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Why Happy Is the New Skinny (And That's a Bad Thing)

06/25/2015 06:20 pm ET | Updated Jun 25, 2016

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The happiness industry

For decades, our society has bemoaned the pervasiveness and inconsistency of the weight-loss industry. Diets, exercise regimes and supplements come and go in waves that constitute a still-growing industry that separates us from our cash at a rate of $60 billion per year in the US alone [1].

In recent years, a new kid has emerged on the block that is gearing up to take on the weight-loss industry as chief purveyor of hopes and dreams: enter happiness. This new player can be seen featuring prominently in bookstores (over 2,000 books on happiness were released by Amazon in the last three months), in online searches (the popularity of the term "happiness" in Google searches over the last five years was approximately double that of the previous five), and that most notable of pop culture indicators -- apps (a quick search of the Google Play store yielded hundreds of results!). Today, the happiness industry is worth $10 billion annually in the US, and is estimated to be growing at 5.5% [2].

Of course, happy is the logical successor to skinny -- for years, skinny has been sold on the premise that it will make us happy. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, we continue to invest in this lofty ideal. But over the last few decades, psychologists have been hard at work to understand what makes people flourish, and the science has developed to the point where many reliable tools and techniques have been identified that really can contribute to a greater sense of happiness and well being. With these new tools, we have many more options to achieve happiness than the old standard of losing weight, so why wouldn't we use this information to our fullest advantage?

So what's the catch?

As with all things that sound too good to be true, the idea of completing a simple exercise such as keeping a gratitude journal, or better yet checking in with an app a few times a day in exchange for happiness, is just not realistic. These are the equivalent of late-night infomercials promising a six-pack in exchange for just 7 minutes of exercise on the latest fad machine - both have some vague and distant connection to science but have been taken out of context and grossly oversimplified to make a buck. In The Upside of Your Dark Side, Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener recount studies showing that the mere pursuit of happiness with the single-mindedness that Western (and particularly American) culture encourages is enough to reduce our happiness!

This means that the proliferation of happiness "quick-fixes" being developed and marketed have the potential to cause the exact opposite effect that they are intended to, by feeding our obsession with finding pure, unadulterated happiness - ASAP. Once again we can draw a parallel with the weight-loss industry, where short bursts of intense pursuit of a goal (think yo-yo dieting) give a short term improvement, but are detrimental in the long term.

Victor Frankl, in his acclaimed book Man's Search for Meaning, describes how happiness comes about as a by-product of the pursuit of meaning in one's life, rather than as an end in itself:

Don't aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one's personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one's surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long-run--in the long-run, I say!--success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it.

Herein lies the paradox. Happiness is ours for the taking, right up until the point where we make it our primary goal. Doing so puts it ever out of reach, hence the inherent dangers of the emerging happiness industry, with its promise of a one-size-fits-all highway to happiness.

How to pursue happiness without it knowing

The good news is that we now know enough about where happiness comes from to be able to approach it indirectly, and thus avoid scaring it off. Martin Seligman pioneered the PERMA model of happiness, which requires five elements to be present to achieve this elusive state. Positive emotions, Engagement, positive Relationships, Meaning and Accomplishment. A free self-assessment tool is available online so you can see how you score on each of the elements, and where the greatest opportunity for improvement might be.

By considering this model, we can start to see where various offerings of the happiness industry can have a positive impact. The books, the exercises, the apps - all of them are geared towards addressing a small piece of the PERMA model. In many cases, they are geared towards improving our level of positive emotions - an important element of happiness, but just one piece of the puzzle.

By understanding how the new wave of happiness tools and techniques can help us achieve this coveted state, as well as their limitations, we can make the most of what this new industry has to offer while avoiding the fad "happiness diets" that are bound to emerge in coming years!

This piece was written in the lead-up to the Fourth World Congress on Positive Psychology, being held in Orlando, Florida from June 25-29, 2015. You can follow the conference on Twitter at ‪#‎WCPP2015.

This piece first appeared on Light Yourself Up.

References:

  1. The U.S. Weight Loss Market: 2015 Status Report & Forecast [Abstract], January 2015, Marketdata Enterprises, Inc., retrieved from https://www.bharatbook.com/healthcare-market-research-reports-467678/us-weight-loss-market-2015-report-forecast.html

  • LaRosa, J., The U.S. Self improvement Market - Overview & Forecasts, November 2013, Matketdata Enterprises Inc. retrieved from http://www.slideshare.net/jonlar/the-us-self-improvement-market