The scourge of cyberbullying is frequently discussed. It is the focus for research, First Ladies and even popular song. Its address has become a labour for the parents of terrified kids and we cannot doubt that this private pain will soon become a public health concern. I’d shine personal light on this dark brutality, but we’ve got senators and celebrities for that. Instead, I raise awareness for those victims so rarely described. I speak to those who, like me, have been Joy-Shamed.

Joy-shaming is described in the work of no prominent thinker as an unconscious social reflex that re-establishes the order of the present by, “falsely depicting the rare human sensation of joy as not only common, but as somehow mandatory to the survival of the species”.

Succinctly expressed by statements like “Why can’t you be positive?”, “Why must you criticise people who are better than you?” or “If people like you weren’t so miserable about the world, then the world would be a better place”, this harmful attempt to assert joy as a social norm precedes the digital era by centuries.

Bitterness and misanthropy have long been attributed to those whose declarations pose a threat to the false order of joy. In the 1970s, the second-wave feminist found herself quickly appended to the term “joyless”. Revolutionary writer Antonio Gramsci was discredited as miserable so often by his fascist captors, he was led to explain that while his pessimism was purely intellectual, he retained great optimism of will.

Anger, spite, frigidity, melancholy or its medical descendent depression are a proof of joy’s absence. These have been invoked to slow the work of revolutionaries and their movements. The Sexless Lesbian, the Angry Black, the Miserable Miner with his paralysing Class Envy. These are creations made possible by the sustained fiction of sustainable joy.

The book Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America is the popular account of joy and the role it has come to play in healthcare. The joyous misery of Barbara Ehrenreich is a tonic to those of us who have been joy-shamed not just in our sick beds, but throughout our lives. It’s of particular value to any seriously ill person who has been told that a “positive” attitude is the best kind of medicine.

Diagnosed with breast cancer, Ehrenreich found herself overwhelmed not just by all the pink apparently mandatory to her recovery, but the claim, even accepted by some medical staff, that an upbeat attitude had a role in curing cancer. With research and in narrative, Ehrenreich demonstrates not only that there is no evidence for this anti-negativity mania, but that smiling may, in fact, cause harm.

Contentment is the human state for which we can rationally hope. Still, joy, euphoria and bliss are states presumed to be attainable. The Instagram world of visual perfection depicts the ideal mother, whose hashtag #blessed somehow became standard. Even the feminist influencers of that medium present themselves in moments of “self-care”. They are more likely to fight the revolution at a day spa or in a nice new frock than on the streets in this influential medium.

Well. I’ve had it. Some of us need to shout at clouds. Some of us do not wish to feel inspired, empowered, affirmed or loved by strangers. We would, however, prefer not to be shouted at when we do shout at clouds and, perhaps, not held as an example of “all that is wrong” when we seek to indicate those other things that we believe may be just a little more powerfully wrong than our routine misery.

But a few brave psychologists risk their reputations in the study of that smarmy standard and the harm that it can do. As we, the joyless and the joy-shamed, joylessly suspected, it is possible that the false norm of happiness does more harm to the self than good.

Art has become joyful. Social movements have become joyful. The most talked-about Netflix special of the year, Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette, ends with a plea that we all just calm down a bit and speak in a voice of quiet reason. And, this, after she tells us that laughing at misery is bad.

We can neither laugh nor scream at horror. We must be joyous attendants to the care of the self, not angry critics of the world. We must speak reasonably at clouds and when we shout, it is to declare the joy that we feel.

I choose misery. #JoylessPride

What do you think about the whole joy v misery debate? Let us know by writing to [email protected].

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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