Promoted from the Ricochet Member Feed by Editors Created with Sketch. Is Happiness a Moral Obligation?

 

shutterstock_112916848Every Friday, Dennis Prager devotes an hour of his radio show to the subject of happiness, a subject he also wrote a book on. Last week, he raised some questions that got me thinking. One of his points was that true happiness is earned. Do you think this is true? I guess I’d say that sometimes happiness is earned, the type that is akin to pride in accomplishment. Sometimes it’s nice to think, “I did that, even if no one else appreciates it, it took struggle and work and I didn’t think I could, but I did that hard thing.” That’s a good, happy feeling.

But sometimes, happiness just kind of alights upon you in the moment. You don’t earn it, it just finds you. Maybe something you did or are allowed that moment to happen, so perhaps in a sense you earned it, but that sure isn’t always obvious to me. So I guess I’d argue with Dennis a bit on that one; I don’t think happiness is always earned. I know I really treasure those occasions, sometimes full days, when I just feel happy and contented for no obvious reason.

Dennis also says happiness is a moral obligation. Do you think that is true? I do. We owe it to the people we love and spend our time with not to inflict our troubles and bad moods on them. We want to share our troubles in a sense, but at the same time we want to do it with grace and gratitude for the good things in our lives, which I hope is those people we live with. Sometimes it’s a challenge to (almost) always present a happy face to those we are closest to, but I think it is a kind of moral obligation because those are the people we influence the most.

I’ve noticed, however, that it is much easier for some people to be happy than others. My oldest grandson is pensive and prone to worry, while another grandson is always smiling and assumes everyone likes him. And they do. They were born this way. Are they both equally morally obliged to be happy for the sake of others? It will be much harder for one than the other to fulfill this moral obligation.

Is it possible for you to be happy when you have troubles in your life? I know it depends on the troubles, but — life being what it is — we are likely to be troubled a good part of the time, whether by health problems, finances, or difficult interpersonal relationships. How can we be happy when we are constantly troubled?

I know some people who seem to actually enjoy having a lot of drama in their lives. That would not be me. I work very hard to maintain good health, stable finances and good relationships because worrying about those things makes me unhappy. Sometimes, though, troubles make you appreciate small moments of happiness more than you would when life is humming along smoothly.

So, are you happy?

Image Credit: Shutterstock user Rafal Olkis.

There are 41 comments.

  1. Eustace C. Scrubb Member

    As a Christian, I’m to live out the Fruit of the Spirit, which includes joy. Joy and happiness are not equivalents, but it’s hard to imagine real joy without a degree of happiness. And, of course, this assumes that there is a supernatural component to that joy.

    I agree that happiness is something we should strive for, but sometimes momentary happiness can come through circumstances. Matthew 5:45 says, “In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike.” Everyone experiences this short term pleasure, happiness, at times in life. But it takes a combination of effort and God’s grace for happiness to be our ongoing condition.

    • #1
    • October 3, 2014, at 4:20 PM PST
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  2. Mate De Coolidge

    I can be a cranky pants sometimes, and I have to work to check myself on that. But sometimes my three year old will tell me “I’m Happy Mommy” and it’s just the most joyous thing in the world to hear, and can brighten my mood instantly. People who smile easily, laugh often and are generally happy individuals do make the world better, but I understand that for some it is easier said than done. I think Mr Prager’s goal is to at least to ensure that us moody folks try to check our moodiness at the door

    • #2
    • October 3, 2014, at 4:53 PM PST
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  3. Merina Smith Inactive
    Merina Smith Post author

    Thanks, Eustace. With that name, you are certainly a Christian! Faith is a big part of happiness for me too, the word of God and the church community. It’s the story I live within. It means the world to me to have a wisdom book to guide my actions and help me understand this life and the next, friends I care about, a place to go to do good and to get to know a lot of people I wouldn’t ordinarily meet, and to join them in shared worship, belief and purpose. Lately I’ve been studying Jesus’ parables. I like that they allow me to figure out for myself what it means to live a faithful life. I get a little flash of happiness when it dawns on me what the parable means.

    • #3
    • October 3, 2014, at 5:00 PM PST
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  4. Merina Smith Inactive
    Merina Smith Post author

    Matede:I can be a cranky pants sometimes, and I have to work to check myself on that. But sometimes my three year old will tell me “I’m Happy Mommy” and it’s just the most joyous thing in the world to hear, and can brighten my mood instantly. People who smile easily, laugh often and are generally happy individuals do make the world better, but I understand that for some it is easier said than done. I think Mr Prager’s goal is to at least to ensure that us moody folks try to check our moodiness at the door

    I have to confess that as a Grandmother, I’ll do about anything to see happiness on my Grandkids’ faces. Which means I overindulge them sometimes….. But hey–that’s my job! Looking back, I wish I’d been a more consistently cheerful Mom and appreciated all the time how precious they were and how lucky I was to have them. But life will intervene!

    • #4
    • October 3, 2014, at 5:03 PM PST
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  5. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor

    Merina Smith:

    So I guess I’d argue with Dennis a bit on that one–I don’t think happiness is always earned.

    I completely agree. Much of happiness is simply dispositional, and while we can work hard (some of us very hard) to develop a better disposition than what we had previously, there’s no doubt that much of a person’s disposition is accidental, determined by genes and circumstance.

    For example, the higher incidence of depression among asthmatics is hardly a surprise when you consider that asthmatic children (especially in their preverbal years) may spend much of their time wheezing – laboring at the very task of breathing, a life-sustaining function many other children simply take for granted.

    For another example, pick any two people in a close relationship where one has a happier disposition than the other and ask whether the difference in dispositions was earned. Sometimes it is, but often it isn’t. My husband has an innately happy disposition. There’s no doubt that this has helped make him a more successful and pleasant person. But he knows he hasn’t earned this trait. He’s just always been that way without even trying. The two people closest to him are a brother who’s almost identical to him (except for having asthma and a melancholy disposition) and his wife (who also has asthma and a melancholy disposition). He finds it absurd and monstrous to say he has earned a happy disposition while these two other people haven’t.

    We have an obligation to treat others well. Practically speaking, this means we also have an obligation to cultivate a happy disposition, since treating others well when we’re in a foul mood is hard for most of us to do (and only becomes harder the longer and deeper the foul mood is). But we can only cultivate the territory we’ve been given. Some people cultivate oases while others cultivate deserts.

    • #5
    • October 3, 2014, at 6:08 PM PST
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  6. Limestone Cowboy Member

    Merina Smith: was listening to some of Dennis Prager’s happiness hour this morning. He raised some questions that got me thinking. One of his points was that true happiness is earned. Do you think this is true? I guess I’d say that sometimes happiness is earned, the type that is akin to pride in accomplishment. Sometimes it’s nice to think, “I did that, even if no one else appreciates it, it took struggle and work and I didn’t think I could, but I did that hard thing.” That’s a good, happy feeling.

    But sometimes happiness just kind of alights upon you in the moment. You don’t earn it, it just finds you.

    Merina, I think your’re right on both points. I take justifiable pleasure watching my adult children get on with their lives.. competent, moral , successful. And it makes me happy that maybe I contributed to that. When one of my projects completes successfully I’m happy. I’ve earned that.

    But for me most of my happiness is unearned. I’m happy that I live in a world which produced Mozart and all of his wondrous works. Although I’m not at all sports fan, I’m happy that the fabulous skills of sports heroes such as Derek Jeter give my friends so much pleasure. I”m happy seeing the evident skill of the tradesmen who built my house. And I’m happy with (most of) my neighbors. And as an a immigrant I’m happy that I was able to become an American. None of these were my doing. I’m happy because I had a good mom and dad. All unearned.

    So in many ways, even earned happiness is the result of unearned happiness. My good parents taught me to be a good parent, and now my kids are trying to be good parents.

    Ultimately both earned and unearned happiness are God’s grace, or if you are not a believer, a gift of your parents and the culture they inherited.

    • #6
    • October 3, 2014, at 6:51 PM PST
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  7. EThompson Inactive

    Although I’m not at all sports fan, I’m happy that the fabulous skills of sports heroes such as Derek Jeter give my friends so much pleasure. 

    Wait… Do I know you?

    Seriously, I do think happiness is something that is attained and is very much a response to one’s environment, the people you are surrounded by, the relationships in which you are involved, the education and travel and professional sporting events ! to which you are exposed and the satisfaction gleaned from your work.

    • #7
    • October 3, 2014, at 8:57 PM PST
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  8. Merina Smith Inactive
    Merina Smith Post author

    Midge, you have a lot of wisdom and insight, which probably came in part from your struggles. So I guess there are trade-offs to suffering. And it’s nice that your husband knows that his natural cheeriness is not so easy for those with pain and illness to contend with. Sounds like you’re a well matched couple. People who struggle to be happy and often win the battle have my admiration. And I guess we all know when those we love have temporarily lost the battle and we step lightly.

    • #8
    • October 3, 2014, at 9:04 PM PST
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  9. Merina Smith Inactive
    Merina Smith Post author

    Limestone Cowboy, I know the secret to your happiness. It’s gratitude.

    It is a joy to watch your children competently deal with the challenges of adulthood, isn’t it? I’m certain you had a lot to do with that!

    • #9
    • October 3, 2014, at 9:07 PM PST
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  10. Merina Smith Inactive
    Merina Smith Post author

    EThompson:Wait… Do I know you?

    Seriously, I do think happiness is something that is attained and is very much a response to one’s environment, the people you are surrounded by, the relationships in which you are involved, the education and travel and professional sporting events ! to which you are exposed and the satisfaction gleaned from your work.

    ET–you’re in the earned camp?

    • #10
    • October 3, 2014, at 9:11 PM PST
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  11. EThompson Inactive

    Merina Smith:

    EThompson:Wait… Do I know you?

    Seriously, I do think happiness is something that is attained and is very much a response to one’s environment, the people you are surrounded by, the relationships in which you are involved, the education and travel and professional sporting events ! to which you are exposed and the satisfaction gleaned from your work.

    ET–you’re in the earned camp?

    Yes, but I do think you need to have had the background to learn how to earn. :)

    • #11
    • October 3, 2014, at 9:17 PM PST
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  12. Eustace C. Scrubb Member

    All of this balanced with the suffering servant (Jesus) being called a man of sorrows acquainted with grief.

    • #12
    • October 3, 2014, at 9:48 PM PST
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  13. Zafar Member

    Merina, I must agree with you – yes, I think that trying for happiness is a moral obligation because a happy person is a better person to those around them.

    • #13
    • October 4, 2014, at 2:57 AM PST
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  14. Merina Smith Inactive
    Merina Smith Post author

    Zafar:Merina, I must agree with you – yes, I think that trying for happiness is a moral obligation because a happy person is a better person to those around them.

    Zafar, that doesn’t surprise me. You are a very considerate person. I shamefully remember thinking once or twice when I was younger and in a bad mood that I had a “right” to my moods, since I’m generally a happy and upbeat person. Nope. I was wrong. Steve is actually rather morose on his own, and–you’ll laugh–especially when we travel. He’s a creature of routine, and of course you don’t have your routine when you travel. But he understands his moral obligation to be happy too, so I can usually jolly him out of it by teasing him and pointing out how wonderful it is to get to see so many amazing things. The appeal to gratitude. Since he’s also a considerate person, that works.

    • #14
    • October 4, 2014, at 6:25 AM PST
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  15. Tom Meyer, Common Citizen Contributor

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake: Practically speaking, this means we also have an obligation to cultivate a happy disposition…

    I really like that verb here.

    I don’t think there’s any disputing that there’s a huge dispositional factor, as well as one on circumstances: people who’ve enduring horrible suffering or loss are — obviously — going to have a much bigger struggle than those of us who’ve led a relatively charmed life.

    That said, disposition plays a huge part in other aspects of morality. Lots of folks don’t have a particularly difficult time being faithful to their spouses, but it’s a huge struggle for others.

    • #15
    • October 7, 2014, at 7:18 AM PST
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  16. Casey Inactive

    The problem with happiness is that it is not a permanent condition. It is a relative condition.

    After a thing makes you happy, you have a new expectation. Its continuation no longer makes you happy but its absence will make you unhappy.

    Contentment is probably a moral obligation. Not in the sense of resting on one’s laurels but in the sense that one is pleased with what one has and not miserable about one does not have.

    • #16
    • October 7, 2014, at 7:29 AM PST
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  17. Merina Smith Inactive
    Merina Smith Post author

    Good point, Tom. Cultivate is a good word because it says that we all have agency, a choice about whether or not we are happy. And hey–the person blessed with the happy, endearing personality is probably more likely to find it challenging to keep marriage vows! In other words, even if we aren’t challenged in one way, we surely are in another.

    Casey–happiness, contentment, gratitude–interrelated and intertwining words, but central to a well-lived life.

    • #17
    • October 7, 2014, at 8:03 AM PST
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  18. Done Contributor

    My next post will be entitled “In praise of the curmudgeons”.

    • #18
    • October 7, 2014, at 8:23 AM PST
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  19. Owen Findy Member

    Frank Soto:My next post will be entitled “In praise of the curmudgeons”.

    Hear, hear!

    • #19
    • October 7, 2014, at 8:34 AM PST
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  20. Annefy Member

    Fake it Til you make it.

    I hit a real rough patch in my early 20’s. I was desperately unhappy to the point I was sick of myself. So I decided to pretend I was happy. As Dennis says, let the mind pull the heart instead of the other way around. It took awhile but things turned around and there are still days when I am faking it, but very few.

    Fake it til you make it has worked for me over and over. When I was in banking the stupid group project was in vogue. I figured out early that no one liked to do the presentation, but the person willing to get up in front of the group usually wasn’t expected to do much work. I pretended to not mind, did all the presentations and ended up enjoying it. The 10 minutes of public speaking was certainly better than spending time with all the analytics parsing every word.

    Son #2 has a naturally sunny disposition, everyone wants to be with him and / or hire him. Son #3 is the exact opposite. With his cooperation, we’ve been working on his personality lately. I’ve been saying things like “I know you don’t care about (so and so’s) opinion, but pretend you do.” What I really want to say is pretend to not be a jerk until not being a jerk becomes a habit.

    • #20
    • October 7, 2014, at 8:35 AM PST
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  21. Merina Smith Inactive
    Merina Smith Post author

    Owen Findy:

    Frank Soto:My next post will be entitled “In praise of the curmudgeons”.

    Hear, hear!

    That would be entertaining!

    Annefy–Hoo boy–I’ve tried a little of that engineering with my kids too–with mixed results, I must say. But hey–if your Mom won’t tell you the truth, who will?

    • #21
    • October 7, 2014, at 8:49 AM PST
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  22. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor

    Annefy:Fake it Til you make it.

    Can work. There’s an art to faking it so that you eventually make it, though. Not every kind of faking works for every person.

    My parents constantly admonished me to “just be more cheerful”, as if cheerfulness were some grim duty. Clearly, seeing me not cheerful upset them very much. I obeyed as far as I could, becoming secretive and withdrawn about my “real self”, hiding behind a (not very convincing to anyone except perhaps my parents) fake grin and nervous laughter when I was around people. The problem is, though, that I wasn’t fooling myself with this act at all.

    I ended up leading a double life. As with many double lives, the two eventually collided, much to my parents’ devastation and horror. Once they (and I) got over that crisis, though, we got along much better: we were finally able to relax around each other and act like real people, for a change.

    I’ve since learned a few more-effective strategies for “faking it till you make it”. Whatever works that isn’t actually immoral, right?

    • #22
    • October 7, 2014, at 9:03 AM PST
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  23. Fricosis Guy Listener

    “Fake it ’til you make it” is common advice in 12-step recovery circles. It also is often paired with “stay until the miracle happens.”

    That second phrase hints as what “it” really is: the spiritual awakening that is part of the original AA program (starts in step two: Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity). But even the belief in what a Higher Power can do only comes to us; we don’t make the belief happen.

    In other words, one can indeed go through the motions. But the real power, liberation, and yes, happiness, come from without, not within.

    • #23
    • October 7, 2014, at 9:42 AM PST
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  24. Annefy Member

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake:

    Annefy:Fake it Til you make it.

    Can work. There’s an art to faking it so that you eventually make it, though. Not every kind of faking works for every person.

    My parents constantly admonished me to “just be more cheerful”, as if cheerfulness were some grim duty. Clearly, seeing me not cheerful upset them very much. I obeyed as far as I could, becoming secretive and withdrawn about my “real self”, hiding behind a (not very convincing to anyone except perhaps my parents) fake grin and nervous laughter when I was around people. The problem is, though, that I wasn’t fooling myself with this act at all.

    I ended up leading a double life. As with many double lives, the two eventually collided, much to my parents’ devastation and horror. Once they (and I) got over that crisis, though, we got along much better: we were finally able to relax around each other and act like real people, for a change.

    I’ve since learned a few more-effective strategies for “faking it till you make it”. Whatever works that isn’t actually immoral, right?

    I feel you, Midge. Believe me, my mother’s constant demands during my rough patch to “cheer up”, “change my attitude”, blah blah blah was zero help and probably did some harm.

    Let it be noted that at no point did anyone ever say: Good God girl, what’s bothering you?

    That’s why with son #3 all my advice is practical. When he is short to someone making a reasonable inquiry, I give him examples of tone and content on how it could be handled better.

    • #24
    • October 7, 2014, at 10:04 AM PST
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  25. Amy Schley Moderator

    No, you don’t have a moral obligation to be happy. You are obliged to be polite and courteous to others, and that’s not the same thing. (In fact, when I’m ecstatically happy I tend to be quite rude.)

    Life (not yet, at least) isn’t a Brave New World. One is allowed to be sad and angry, depressed or bitter. The world is full of death and suffering, and while we shouldn’t wallow in our pain, we shouldn’t go around pretending it doesn’t exist. And while Christians are to cultivate joy, we know that until the world to come arrives, there will be grief and anger.

    • #25
    • October 7, 2014, at 11:14 AM PST
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  26. Merina Smith Inactive
    Merina Smith Post author

    Fricosis Guy:“Fake it ’til you make it” is common advice in 12-step recovery circles. It also is often paired with “stay until the miracle happens.”

    That second phrase hints as what “it” really is: the spiritual awakening that is part of the original AA program (starts in step two: Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity). But even the belief in what a Higher Power can do only comes to us; we don’t make the belief happen.

    In other words, one can indeed go through the motions. But the real power, liberation, and yes, happiness, come from without, not within.

    Really FG, do you think so? I will admit that sometimes happiness comes from without, but don’t you know people who are happy who have every exterior reason not to be happy? I do. I admire them and try to be like them. I will say, though, that right now I am happy in an interior sense, but unhappy about the exteriors–not of my own life. Everything in my own life is good and I’m grateful. But the state of the nation and the world is terrible and that makes me worried and unhappy. Mostly because of those grandkids mentioned in the OP.

    • #26
    • October 7, 2014, at 11:23 AM PST
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  27. Merina Smith Inactive
    Merina Smith Post author

    Amy Schley:No, you don’t have a moral obligation to be happy. You are obliged to be polite and courteous to others, and that’s not the same thing. (In fact, when I’m ecstatically happy I tend to be quite rude.)

    Life (not yet, at least) isn’t a Brave New World. One is allowed to be sad and angry, depressed or bitter. The world is full of death and suffering, and while we shouldn’t wallow in our pain, we shouldn’t go around pretending it doesn’t exist. And while Christians are to cultivate joy, we know that until the world to come arrives, there will be grief and anger.

    Don’t you think, though, that those closest to you are unhappy when you are unhappy? You know the old saying, “If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.” It’s true. But it’s true for any member of the family. We think we hide our unhappiness behind politeness, but I don’t think most of us are very good at that, at least to our near and dear. I find it very moving that when I am unhappy my husband can’t be happy. And when he’s unhappy, I’m pretty good at jollying him out of it. I think we both regard it as a moral obligation to be happy for one another to the degree that we can, and to do everything we can to mitigate the sources of unhappiness for ourselves and each other.

    • #27
    • October 7, 2014, at 11:27 AM PST
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  28. Annefy Member

    Amy Schley:No, you don’t have a moral obligation to be happy. You are obliged to be polite and courteous to others, and that’s not the same thing. (In fact, when I’m ecstatically happy I tend to be quite rude.)

    Life (not yet, at least) isn’t a Brave New World. One is allowed to be sad and angry, depressed or bitter. The world is full of death and suffering, and while we shouldn’t wallow in our pain, we shouldn’t go around pretending it doesn’t exist. And while Christians are to cultivate joy, we know that until the world to come arrives, there will be grief and anger.

    We are all “allowed” to be whatever we want. The question is, do we have a moral obligation to those around us to be happy. Dennis Prager equates happiness to wearing deoderant. We wear it not for ourselves, but for those we interact with.

    I have a few people in my life that no one would blame for depression or bitterness, yet they are neither and I admire them greatly. And it took great effort on their parts to overcome it. Others, on the other hand, have much to be grateful for, but everything out of their mouth is negative or bitter (in most cases rightly so, but the good things in their life far outweigh the bad).

    When my best friend’s father died I shed not a tear, nor did I feel any sadness. All I could say is that I hoped he found happiness in the next life as he sure lacked it in this one. This was a man with much to be grateful for. He was a staunch Catholic and frankly I thought it was sinful how bad he made his religion look.

    • #28
    • October 7, 2014, at 11:38 AM PST
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  29. Annefy Member

    And just a quick p.s. The people in my life who have been dealt a particularly bad hand yet are neither bitter nor depressed nor unhappy and have eventually achieved actual happiness, have great support by loved ones and friends and co-workers.

    Because they aren’t a total drag to be around.

    It’s a snowball effect; you fight the bitterness, focus on what you have to be grateful for. People respond positively, seek out your company and are more inclined to help. And with more friends and supportive loved ones, things get a whole lot better.

    I’m sure one of my friend’s father’s problems was that he had no friends. No bloody wonder. Five minutes of him was like a hair shirt.

    • #29
    • October 7, 2014, at 11:44 AM PST
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  30. Amy Schley Moderator

    Annefy: The question is, do we have a moral obligation to those around us to be happy.

    If we have a moral obligation to be happy, it therefore follows that to be unhappy is a moral failing. This is what I can’t accept. Again, deliberately wallowing in unhappiness like a pig in mud may be a failing, but to have hope in people entails disappointment, to love people means to grieve them when they’re gone, to trust them means to hurt when they can’t live up to that trust. To pretend those feelings don’t exist is to deny humanity. This is what Gene Roddenberry thought humanity was going to evolve into, which is why Star Trek Next Generation sucked until he died and the producers could allow the characters to be human.

    Merina Smith: We think we hide our unhappiness behind politeness, but I don’t think most of us are very good at that, at least to our near and dear.

    How does this square with “fake it till you make it” advice? We’re not supposed to allow ourselves to be polite but unhappy, but we’re supposed to pretend to be happy?

    • #30
    • October 7, 2014, at 12:07 PM PST
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