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The Happiness Mandate: Why Grieving in Our Culture Can Be So Difficult

I recently read an article about “toxic positivity” – the cultural mandate that no matter your experience, you should just be happy. The messages promoting happiness are everywhere. “Good things are on the way.” “Choose happiness”. Everywhere we turn, we are bombarded with this happiness mandate. But this “just be happy” kind of happiness is not the kind of happiness one holds deep within the soul; and it is absolutely unavailable to those in the throes of grief.

This happiness mandate is a “look happy on the surface” kind of happiness. This cultural mandate really has nothing to do with our individual happiness; and everything to do with the collective culture’s comfort, or uncomfortableness with pain, loss and suffering. If you look okay, it is assumed you are okay, and no one is made to feel uncomfortable. Hide your pain, and no one is forced to act. Speaking the truth about the painful parts of life can be very difficult. So, just be happy; it’s easier for everyone else. This is why grieving in our culture is so difficult.

In her article, The grieving killjoy: Bereavement, alienation and cultural critique, Esther H. Kofod makes the case for allowing sadness and grief in a society that is fundamentally, systemically designed with happiness as a “prevailing moral ideal”. Kofod’s findings reveal that this systemic expectation for happiness creates a barrier to accepting and supporting the grieving. In other words, the “don’t worry, be happy” mentality is severely restricting our ability to grieve. And this restriction shows up everywhere. It is in corporate bereavement policies, providing a week of leave (if you’re lucky) for the loss of a “close relative”. This restriction is also fostered in the continued and most awful misrepresentation of the “stages” of grief, which only serve to make grievers feel as though the way they grieve is somehow wrong, if not completed in an orderly fashion.

Try as we might, we cannot transform grief into an easy process with a quick resolution and miracle recovery. It is simply impossible to just stop grief in one moment and start happiness the next. Grief unapologetically laughs in the face of happiness, leaving the bereaved holding the weight of their grief alone, while those around try to figure out what to do in the presence of the pain and sadness. Perhaps what is most damaging about this happiness mandate, is that it asks that we mask our pain, eliciting feelings of guilt and shame and alienating us from the social supports we need for healing. This process then serves to invalidate a critical part of our existence that grief requires we tap into; our inherent resilience. This internal resilience, along with social supports, helps us manage through the pain of grief and integrate it into our lives. This is the process that ultimately leads one back to a true sense of meaning, and it is here that happiness, authentic happiness, is again, eventually possible.

While the prevailing cultural mandates places limits and expectations on the grieving, there seems to be some good news. Kofod notes that there has been a shift in our cultural acceptance of grief and we are seeing more encouragement for grief expression. This is seen in the emergence of Death Cafes, where casually talking about the “taboo” topic of death is fostered. It is seen in the multitudes of grief groups forming, in the formal acceptance of “prolonged grief disorder” as a diagnostic and treatable condition, and in the work done at our universities to train clinicians to care for the grieving.

In order to claim their feelings, manage their grief and begin the healing process, grievers are required to violate the happiness mandate; to share the sadness and challenge the cultural fantasy that happiness is always available, always present and the only way to be.

Grievers need to grieve; their happiness put on hold while their journey is navigated. It needs to be okay that they are not happy. If this makes others uncomfortable; this needs to be okay, too. Maybe in the uncomfortableness, we will find ways to talk about life, loss and death, and begin having authentic conversations about something we will all, eventually, find ourselves navigating. Perhaps in these conversations, the uncomfortable will become comfortable, we will lead ourselves to true understanding, validation and yes, ultimately, true happiness. It is time the cultural mandate for happiness is put to rest.

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