‘The Promise of Happiness’ by Sarah Ahmed

Who wouldn’t want to be happy? Beyond that, who would think to question happiness as a universal goal? In The Promise of Happiness (Duke University Press), Sarah Ahmed does just that. She unpacks the way that certain lives and object choices are associated with happiness or unhappiness, observing that happiness (or the desire for it) is used as a social control to steer individuals towards specific choices, lifestyles, and realities. Ahmed explores figures that are stereotypically unhappy—feminists, queers, and immigrants—to chart the work that the concept of happiness performs in the twenty-first century.

Ahmed’s cultural critique focuses on a variegated archive of novels and films, ranging from Bend it Like Beckham to Mrs. Dalloway to Children of Men. Each site offers an opportunity to reconsider the idealization of happiness, supporting Ahmed’s assertion that the unquestioned valorization of happiness functions as a form of social control. Beyond observing the ways that happiness is promised as a reward for certain ways of life (whether that happiness ever arrives or not), Ahmed charts how happiness is explicitly disassociated from queer, feminist, immigrant, and activist lives.

The book is firmly grounded in feminist and queer theory, and draws particularly heavily on theories of affect. As such, it could be argued that queerness pervades the entire text, even though its specific engagement with queer identities and lives is limited to one chapter.  Ahmed’s examination of (un)happiness as it relates to queers hinges on an exploration of the valuation of the heterosexual family unit as necessary to leading a happy and fulfilled adult life. She considers how the hope for happiness is used coercively against queers—frequently by the parents of queer youth—in declarations such as “I just want you to be happy.”  In making one’s own happiness contingent on a “normative” set of choices, Ahmed argues, the speaker uses the presumed goal of happiness to control and limit an individual’ s options. Happiness becomes a regulatory concept, because only certain (heterosexual, family-oriented) choices are assumed to lead to happiness.

By unpacking the attribution of happiness to specific choices and lives, Ahmed encourages us to consider how ‘the promise of happiness’ serves as a moral imperative. A stimulating and—dare I say—pleasurable read, the book may not have a happy ending, but it does propose what might happen instead.

The Promise of Happiness
by Sarah Ahmed
Duke University Press
Paperback, 9780822347255, 328 pp.
April 2010