In search of happiness

Amid cultural surge, UB community weighs in on definition of happiness

Pop culture dominates our society, a society composed of isms - materialism, capitalism, classism.

With such complex ideas clouding mainstream thought, where does happiness fit in?

Today, the hyper-consumer mentality has created a culture that brands happiness as a commodity - something that can be bought or attained rather than something innate or subjective.

Perhaps a better question to ask is: What is happiness?

Each person's definition of the term has a major impact on how that individual lives - why that person wakes up every morning, what he or she seeks, hopes and dreams.

Recently, Pharrell Williams' hit song, "Happy," has topped Billboard charts, becoming hugely popular worldwide for not only its infectious vibes and bubbly lyrics but also for its message. "Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof," Williams sings. "Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth."

The message is clear: Williams believes happiness is great. As for what happiness is? The artist never answers that question, instead keeping his song ambiguous and open to interpretation. Never in "Happy" does Williams touch on what happiness is to him, just that he has it and loves having it.

Perhaps the genius is in the simplicity. His song encapsulates how much of society views happiness - a concept, vague and loosely defined, that is held as the ultimate goal of life.

So, just what is happiness? That depends on who you ask.

A scientist might tell you that happiness is constituted in the release of specific chemicals in the brain - dopamine and endorphins among them. A religious figure may say that happiness is found in faith in the divine. A musician could argue that true joy is woven into the sound of harmonies and melodies - "Music is my religion," the immortal Jimi Hendrix famously quipped.

David Schmid, an English professor at UB who teaches pop culture classes, says attaining happiness is a continual chase - maybe one that will never reach fruition - and questions if happiness is a basic human right.

"Happiness is not achieving a certain goal or reaching a certain stage," Schmid said. "Happiness is something that is meant to be incomplete - something that you are constantly striving toward."

The abstruseness of Williams' "happiness" is its true brilliance. Playing on the childhood song, "If you are happy and you know it, clap your hands," Williams sings that nothing can bring him down and tells his listeners to "Clap along if you know what happiness is to you."

But do they know? Does he even know?

Society has made it so the pursuit of happiness isn't only akin to climbing a steep, perilous mountain. It has made it akin to climbing that mountain blindfolded.

For all of these varieties of happiness, there are infinite others. What may bring joy and contentment to one person may bring dejection and depression to another. And for every Pharrell Williams, there is a Lorde - the 17-year-old New Zealand performer whose socially critical "Royals" topped mainstream radio for much of 2013.

Lorde, born Ella Marija Lani Yelich-O'Connor, constantly critiques society's message of happiness throughout her debut album, Pure Heroine.

In "Tennis Court," the album's opening song, she introduces her message: "Getting pumped up on the little bright things I bought / But I know they'll never own me."

In "Royals," she sings: "Everyone's like, Cristal, Maybach, diamonds on your timepiece / Jet planes, islands, tigers on a gold leash / We don't care / We aren't caught up in your love affair."

Lorde exposes the pervasive idea that buying and owning more - and more, and then more still - can bring happiness. The truth, as Lorde sees it, is that happiness cannot be bought or manufactured, and in fact, this materialist society could actually hinder the pursuit of happiness.

Happiness may be a hot topic now, but it is far from a new one.

In 1967, The Turtles released one of their most famous songs, "Happy Together." In the '80s, Bobby McFerrin's iconic "Don't Worry, Be Happy" topped the music charts. Happiness has been a recurring theme in popular culture for years.

But rarely has a well-known artist defined the 'happiness' it is they're singing about. There have been those to challenge the concept, sure - including Lorde - but no one has offered a universal definition, and that's because there isn't one. Maybe.

Sometimes, when it comes to finding an answer to a difficult equation, it is simpler to start with defining its opposite. As a starting point, a more apt question than "what is happiness?" is "what isn't happiness?"

As this theory goes, you cannot tailor your personal life and professional pursuits around what makes you happy until you know what makes you unhappy.

Ben Smith, a junior anthropology major with a minor in nutrition, says his own happiness revolves around relationships with himself and those around him.

"Happiness has to come from growing personal relationships with others - it can't be attained with the use of material items," he said.

That's the main problem with finding true happiness, according to Smith: all of society's "stuff."

"Pop culture portrays happiness as popularity, status and material wealth," Smith said. "People buy things for reasons of status and prestige, thinking it will elevate their happiness, but in reality those people are feeding an endless addiction to materialism that will never bring true happiness."

Society has manufactured happiness to the point in which its very meaning has changed, according to Schmid.

"The logic of consumption," Schmid says, "is that there is never a stage where there will be enough. There is never a stage where we say if I have this, then I will be done, I will be happy."

Vrinda Tarneja, a senior biological science major, says materialism and technology hold an unhealthy amount of influence on how happy we perceive ourselves to be.

"Nowadays, we are so engrossed in our phone that we forget to talk and cherish the company of our friends who are actually with us," Tarneja said.

David Castillo, an English professor who teaches cultural theory, says happiness has many sides to it - it is composed of technology, pop culture and societal structure, complicating an already complex topic.

Pop culture's technological aspect, Castillo says, creates an escape from reality.

"There are areas in consumer culture that cater to the experience of life as a happy place, and there is an innate escapism that goes along with this," he said.

Lorde, on her song "Buzzcut Season," comments on this escapist mentality, singing: "Explosions on TV, and all the first with heads inside a dream / So now we live by the pool, where everything is good."

This escape from reality to technology and consumer culture, Castillo says, causes isolation. He said in isolation, happiness means nothing except for what society defines it as.

In some cases, especially with a younger age group, the definition of happiness is morphed into a multi-headed beast - happiness becomes social media, the latest technological products and trendy brands.

"We don't need Snapchat or Instagram," Tarneja said. "Sometimes I think we all should take a break with our phones and just have a real conversation with our family and friends. Happiness is being content with yourself and being who you are."

But it is necessary to look at both sides.

Carmen Cibella, a junior majoring in English and film study, believes in pop culture's positive effects.

"Pop culture promotes a particular set of beliefs and ideals," Cibella said. "Some of which benefit our views on happiness - it makes us more ambiguous and sensitive to other cultures."

The line between being ambitious and realistic, however, is a fine one.

Imagine being asked, 'Are you happy right now?' in the context of a job interview.

"It's a loaded question," Schmid said. "It's asking, 'Are you ambitious or not?' To say, 'Yes, I'm happy right now' implies that you have no desire to go further."

That is the underlying problem with pop culture. Consumer culture cannot be equated to ambition.

"The logic of connecting happiness to consumption is the same as saying that you are never going to get there," Schmid said.

The real issue with pop culture, Cibella says, is how people can misinterpret the messages.

Castillo said happiness and pop culture work against each other by creating unrealistic expectations of happiness - a sort of dissonance.

"The abyss between our expectations and ability to actually fulfill them has grown exponentially," Castillo said. "We are told we should always want more things. That puts pressure on the notion of happiness because there is always something else."

For better or worse, it seems impossible to paint a picture of happiness without including tones of pop and consumer culture - ideals around which society is centered.

Perhaps the solution is something both Pharrell and Lorde hint at: intentional ignorance and apathy. "With the air like I don't care, baby, by the way / We don't care, we aren't caught up in your love affair."