Review: The Promise of Happiness

The Promise of Happiness. Sara Ahmed. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010. Pp. ix + 315.

“You should do what makes you happy.” Why were so many of us raised under this mantra? This question, among others, is one of Sara Ahmed’s chief concerns in The Promise of Happiness (2010). Situating her analysis in affect and feminist cultural studies, Ahmed seeks to complicate happiness, a concept that has, until recently, been considered fairly innocuous in psychological and philosophical circles. Ahmed, however, advocates for a “happiness turn,” or a turning away from the institution of happiness in order to better recognize those who have been marginalized by the force of its overwhelming cultural dominance. She asks us to consider what actually makes us happy and what makes us unhappy. Why do we assume that happiness is the ultimate goal for which we should strive? And, if it is obtainable, what exactly is happiness? In asking these and other questions, Ahmed offers scholars a space in which to conceive of discrimination and heteronormative privilege as products of happiness.

In Chapter 1, “Happy Objects,” Ahmed grounds her reading of happiness squarely in affect theory. Ahmed claims that “Happiness involves affect (to be happy is to be affected by something), intentionality (to be happy is to be happy about something), and evaluation or judgment (to be happy about something makes something good)” (21). After staking this initial claim, Ahmed then systematically makes her case for the affective state of happiness. Pleasure, she argues, does not arise from “good things,” but good things are instead a product of the repetition of our pleasure. After we experience this pleasure of the thing – are affected by the thing – we then deem the thing “good” and orient ourselves around it. “Pleasure creates an object,” Ahmed argues, “even when the object of pleasure appears before us” (25). Additionally, when a separate thing becomes associated with the original “happy object,” the happy object incites further pleasure and thus increases the original object’s affective significance. Ahmed contends that, in this way, each time we remember the happy object as the cause of pleasure, the object takes on its own life as a “feeling-cause” (28). We then begin to expect pleasure from happy objects or even the mere proximity to happy objects; it is in this expectation of happiness that Ahmed points to the “promising nature of happiness” (29). The happy object, though, is not merely a thing we experience individually. According to Ahmed, as objects become inundated with affect, they become “sites of personal and social tension” (44). Objects thus become spaces around which we, as social groups, orient ourselves. Our tendency to orient ourselves around happy objects is especially significant, Ahmed argues, because these affective sites allow social groups to share in a process of turning toward, of making a thing good. Ahmed’s primary example of a shared, compulsory happy object is the family. Because it is both legislated and inherited, Ahmed contends the family operates as “both an object (something that affects us, something we are directed toward)” and a thing which “circulates through objects” (45). The family unit only survives if social groups work for its survival, which first requires an orientation toward the family as a happy object for which we should personally and socially desire.

In the second chapter, Ahmed begins an analysis of political figures who disrupt the dominant mode of shared familial happiness. Drawing on what she calls “unhappy archives,” Ahmed principally focuses on the ways in which feminist killjoys, unhappy queers, and melancholic migrants problematize the notion that happiness is life’s goal. In “Feminist Killjoys,” Ahmed centers her discussion on the figure of the happy housewife. Ahmed traces the history of the happy housewife through such canonical texts as Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Émile, George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway in an effort to counter claims that the happy housewife, as she were, was a “feminist myth” through which feminists cast the figure of the housewife as “‘other’” (53). In each of her chosen texts, Ahmed argues, women’s happiness is dependent on the happiness of her family and her success as a wife; only Eliot’s Maggie, whom Ahmed calls a “troublemaker” considers an alternate narrative for her happiness. Ahmed is quick to point out, though, that she is not offering feminism as solution to the happiness of women. Instead, she says, feminist killjoys allow women to rethink the happy objects which have, until now, been provided as models of happiness and “participate in the widening of horizons in which it is possible to find things” (69).

In Chapter 3, Ahmed looks at “unhappy queers” in her effort to reclaim unhappiness and its critical role in queer genealogy. Ahmed relies primarily on Radclyffe Hall’s novel The Well of Loneliness and the film If These Walls Could Talk 2 (2000) in her effort to reconsider how queer fiction and cinema assign and situate unhappiness as well as the ways in which these genres can provide distinct accounts of queer unhappiness “rather than simply investing its hope in alternative images of happy queers” (89). Ahmed specifically focuses on queers who have been marginalized by traditional heteronormative social structures which promise happiness in the family. She argues that queerness and happiness have been imagined as entities that cannot exist together. Rather than promote the happy queer – “the right kind of queer” – who surrenders unhappiness to become socially acceptable, Ahmed advances the idea of being “happily queer” (106, 115). If one is happily queer, Ahmed argues, one is able to simultaneously “explore the unhappiness of what gets counted as normal” and claim one’s own happiness (117).

Following her analysis of feminist and queer subjects, Ahmed ends by examining the melancholic migrant. Ahmed locates her reading of happiness, nationhood, and citizenship as manifested in migrant life and imperial history. According to Ahmed, once-imperial nations ask migrants to forget memories of racism in order to bury racism; while it is not eradicated, it is not entirely present either. Happy immigrants, then, such as the heroes of films like Bend It Like Beckham (2002) and East is East (1999), are those who willingly assimilate. The immigrant who remains attached to origins thus functions as a ghost, “haunting” Western cultures and consistently dredging up hurtful racist pasts (148). Ahmed calls these melancholic migrants “affect aliens,” who refuse to accept the nation as the “good family” into whose arms the migrant must be received and willingly go (148). The melancholic migrant, instead, holds on to a conscious history of racism and exposes the unhappy cracks in the good family’s foundation. Like feminist killjoys and unhappy queers, the melancholic migrant serves to destabilize normalizing trends of happiness and reclaim and repurpose unhappiness.

Ahmed concludes The Promise of Happiness with a discussion of futurity. In response to critiques that queer theory offers no hope for the future, or rather no hope in the future, Ahmed finds in this negative space a way to be conscious of one’s alienation from happiness and ultimately accept “the freedom to be unhappy” (195). Here, Ahmed embraces hope as an anticipatory affect oriented toward the future. Hope demands imagination about what is always already ahead and registers the anxiety we feel about the “becoming actual” of a possibility (182). Drawing on Children of Men (2006) and The Island (2005), Ahmed takes special pains to point out that unhappiness should not replace happiness as an aim, but rather that happiness should no longer function as a telos for all human existence. In dismantling happiness, queer theory thus seeks to explore how this seemingly benign norm creates exclusionary narratives.

In The Promise of Happiness, Sara Ahmed offers both queer and cultural scholars a unique perspective from which to examine issues of racism, sexism, and homophobia woven seamlessly into the fabric of our societies. By locating happiness – oft considered a universal – in affective objects, Ahmed provides a new lens through which to examine inequality and how inequality is mapped onto bodies. Her arguments against happiness further extend the critical conversation regarding figures who may, at times, be left out of the queer conversation. Can we trouble the happiness of the single white male? Does Ahmed’s embrace of unhappiness allow queer and cultural scholars to radically re-figure bodies who, for many centuries, have been favored by happiness normativity? Ahmed’s concept of happy objects also presents innovative ways to approach Western culture’s obsessive desires and mass consumption of goods. How do we fetishize happiness? In what ways does fetishizing happiness manifest itself in our corporeality? In what ways do we commodify happy objects for production and subsequent consumption? The Promise of Happiness leaves us perhaps with more questions than answers, but Sara Ahmed has offered an analysis that will surely be invaluable as affect studies moves forward thanks to its relative accessibility and wide-ranging applicability.

Kimberly A. Turner