‘To be full of hap is to make happen. A politics of the hap is about opening possibilities for being in other ways, of being perhaps. If opening up possibility causes unhappiness, then a politics of the hap will be thought of as unhappy. But it is not just that. A politics of the hap might embrace what happens, but it also works towards a world in which things can happen in alternative ways. To make hap is to make a world.’ (Ahmed 2010, p. 223)
The title of this blog is unashamedly borrowed from Sara Ahmed’s rather remarkable book The Promise of Happiness. In her book Ahmed provides one of the few critiques of the rise of the ‘happiness agenda’. We now live in an age where happiness has become a government priority. And not only that, happiness is a quantifiable, measurable entity which, we are told, is available for all to achieve.
Happiness is, more often than not, the envisioned endpoint for our actions and desires. Certain objects and ideals become recognisable pointers to direct us to our goal. Whether it is winning the X factor, trekking the Himalayas, or getting married, happiness is used to justify and validate the motives behind our actions and choices. Happiness is an unquestioned “good”. It is always good to be happy. But at the expense of what and whom? This is what the politics of the hap seeks to explore.
Happiness is perceived as a neutral term, flexible to the the subjective views of the individual. Yet the pursuit of happiness, typically considered as a way to self-actualisation, is weighted with specific expectations and demands, involving conformity to a certain set of ideals. Ahmed identifies how the idea of happiness that has evolved is a limited and restrictive one, specifically critiquing the way in which the rise and emphasis on happiness is at the exclusion of certain individuals, groups and ideas. Ahmed documents the plight of the ‘melancholic migrant’, the origins of the feminist movement and draws upon the writings of queer theory to illustrate how certain individuals who felt excluded from happiness used their unhappiness to find the freedom to ‘be’ (happy or otherwise) in alternative ways.
In considering the ways in which individuals have had to seek alternative (and often radical) routes of escape from the normative requirements of happiness it is possible to view happiness as an obligation, a duty we must fulfill; a moral imperative.
Happiness as a duty and obligation appears quite in contrast to the origins of the meaning of happy. Sara Ahmed highlights how happiness as it is currently understood and circulated has become detached from its original meaning of ‘hap’. Below is a description of the origins of the word happy:
mid-14c., “lucky,” from hap “chance, fortune” (see haphazard), sense of “very glad” first recorded late 14c. Ousted O.E. eadig (from ead “wealth, riches”) and gesælig, which has become silly.
O.E. bliðe “happy” survives as blithe. From Greek to Irish, a great majority of the European words for “happy” at first meant “lucky.” An exception is Welsh, where the word used first meant “wise.”
Source: happy. (n.d.). Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved January 01, 2011, from Dictionary.com website: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/happy
The original meaning of being happy was far more closely associated to being lucky or fortunate. Luck and fortune are not objects we can obtain. They are transitory, unpredictable and outside of our control, and sometimes even our understanding. If we insert the ‘hap’ back into happiness, we can reconfigure our understanding of happiness and allow it to take on a new form. The contingent, haphazard nature would be embraced, happiness would not be an endpoint but simply a possibility among many. It is not possible to map a clear route to happiness when happiness is whimsical, contingent and haphazard. Happiness would simply be a temporary feeling that comes and goes.
Happiness without hap (without allowing for chance and full of planning and designing) is something that we wait for. We act only to obtain objects in order to move closer to our endpoint. We are often told that we need to feel positive or adopt a ‘wrong optimism’ in order to move forward. But where are we moving to? And why should we only move forward? In a politics of hap the point of action is open to question and disagreement. How will we act and in which direction, what shape will our lives take and what possibilities can open?
The pursuit of the contemporary form of happiness is at the expense of unhappiness as a possibility. This is problematic as it neglects the fact that unhappiness does things. It can cause things to hap-pen. Unhappiness is not only being de-pressed – dulled, inactive – but unhappiness can be a response to injustice, it is a chance to go astray. It could cause as to act politically, to not wait for things to happen, for happiness to arrive, but cause us to think about what the endpoint of our actions are and on what conditions they are based.
The politics of the hap is not merely advocating a politics of misery. It is about freedom. The freedom not only to be happy. But the freedom to be happy in inappropriate ways.
Link to read more of Sara Ahmed’s The Promise of Happiness
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