My Scuffle with the Happiness Police


Be alert, smile like you won the lottery, say cheese, do it, do it now.

There is a photograph of me. I am at a beach. Behind me the sun is beginning to set over the Gulf of Mexico. My lips are smiling. My eyes are not.

Right before the display, one of the friends I was with drew out a camera and aimed it at me.

As directed, I smiled. But later, another friend noticed the absence of radiant joy in my eyes in the photograph and demanded of me what had been wrong with me the day of the sunset. I felt like I was on a witness stand in some black and white detective show, Perry Mason perhaps.

“Miss, what were you feeling on the day of the sunset? What were you thinking?”

I imagined myself crossing my legs and taking a long languorous drag on a cigarette. “It is hard to remember exactly what I was thinking that day, Mr. Mason. But it is likely I was thinking, as I often do when someone suddenly wants to take my picture, ‘A photograph? Now? Do I really have to do this? Right now?’”

“But what about the beach and its happiness-inducing influence on most people? What were you doing wrong? You must have been thinking of something un-joyful. Otherwise, the beach should have produced unalloyed delight.”

“I like the beach, Mr. Mason, I do. But the camera pulled me out of myself. It suddenly reminded me that I must seem to be something to others, specifically happy.

“I dislike fake smiles. Afraid of looking fake myself, I have always tried to be genuinely happy when a camera was aimed at me. But radiant joy on demand is sometimes hard to come by, Mr. Mason, and on the day of the Gulf Coast Sunset, I was unable to summon it.”

“But the beautiful setting alone should have done that, Miss. You had everything to be happy about that day, but this photograph does not lie. Your eyes are not smiling. What really went wrong? What were you thinking and feeling? What is your defense?”

Feelings and thoughts are not crimes, but photographs represent to me the cultural attitude that if you are not happy at all times, something is wrong. Even feeling “just okay” is inadequate when there is a sunset or a circus While I honestly had enjoyed being at the beach, I had never reached the point of euphoria. My lips had played along but my eyes told a truth, one I had not known was scandalous: a shocking lapse of ecstasy. A less than euphoric feeling had crept into the otherwise idyllic scene like a bratty brother with a spitball.

But is it fair to expect everyone to drop all their emotional complexity in the presence of a camera; to reduce themselves to a single dimension of feeling? Why all the pressure? Is it upsetting to viewers to see any personal photograph in which someone is anything less than perfectly happy?

Paintings capture so many different emotions, from the cryptic almost-smile of the Mona Lisa to the primal scream of Edward Munch. Unpopular emotions like rage and sadness are vital parts of the human emotional repertoire. Fine art honors them.

Why is the full human range of emotion acceptable in fine art but not in personal photographs? Do we need a visual record which “proves” that everyone we have ever met is in a wonderful mood? Why is it the rule in photographs to always smile?

I have always followed the rule. In all my school photographs, I am smiling, even the ones from the year I was bullied to tears every day and the year I encountered a nightmarish depression for the first time.

There were certainly moments of joy during those dark periods of my life, but they were not the norm. Was it fair to have to represent myself to everyone who saw those photographs that I was feeling great?

I like the photograph of myself at the Gulf; despite the pressure, something honest had snuck into the picture like a naughty cat. I could not quite conjure the expected mood that day, could not be the person I was asked to be, under the setting sun, at the Gulf Coast Beach.

I was not miserable that day, but not totally happy either.

I just was. And that is not a crime.

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8 thoughts on “My Scuffle with the Happiness Police

  1. Hi Lisa! I wonder if the comment does say more about he/she commenting than about you? In all, don’t all of us want to believe everyone around us is happy, so we can’t be infected by their angst, sadness, or (perish the notion) their deeply nuanced feelings about where they are, right now? Just thinking out loud.

    Nice post! Thanks for sharing…

    • Great insights Dirk. 🙂 I think you are right about the problem being with the interrogator. No one wants to be “brought down” by a person prone to being gloomy. I understand that. But the “happiness ethic” becomes ridiculous when even “nuanced” or neutral emotions are attacked as being inappropriate for certain occasions.

      I consider myself happy overall, but whenever someone tells me how I “should” feel, I become annoyed.

      So glad you liked my post! 🙂

  2. I think the best photographs are those taken when we’re not posing for the camera. Just as you allude to, we see ourselves and others in all sorts of emotional states when they’re not saying an artificial “cheese.” Of course, I say that now. I might change my mind the next time my son snaps a horrible picture of me and turns it into a meme…

    • That’s an excellent point Carrie, and one I didn’t even consider. Pictures of people in action are far more natural and don’t require stiff mannequin poses. But I have been known to be miffed when someone takes a picture of me just when I am waking up or making some weird expression so I understand exactly how you feel about not wanting to be a meme!

      Thanks so much for the awesome share! 🙂

    • I couldn’t agree more, even though it’s so hard to remember that at times. Maybe it should become my mantra: “Just be.” I like it!

      So glad you liked my post! Thanks for reading! 🙂

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