Exactly 99 days ago, I started the #100HappyDays challenge, which dares you to post a photo of something that makes you happy, every day, for 100 days. When I first came across this challenge, I was somewhere between stress-Pinteresting mug cake recipes and Googling “inspirational posters with penguins on them,” having felt buried under classwork, the pressure to find an internship and typical 21-year-old What The Hell Am I Doing With My Life terror.
The challenge, hosted by the 100 Happy Days Foundation, promised to make me feel more grateful and, yes, happier, if only I could stick it out the entire time. So I created a Tumblr, posted a photo of an newspaper office meeting and told myself this was like some form of new age journaling.
Over the following months, I posted pictures of loved ones, views, puppies, French toast and fun events. When I sat down every night or so to add to the Tumblr, it did provide a nice moment of reflection, especially if it had been a few days and I had a few photos to make up for. I realized that the things I remembered best from each day that made me happy weren’t getting good grades, or losing weight, or even pay day (well, also, it seemed sketchy to post a photo of my bank routing number online). They were people, places and things like painting or learning a new language that were devoid of obligation or a grading system. In the moments when I felt down, I would scroll through the blog and feel better, as if reminding myself see, look at all this awesome shit you’ve got going on. The 100 Days of Happiness project worked.
At the same time, it changed the way I saw happiness.
While the 100 Happy Days project made me appreciate so many things (and people!) more, I also started to devalue every feeling and moment that wasn’t happy –moments when I was bored to tears building an Excel database for hours at work, moments when I actually was in tears, sometimes, embarrassingly enough, in the office bathroom. I started resenting myself for being someone who couldn’t just be happy all the time. I knew I was #blessed. So how dare that ungrateful lip of mine even think about quivering!
This summer, I put hundreds of miles between me and my closest friends to move to a new city, in a new state. There were a lot of scary, boring, confusing, frustrating, terrifying and downright unhappy moments involved, and it feels weird to skim back through my blog and see absolutely no trace of any of that amongst the foodstagrams and screenshots. And, unless you’re really committed and go look at all the posts, you’ll notice that there’s actually one day that’s missing. In the complete story of the past 100 days, this day would be known as The Absolute Worst Day Ever, but it weren’t for the missing date, you’d never even guess it. So I started thinking about Happiness PR.
Our generation is particularly obsessed with happiness, which is mainly a really good thing. We don’t just want 9-to-5 jobs to pay the bills; we want jobs that actually fulfill us and make the world a better place. We don’t just eat food; we shop for mega-organic uber-vegan products that are supposed to make our lives purer and whole. We take gap years, go abroad, and travel like mad to find ourselves. We rally to Beyoncé’s battle cry of seeking but happiness as our aspiration life. And we enlist Happiness PR to show each other how well we’re doing.
Happiness PR has always been around, but it’s never been more apparent than now, when we have access to the same communications technology as corporations, and vice versa. Our generation especially has become experts at boiling down our messy, imperfect lives into flawless personal brands. Every Facebook photo, tweet and study abroad blog post becomes part of a carefully-designed public relations strategy, whether we admit it or not, designed to create perceptions about ourselves. Even that Tumblr I made and this portfolio website, too, is no worse nor better than a corporate news release or PR stunt.
I don’t think there’s anything unnatural about Happiness PR, because I mean, just as I want to know about Starbucks selling fair trade coffee and Taylor Swift visiting kids with cancer in hospitals, I want to know what’s making my friends and family happy, and I want to know they’re doing well with their job/relationship/school/Candy Crush. But I think one of the biggest problems with Happiness PR is that unhappiness has no place in it.
A YouTube video released earlier this summer shows, there’s a problem with all of us only selectively showing the peaks of our lives, when in reality, there’s a hella lot of valleys going on in between. Unfortunately for us, a thinking heuristic makes us automatically assume that a sample (aka what we see on social media) is representative of the whole (aka, the quality of our friends’ actual lives).
The irony here, of course, is that doing Happiness PR kind of makes everyone else unhappy as they’re comparing 100% of their lives to the top 20-30% of yours shown online. And then it makes them ashamed for being unhappy, because as far as the smiling photos and Snapchats go, no one else feels that way.
The other problem, as I encountered with the 100 Happy Days project, is that Happiness PR makes unhappy moments seem… unimportant. Moments like getting rejected, getting over someone, feeling alone, dropping toast butter-side down and thinking you’re never going to succeed – those moments really, really suck, but these are the experiences that make us strong and driven and passionate (and more careful with our toast the next day). To deny the inherent worth of those moments is to reject a huge part of our lives, and ourselves.
So, to combat Happiness PR, should we just post things like “She broke up with me today” or “I can’t open my Nutella jar, and I actually cried because I am that hungry”? I don’t think that’s necessarily the answer. As that Higton Bros video shows, we’re typically not interested in opening our news feed and seeing hundreds of people griping left and right. Psychologically, too, it’s just as bad of an idea to surround yourself in other people’s misery as it is to surround yourself with things to envy.
But I don’t think that means we as a population don’t want to hear about each others’ problems, period. Humans of New York, for example posts magnificent photos of average people talking about the heartbreaking and frustrating things they’re going through, and it has done a great job of bringing everyone on the Internet together in a big well-lit group hug. Celebrating struggle without bringing anyone down – that’s what we as future professional storytellers and human beings should work toward.
The first step, then, to combating the problems of Happiness PR, is to realize that Happiness PR exists, and that like any PR strategy cooked up by professionals paid by clients, it has its benefits and its limits. It doesn’t tell the whole story. As uber-savvy consumers, we’re well practiced at calling bullshit on big corporations, and as humans in civilization, we should be better at looking at social media with some of that same – not skepticism, per se, because I don’t believe we’re all just faking happiness to trick each other – but maybe awareness. Awareness that the photo your best friend took in front of the Eiffel Tower is not proof that her life is completely perfect and yours is shit; it’s just her celebrating being abroad, and off that cramped 10-hour flight. Awareness, on a personal level, that that #100HappyDays Tumblr I made is a nice record of happy things, not a comprehensive representation of my most recent 100 days.
The obvious second step after that, of course, is to take advantage of our persona, private interactions to help each other recognize and appreciate all parts of our lives.
Being happy is important. It is so important. It is, many argue, the point of this whole shebang. But what this project has made me realize is that it’s important to find meaning in our happiness. In order to find meaning, we have to also welcome and appreciate the less than picture-perfect moments. Not a novel discovery by any means, but 100 days of rather acute ups and downs have given me a lot to think about. Because while those unsavory, unhappy moments hurt, and they don’t look cute on Tumblr, they’re part of the package deal. And it’s a pretty great package deal, all things considered.