own feelings in the wrong way too much–that we live in an emotional skepticism. Or maybe our words about happiness fail to make happiness into the thing it really is.

I think so because maybe happiness is always an origin of what it can be. Such a thing of possibility certainly would remain eternally ambivalent to our desire. But that’s another chapter.


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