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The Happiness Fantasy

A history of happiness

By Carl Cederström
19-minute read
Audio available
The Happiness Fantasy by Carl Cederström

The Happiness Fantasy (2018) advances a provocative thesis, encapsulated in its title: our contemporary ideas about happiness amount to a fantasy that’s increasingly out of sync with reality and unable to deliver what it promises. By taking a whirlwind tour of the history of this fantasy, we can begin to see through its illusions.

  • People who are interested in the countercultural movements and philosophies of the 1960s and 1970s
  • People who are skeptical of self-help books and seminars
  • People who are burned out by the invasion of work life into leisure time

Carl Cederström is an associate professor of organization studies at the Stockholm Business School of Stockholm University. He is the coauthor of Dead Man Working (2013), The Wellness Syndrome (2015) and Desperately Seeking Self-Improvement: A Year Inside the Optimization Movement (2018). He has also written articles for a variety of publications including the Guardian, the Washington Post, New Scientist and Harvard Business Review.

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The Happiness Fantasy

By Carl Cederström
  • Read in 19 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 12 key ideas
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The Happiness Fantasy by Carl Cederström
Synopsis

The Happiness Fantasy (2018) advances a provocative thesis, encapsulated in its title: our contemporary ideas about happiness amount to a fantasy that’s increasingly out of sync with reality and unable to deliver what it promises. By taking a whirlwind tour of the history of this fantasy, we can begin to see through its illusions.

Key idea 1 of 12

The happiness fantasy provides people with a template for living the good life.

When you create a new document in a word processor, you start with two basic options: a blank page or a template. If you choose the latter, you’re furnished with a prefabricated design for the newsletter, brochure or whatever you want to make. The general layout is already established; you just have to fill in the outlines with your particular content.

Similarly, the happiness fantasy provides you with a template for living the good life. Thanks to this template, you don’t have to come up with your own blueprint for constructing an enjoyable, meaningful human existence. It’s already been supplied by the culture in which you’ve been raised, and all you have to do is follow it.

The central component of the template is the concept of self-actualization. The idea here is that you have a true inner potential – a set of capabilities for thinking, feeling, desiring and doing things. These capabilities constitute your true inner self – a sort of intangible core at the center of your personhood.

Around this core, you accumulate a variety of extraneous elements in the course of living your life: misguided beliefs, unhealthy emotions, self-limiting inhibitions and destructive patterns of behavior. As they crust over you like a shell, these elements obscure and obstruct your inner potential, leaving you with just the scab-like shell to present to the outside world. This is your inauthentic self.

By shedding the shell of this inauthentic external self, reconnecting with your true inner self and releasing the concealed capabilities lying dormant within it, you thereby actualize yourself. In other words, you turn the potentiality of your true inner self into an external reality.

In doing so, you also become authentic, since your outward self is now an accurate reflection, expression and manifestation of your inward self. And, as your no-longer-obstructed self comes pouring out into the world, you also experience pleasure, which is the positive sensation you feel when you exercise and gratify your inner self’s capabilities and desires.

So there you have it: actualize your true inner potential, authentically express your true inner self and seek the pleasures that come with doing so. That’s the happiness fantasy’s template for the good life.

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