[Note: this month my first book, The Paradox of Happiness, is being released, and I’m dedicating my next Wondering Fair articles to the theme : ) You can check out the book here.]
Coming home one day I saw a billboard picturing a slim girl in a spring dress, smiling and looking upwards, surrounded by light and calm, and next to her it was written: “Happiness is to wear a size S.” I felt strongly tempted to go to the nearest department store, ask for the ladies’ floor, find a dress size Small, and try to fit it in. I would have to stretch and force the dress to its limits, for although I am not the muscular macho type and can’t grow a mustache, I’m pretty sure I don’t fit in a dress size S either. And I would draw some suspicious looks if I opened the curtain and emerged in the ladies fitting area limping on a miniscule dress and trying to see myself in the mirror. I could not help but feel eager to evaluate my happiness rank against that billboard’s definition.
No one needs to mention how misguided that definition is. Not only does it exclude the wonderful male half of humanity – I can almost hear a roar of protest from bars and stadiums everywhere – but it hurts every feminine heart that reads those lines. The vast majority of women who do not fit in a size small dress feel diminished, unattractive and unworthy, and the few ladies who do fit in it feel the pressure to keep their waistline and their diet of olives, wheat crackers, and water. Augusto Cury, writing on our modern day dictatorship of beauty, argues that “This dictatorship assassins the self-esteem, suffocates the pleasure of living, produces a war against the mirror and generates a profound self-rejection.”
As harmless as it might seem, that dress billboard is part of a culture that defines beauty and happiness according to its own commercial logic. It is an illustration of our society’s ideal of happiness as duty, as an implacable, unbinding rule forced down on everyone. Everyone should and must be happy, we hear, or something is wrong. Happiness was made such an unquestionable norm that people worry if they do not feel bliss every day, and “they become unhappy for not being happy.”  The breeze of enjoyment becomes a burden and a responsibility. And if happiness becomes a duty, and someone fails this duty, as we all do, happiness becomes guilt, and lack of happiness is ostracized. This notion of happiness is not happy, if anything. It is useful for selling a number of products, for sure, but not for much else.
I wonder if we would not be happier if we let go of the ideal of happiness, instead. Maybe if we give it up altogether, and live humbly, lightly, self-forgetfully, unworried about our own emotional state at each moment, eager to serve people and improve this world, and enjoying serenely what comes our way, maybe we would be surprised by happiness. Maybe we would experience happiness as Nathaniel Hawthorne describes it, as “a butterfly, which, when pursued, is always beyond our grasp, but which, if you sit down quietly, may alight upon you.” Happiness would not crush us with its demands of perfect satisfaction, but would arrive as a gift, unannounced, as an unexpected visitor. It would grace moments when we forgot about our wellbeing and just lived.
 Augusto Cury, A Ditadura da Beleza e a Revolução das Mulheres (Rio de Janeiro: Sextante, 2005), 6.
 Pascal Bruckner, A Euforia Perpétua: Ensaio Sobre o Dever da Felicidade [L´Euphorie Perpétuelle], trans. Rejane Janowitzer (Rio de Janeiro: Bertrand, 2002), 16, 74, 77.
 Nathaniel Hawthorne, quoted in Daniel Nettle, Happiness: The Science Behind Your Smile (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 184
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“All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.”
Great quote, Sean!
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Congrats on the book, Rene!