The New Happiness Guru Says It’s OK to Be Unhappy
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because what if our obsession with staying happy is keeping us from ever getting there?
By Fiona Zublin
- An academic in Wales, Ashley Frawley is causing a stir by questioning why everyone is so focused on individual happiness rather than challenging society.
- The 34-year-old is tied into a network of influential U.K. conservatives, even though her ideas have a Marxist twist.
Ashley Frawley grew up in what she calls the self-esteem generation. An Ojibwe teenager who spent summers on a First Nations reservation in Canada, her family was poor and troubled. “Not the worthy poor, not the romantic kind of poor,” she adds.
As a teenager, she poured out her feelings to her high school counselor — and was told she had depression and her emotions could be chalked up to her brain chemistry. “I felt this sense of relief,” she says, “‘Oh, it’s not me, it’s my brain.’ And then I thought, ‘No, my life is very hard. I think I have a right to feel bad.'”
Today, Frawley, 34, an author and a senior lecturer at Swansea University in Wales, has made happiness her profession — or rather questioning why everyone is so fixated on it. Self-esteem, mindfulness: These themes, she argues, are largely variations on the same fad, focused on explaining to people how they can control their own happiness … all without challenging the society whose policies may be making them unhappy in the first place. A focus on happiness can feel empowering for people, but it won’t materially change their circumstances. And, Frawley feels, it re-centers the individual’s internal lack of happiness as a problem to be fixed with medication or meditation — turning them into a patient rather than someone exercising agency.
For her, it’s not that individual happiness isn’t important. It’s that happiness as a metric isn’t particularly useful for changing or measuring society, and is instead popular because it sounds good and appeals to people across the political spectrum. “To the left, it had this vaguely anticapitalist ring to it: ‘Money doesn’t make you happy,'” she explains. “But on the right, it was also very powerful, on a deeper level … this idea that people should be happy with less actually fits very, very well with a conservative ethos. It has a Protestant ethic to it.”
Frawley is suspicious of ideas that seem good but may be more complex in reality.
The idea of measuring happiness more analytically was initially popularized in 1972 by the Kingdom of Bhutan — though critics point out that the positive publicity around Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Index conveniently distracted from an ethnic cleansing in the country. Now several other nations, including the United Kingdom, Dubai and Australia, have begun to collect national statistics on happiness and well-being. The United Nations even issues a yearly World Happiness Report, ranking Finland No. 1 this year.
In general, Frawley is suspicious of ideas that seem good but may be more complex in reality. For example, she’s been involved with a campaign fighting against the anti-smacking movement, which seeks to ban hitting children in places like Wales. Though she says she doesn’t use corporal punishment on her two children, she also thinks such rules are apt to target poor and indigenous families, and that people are reluctant to oppose them because nobody wants to seem like they’re in favor of hitting kids. Similarly, nobody wants to seem like they’re against people being happy.
Not everyone buys into Frawley’s take, though. First of all, while “happiness is a bogus metric” is attention-getting, some think it sounds a bit too familiar. “A lot of [Karl] Marx’s time in the 1850s was spent trying to understand how people are blinded politically to what’s going on,” says Dr. Mark Cieslik, a senior lecturer at Northumbria University who also studies happiness. “And all contemporary sociologists like Ashley Frawley are doing is reworking these ideas.”
Sociologists have long attempted to explain why the working classes don’t organize or vote against their own interests, and each generation blames its own opiates of the masses. “I think people are a lot brighter and more creative than these writers give them credit for,” Cieslik says. Still, he notes, Frawley is part of an increasingly powerful coterie: Her Ph.D. supervisor was academic Frank Furedi, whose site Spiked — which Frawley has often written for — has been described by The Guardian as “an influential force in shifting the Overton window to the right in the U.K.” Another Furedi disciple (and sometime Spiked writer) is Munira Mirza, head of policy for U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
Still, Frawley’s complaints about wellness resonate. Mostly, she’s critical of an industry she feels makes a lot of money off peddling solutions like mindfulness. “They make these humongous promises to solve a huge range of social problems,” she says, “and then inevitably they fail, because social problems are not caused by people’s lack of self-esteem, and then they drop off the radar.” Even then the happiness schtick won’t lie dormant for long, Frawley says: “There’s always some new fad waiting in the wings.”