The Happiness Police

[Content Note: Emotional auditing; shaming; fat bias; religious supremacy.]

In my earlier piece about being child-free, I mentioned the common experience, shared by most people who choose not to parent, of being told I can't really be happy—or even understand what TRUE HAPPINESS EVEN IS!—if I am not a parent.

This is a common refrain in my life, because I am part of several populations where Happiness Policing is routinely used to calculate as invalid any professions of happiness.

* I am not a parent.

* I am a fat person.

* I am an atheist.

There's other Happiness Policing that goes on in my life—"You can't possibly be happy living in a conservative state," etc.—but none that is quite so persistent, nor reinforced by a foundation of systemic marginalization, as the above. It goes like this:

* You cannot possibly be happy if you are not a parent, because being a parent is the greatest joy any human being can ever know. And even if you are happy, it's not as happy as you would be if you were a parent. Your happiness is inferior, if it even exists at all.

* You cannot possibly be happy if you are fat, because fat people are gross and ugly and unhealthy and no person could be happy being so gross and ugly and unhealthy. You are definitely unhappy and probably depressed.

* You cannot possibly be happy if you are an atheist, because you don't believe in anything and can't even understand goodness and are just mad at god. Your heart can't be full if you don't know god(s). No one who fails to nourish their soul with faith can be truly happy.

(These are, of course, only my experiences, based on my life and cultural identity. There are similar Happiness Policing narratives based on rejecting even the possibility for happiness used against people in same-sex relationships, trans* people, people with visible disabilities, etc.)

What we have here is a failure of imagination.

Some people cannot imagine themselves being happy without children, or a particular body shape, or religion, and so they cannot imagine that I am. They have put my lived experience through their validity prisms and decided that if I say I am happy in circumstances in which they could not be, I must be lying. Or in denial. Or using a bit of bravado in order to mask a secret unhappiness. Accusations of some flaw in me, to obfuscate a failure of basic empathy.

Sometimes, it's people who are themselves childless, or fat, or have had a crisis of faith—and the unhappiness they feel because of those things is so profound that they cannot imagine anyone being happy in similar circumstances. It may be genuine disbelief, or it may be envy, that invites their suspicion and repudiation of my happiness.

And some people who have children, or are thin, or go to church every week, claim these things make them happy, when in fact they are deeply unhappy. They hate parenting; they live a life of restriction and self-denial and hunger to unnaturally maintain a thin physique; they go to church only because they feel like they should. And they resent that they sacrifice so much shit to do what society tells them is "right" yet remain miserable, while I reject the imperatives to reproduce, to hate myself, to engage in religious ritual, and feel happy and free as a result.

There's no effective response to Happiness Policers, because there's no way to convince someone of your happiness when they are determined to believe otherwise. If you ignore them, they will interpret that as PROOF! that you are unable to refute them and thus they are right. If you insist you are happy, they will accuse you of "protesting too much" which is PROOF! that you are secretly unhappy and thus they are right. It's a losing game. Which is entirely the point.

It's tiresome. But the only thing to be done is to speak your truth about being happy in who you are, knowing the Happiness Policers will do their thing, and knowing that their hostility toward your emotional integrity says something about them, not about you.

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