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Overview

The Promise of Happiness is a provocative cultural critique of the imperative to be happy. It asks what follows when we make our desires and even our own happiness conditional on the happiness of others: “I just want you to be happy”; “I’m happy if you’re happy.” Combining philosophy and feminist cultural studies, Sara Ahmed reveals the affective and moral work performed by the “happiness duty,” the expectation that we will be made happy by taking part in that which is deemed good, and that by being happy ourselves, we will make others happy. Ahmed maintains that happiness is a promise that directs us toward certain life choices and away from others. Happiness is promised to those willing to live their lives in the right way.

Ahmed draws on the intellectual history of happiness, from classical accounts of ethics as the good life, through seventeenth-century writings on affect and the passions, eighteenth-century debates on virtue and education, and nineteenth-century utilitarianism. She engages with feminist, antiracist, and queer critics who have shown how happiness is used to justify social oppression, and how challenging oppression causes unhappiness. Reading novels and films including Mrs. Dalloway, The Well of Loneliness, Bend It Like Beckham, and Children of Men, Ahmed considers the plight of the figures who challenge and are challenged by the attribution of happiness to particular objects or social ideals: the feminist killjoy, the unhappy queer, the angry black woman, and the melancholic migrant. Through her readings she raises critical questions about the moral order imposed by the injunction to be happy.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Ahmed’s analyses are spot-on and provocative. . . . Ahmed’s analysis of this and other topics is unpredictable and engaging.” - Heather Seggel, The Gay & Lesbian Review

“Ahmed's language is a joy, and her work on each case study is filled with insight and rigor as she doggedly traces the social networks of dominance concealed and congealed around happiness. . . . The Promise of Happiness is an important intervention in affect studies that crucially approaches one of the major assumptions guiding social life: the assumption that we need to be happy.” - Sean Grattan, Social Text

“. . . [F]ascinating and important, both in showing us how to read some key
texts differently and in showing how to think more carefully about happiness
and its politics. . . . [T]here is a perverse happiness to be taken from reading
such an interesting book about the insufficiency of happiness.” - Richard Ashcroft, Textual Practice

The Promise of Happiness bridges philosophy and cultural studies, phenomenology and feminist thought—providing a fresh and incisive approach to some of the most urgent contemporary feminist issues. Ahmed navigates this bridge with a voice both clear and warm to convey ideas that are as complex as they are intimate and accessible. Her treatment of affect as a phenomenological project provides feminist theorists a way out of mind-body divides without reverting to essentialisms, enabling Ahmed to attend to intersectional and global power relations with acuity and originality.” - Aimee Carrillo Rowe, Signs


The Promise of Happiness is richly valuable not only for its discussion of utilitarianism but also for its broader deconstruction of the workings of happiness in a range of works of philosophy, literature, and social science. Whereas other feminist theorists also occasionally cast a critical eye toward happiness, or raise consciousness of female unhappiness, Ahmed has produced a volume that is unparalleled in its sustained and extensive expose´ of the entanglements between discourses of happiness and oppression.” - Andrea Veltman, Hypatia

“Ahmed enhances feminism’s critical toolbox by guiding us to regard affect as a cipher for society as we track how it produces and is produced by politics. ... Ahmed draws on feminism to potentially enhance the quality of life for her readers, who are offered mindful practices of relinquishing attachment to various ideals in a text that is neither Pollyannaish nor depressing.” - Naomi Greyser, Feminist Studies

“At a time when happiness studies are all the rage and feminism is accused of destroying women’s happiness, Sara Ahmed offers a bold critique of the consensus that happiness is an unconditional good. Her new book asks searching questions about the nature of the good life, making its case in a wonderfully pellucid prose. What a paradox that a defense of the kill-joy should be such a pleasure to read! This timely, original, and intellectually expansive book is sure to trigger a great deal of debate.”—Rita Felski, University of Virginia

“What could be more naturalized and less subject to ideological critique than happiness? How are we to get critical perspective on it? Through her readings of texts and films, Sara Ahmed shows how this might work. By revealing the complexity and ambivalence of happiness, she intervenes in several fields—including queer and feminist theory, affect studies, and critical race theory—in a genuinely new and exciting way.”—Heather K. Love, author of Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History

Richard Ashcroft
“. . . [F]ascinating and important, both in showing us how to read some key texts differently and in showing how to think more carefully about happiness and its politics. . . . [T]here is a perverse happiness to be taken from reading such an interesting book about the insufficiency of happiness.”
Andrea Veltman

The Promise of Happiness is richly valuable not only for its discussion of utilitarianism but also for its broader deconstruction of the workings of happiness in a range of works of philosophy, literature, and social science. Whereas other feminist theorists also occasionally cast a critical eye toward happiness, or raise consciousness of female unhappiness, Ahmed has produced a volume that is unparalleled in its sustained and extensive expose´ of the entanglements between discourses of happiness and oppression.”
Aimee Carrillo Rowe
The Promise of Happiness bridges philosophy and cultural studies, phenomenology and feminist thought—providing a fresh and incisive approach to some of the most urgent contemporary feminist issues. Ahmed navigates this bridge with a voice both clear and warm to convey ideas that are as complex as they are intimate and accessible. Her treatment of affect as a phenomenological project provides feminist theorists a way out of mind-body divides without reverting to essentialisms, enabling Ahmed to attend to intersectional and global power relations with acuity and originality.”
Naomi Greyser
“Ahmed enhances feminism’s critical toolbox by guiding us to regard affect as a cipher for society as we track how it produces and is produced by politics. ... Ahmed draws on feminism to potentially enhance the quality of life for her readers, who are offered mindful practices of relinquishing attachment to various ideals in a text that is neither Pollyannaish nor depressing.”
Heather Seggel
“Ahmed’s analyses are spot-on and provocative. . . . Ahmed’s analysis of this and other topics is unpredictable and engaging.”
Sean Grattan
“Ahmed's language is a joy, and her work on each case study is filled with insight and rigor as she doggedly traces the social networks of dominance concealed and congealed around happiness. . . . The Promise of Happiness is an important intervention in affect studies that crucially approaches one of the major assumptions guiding social life: the assumption that we need to be happy.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822347255
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 4/28/2010
  • Pages: 315
  • Sales rank: 423,499
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.60 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Sara Ahmed is Professor of Race and Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths College, University of London. She is the author of Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others, also published by Duke University Press; The Cultural Politics of Emotion; Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-Coloniality; and Differences that Matter: Feminist Theory and Postmodernism.

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Read an Excerpt

The Promise of Happiness


By SARA AHMED

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2010 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4666-1


Chapter One

Happy Objects

I MIGHT SAY "YOU MAKE ME HAPPY." Or I might be moved by something in such a way that when I think of happiness I think of that thing. Even if happiness is imagined as a feeling state, or a form of consciousness that evaluates a life situation we have achieved over time (Veenhoven 1984: 22-23), happiness also turns us toward objects. We turn toward objects at the very point of "making." To be "made happy" by this or that is to recognize that happiness starts from somewhere other than the subject who may use the word to describe a situation.

In this chapter, I want to think about how objects become happy, as if happiness is what follows proximity to an object. 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). If happiness creates its objects, then such objects are passed around, accumulating positive affective value as social goods. In particular, this chapter will consider the family as a happy object, as being what good feelings are directed toward, as well as providing a shared horizon of experience.

Affect, Objects, Intentionality

I do not begin by assuming there is something called happiness that stands apart or has autonomy, as if it corresponds to an object in the world. I begin instead with the messiness of the experiential, the unfolding of bodies into worlds, and what I call "the drama of contingency," how we are touched by what comes near. It is useful to note that the etymology of happiness relates precisely to the question of contingency: it is from the Middle English word hap suggesting chance. The word happy originally meant having "good 'hap' or fortune," to be lucky or fortunate. This meaning may now seem archaic: we may be used to thinking of happiness as an effect of what you do, as a reward for hard work, rather than being "simply" what happens to you. Thus Mihály Csíkszentmihályi argues that "happiness is not something that happens. It is not the result of good fortune or random choice. It is not something that money can buy or power command. It does not depend on outside events, but, rather on how we interpret them. Happiness, in fact, is a condition that must be prepared for, cultivated and defended privately by each person" (1992: 2). Such a way of understanding happiness could be read as a defense against its contingency. I want to return to the original meaning of happiness as it refocuses our attention on the "worldly" question of happenings.

What is the relation between the "what" in "what happens" and what makes us happy? Empiricism provides us with a useful way of addressing this question, given its concern with "what's what." Take the work of the seventeenth-century empiricist philosopher John Locke. He argues that what is good is what is "apt to cause or increase pleasure, or diminish pain in us" ([1690] 1997: 216). We judge something to be good or bad according to how it affects us, whether it gives us a pleasure or pain. Locke uses the example of a man who loves grapes. Locke suggests that "when a man declares in autumn, when he is eating them, or in spring, when there are none, that he loves grapes, it is no more, but that the taste of grapes delights him" (216). When something causes pleasure or delight, it is good for us. For Locke, happiness is a form of pleasure: "the greatest happiness consists in the having those things which produce the greatest pleasure" (247). Happy objects could be described simply as those objects that affect us in the best way.

Happiness thus puts us into intimate contact with things. We can be happily affected in the present of an encounter; you are affected positively by something, even if that something does not present itself as an object of consciousness. To be happily affected can survive the coming and going of objects. Locke is after all describing the "seasonal" nature of enjoyment. When grapes are out of season, you might recall that you find them delightful; you might look forward to when they will be in season, which means that grapes would sustain their place as a happy object in the event of their absence. However, this does not mean that the objects one recalls as being happy always stay in place. Locke observes, "Let an alteration of health or constitution destroy the delight of their taste, and then he can be said to love grapes no longer" (216-17). Bodily transformations might also transform what is experienced as delightful. If our bodies change over time, then the world around us will create different impressions.

It is not that good things cause pleasure, but that the experience of pleasure is how some things becomes good for us over time. Locke's argument here is consistent with the models of passion in Descartes and affect in Spinoza: despite key differences in how they theorize the mind-body relationship, these philosophers all show us how objects acquire value through contact with bodies. For Spinoza, "We call a thing good which contributes to the preservation of our being, and we call a thing evil if it is an obstacle to the preservation of our being: that is to say, a thing is called by us good or evil as it increases or diminishes, helps or restrains, our power of action" ([1677] 2001: 170). If an object affects us in a good way with joy, then it is good for us. Descartes argues that objects do not excite diverse passions because they are diverse but because of the diverse ways they may harm and help us ([1649] 1989: 51). Whether something harms or helps us is matter of how we are affected by it. As Susan James suggests, "The evaluations of good and harm contained in passions directed to objects outside the mind are therefore not in the world, waiting to be read" (1997: 103).

To be affected by something is to evaluate that thing. Evaluations are expressed in how bodies turn toward things. A phenomenology of happiness might explore how we attend to those things we find delightful. As Edmund Husserl describes in the second volume of Ideas, "Within the joy we are 'intentionally' (with feeling intensions) turned toward the joy-Object as such in the mode of affective 'interest'" ([1950] 1989: 14). Some things, you might say, capture our attention. To give value to things is to shape what is near us, generating what Husserl might call "our near sphere" or "core sphere" ([1946] 2002: 149-50) as a sphere of practical action. This sphere is "a sphere of things that I can reach with my kinestheses and which I can experience in an optimal form through touching, seeing etc." (149). Happiness might play a crucial role in shaping our near sphere, the world that takes shape around us, as a world of familiar things. Objects that give us pleasure take up residence within our bodily horizon. We come to have our likes, which might even establish what we are like. The bodily horizon could be redescribed as a horizon of likes. To have "our likes" means certain things are gathered around us. Of course, we do encounter new things. To be more or less open to new things is to be more or less open to the incorporation of things into our near sphere. Incorporation may be conditional on liking what we encounter. Those things we do not like we move away from. Awayness might help establish the edges of our horizon; in rejecting the proximity of certain objects, we define the places that we know we do not wish to go, the things we do not wish to have, touch, taste, hear, feel, see, those things we do not want to keep within reach.

To be affected "in a good way" thus involves an orientation toward something as being good. Orientations register the proximity of objects, as well as shape what is proximate to the body. Happiness can be described as intentional in the phenomenological sense (directed toward objects), as well as being affective (having contact with objects). To bring these arguments together, we might say that happiness is an orientation toward the objects we come into contact with. We move toward and away from objects through how we are affected by them. After all, note the doubling of positive affect in Locke's example: we love the grapes, if they taste delightful. To say we love what tastes delightful is not to say that delight causes our love but that the experience of delight involves a loving orientation toward the object, just as the experience of love registers what is delightful.

To describe happiness as intentional does not mean there is always a simple correspondence between objects and feelings. Robin Barrow is right to argue that happiness does not "have an object" the way that some other emotions do (1980: 89; see also Perry 1967: 71). Let's stay with Locke's example of the man who loves grapes. Grapes acquire meaning for us, as something we can consume, grapes can be tasted and "have" a taste, even though we cannot know whether my grape taste is the same as yours. The pleasure evoked by the grapes is the pleasure of eating the grapes. But pleasures are not only directed toward objects that can be tasted, that come into a sensuous proximity with the flesh of the body, as a meeting of flesh. As I have already suggested, we can recall the pleasure of grapes as a memory; we can simply think about the grapes, as a thought that is also a feeling, even when we do not have the possibility of eating the grapes. We can just recall pleasure to experience pleasure, even if these pleasures do not involve exactly the same sensation, even if the impressions of memory are not quite as lively. Pleasure creates an object, even when the object of pleasure appears before us. The creativity of feeling does not require the absence of an object.

We are moved by things. In being moved, we make things. An object can be affective by virtue of its own location (the object might be here, which is where I experience this or that affect) and the timing of its appearance (the object might be now, which is when I experience this or that affect). To experience an object as being affective or sensational is to be directed not only toward an object but to what is around that object, which includes what is behind the object, the conditions of its arrival. What is around an object can become happy: if one receives something delightful in a certain place, then the place itself is invested with happiness, as being "what" good feeling is directed toward. Or if you are given something by someone whom you love, then the object itself acquires more affective value: seeing it makes you think of the other who gave you the gift. If something is close to a happy object, then it can become happy by association.

Happiness can generate objects through proximity. Happiness is not simply about objects, or directed toward objects that are given to consciousness. We have probably all experienced what I would call "unattributed happiness." You feel happy, not quite knowing why, and the feeling can be catchy, as a kind of brimming over that exceeds what you encounter. It is not that the feeling floats freely; in feeling happy, you direct the feeling to what is close by, smiling, for instance, at a person who passes you by. The feeling can also lift or elevate a proximate object, making it happy, which is not to say that the feeling will survive an encounter with anything. It has always interested me that when we become conscious of feeling happy (when the feeling becomes an object of thought), happiness can often recede or become anxious. Happiness can arrive in a moment and be lost by virtue of its recognition. Happiness as a feeling appears very precarious, easily displaced not only by other feelings but even by happiness itself, by the how of its arrival.

I suggest that happiness involves a specific kind of intentionality, which I would describe as "end oriented." It is not just that we can be happy about something, as a feeling in the present, but some things become happy for us, if we imagine they will bring happiness to us. Happiness is often described as "what" we aim for, as an endpoint, or even an end-in-itself. Classically, happiness has been considered as an ends rather than as a means. In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle describes happiness as the Chief Good, as "that which all things aim at" (1998: 1). Happiness is what we "choose always for its own sake" (8). Anthony Kenny describes how, for Aristotle, happiness "is not just an end, but a perfect end" (1993: 16). The perfect end is the end of all ends, the good that is good always for its own sake.

We don't have to agree with the argument that happiness is the perfect end to understand the implications of what it means for happiness to be thought in these terms. If happiness is the end of all ends, then other things (including other goods) become means to happiness. As Aristotle describes, we choose other things "with a view to happiness, conceiving that through their instrumentality we shall be happy" (8). Aristotle is not referring here to material things or physical objects but is differentiating between different kinds of goods, between instrumental goods and independent goods (6). So honor, pleasure, or intellect we choose "with a view to happiness" as being instrumental to happiness, and the realization of the possibility of living a good or virtuous life.

If we think of instrumental goods as objects of happiness, important consequences follow. Things become good, or acquire their value as goods, insofar as they point toward happiness. Objects become "happiness means." Or we could say they become happiness pointers, as if to follow their point would be to find happiness. If objects provide a means for making us happy, then in directing ourselves toward this or that object, we are aiming somewhere else: toward a happiness that is presumed to follow. The temporality of this following does matter. Happiness is what would come after. Given this, happiness is directed toward certain objects, which point toward that which is not yet present. When we follow things, we aim for happiness, as if happiness is what you get if you reach certain points.

Promises

The biography of a person is intimately bound up with objects. We could say that our biographies are biographies of likes and dislikes. Locke argues that human diversity means that our "happiness was placed in different things" ([1690] 1997: 246). Freedom becomes the freedom to be made happy by different things. If we are made happy by different things, then we are affected by different things differently.

Are we simply made happy by different things? To think of happiness as involving an end-oriented intentionality is to suggest that happiness is already associated with some things more than others. We arrive at some things because they point us toward happiness, as a means to this end. How do we know what points happily? The very possibility of being pointed toward happiness suggests that objects are associated with affects before they are even encountered. An object can point toward happiness without necessarily having affected us in a good way.

It is possible that the evocation of an object can be pleasurable even if we have not yet experienced an object as pleasing: this is the power after all of the human imagination as well as the social world to bestow things that have yet to be encountered with an affective life. Things might have an affective life as a result of being given or bestowed with affect, as gifts that may have been forgotten. An object might even be given insofar as it is assumed to have an affective quality, for example, as if to give somebody x is to give them happiness.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from The Promise of Happiness by SARA AHMED Copyright © 2010 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction: Why Happiness, Why Now? 1

1 Happy Objects 21

2 Feminist Killjoys 50

3 Unhappy Queers 88

4 Melancholic Migrants 121

5 Happy Futures 160

Conclusion: Happiness, Ethics, Possibility 199

Notes 225

References 283

Index 30

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