Editorial: We need to talk

Happiness and Critique

Juliane Römhild

Happiness is a hot topic. We own self-help and colouring books; our workplace offers mindfulness training; we are cultivating our hygge and contemplating our ikigai. Australia ranks among the top ten countries on the global happiness index. – Do we really need to talk about happiness?


These days happiness is largely in the hands of health and social sciences. Once the domain of philosophy, theology and the arts, our perception of happiness has shifted: “the science of happiness” is increasingly invoked in public conversations. We entrust our personal “well-being” to orchestrated efforts from psychology, biochemistry, neurosciences and sociology in conjunction with the practice of secularised spiritual techniques, such as meditation and yoga. The humanities and the arts are sidelined in the public and academic conversation on happiness. The leading periodical for new research on happiness, the Journal of Happiness Studies, invites contributions from the “alpha-sciences, philosophy in particular” on its website; however, the overwhelming majority of articles published by the journal discuss happiness as a matter of social sciences and psychology. Similarly, the World Happiness Summit, hosted by the University of Florida in March 2019, did not invite any keynote speakers from the humanities or the arts. Perhaps this is not entirely surprising because in the humanities the amount of work on shame, trauma and anger by far exceeds the scholarship on positive emotions like joy, contentment and satisfaction. The only exception is pleasure, which continues to receive critical attention for its subversive potential. Although the affective turn in the humanities has inspired several academic Centres for the History of Emotions at the Max-Planck-Institute in Berlin, Queen Mary College in London and Melbourne University in Australia, only the London centre has a focus on positive emotions and wellbeing. Much of its excellent work is located in the field of the medical humanities.


Academic underrepresentation has political repercussions. The newly founded Global Happiness Council (GHC), a “global network of leading academic specialists in happiness” with close links to the United Nations, includes “key practitioners in areas ranging from psychology, economics, urban planning, civil society, business and government”, but it does not count a philosopher, historian, creative writer, artist or literary critic among its ranks. The GHC’s research is situated in “education, workplace, personal happiness, public health, city design and management” (“What is the Global Happiness Council?”, n.d.). It publishes the Global Happiness Policy Report, which “provides evidence and policy advice to participating governments on best practices to promote happiness and well-being”. The work of think tanks like the GHC contributes to government projects like New Zealand’s new Living Standards Framework (LFS), which identifies and analyses the contributing factors to the nation’s overall wellbeing. Data from this framework underpins the country’s first Wellbeing Budget. New Zealand’s treasury, which hosts the LFS, did not originally include “cultural capital”[1] among the domains identified for New Zealand’s wellbeing, which are defined in terms of natural, social, human and financial/physical capital. In fact, a detailed discussion paper by the treasury outlines the difficulties of adding “cultural capital” into the mix as it is “cross-cutting” all other domains (Dalziel et al. 28 June 2019, sections 3&4). The dilemma of New Zealand’s policy makers reflects the discomfort of translating the largely immaterial value of cultural capital into the positivist framework of financial planning. It also speaks to the tremendous and far-reaching contributions of the humanities and the arts to happiness.


So, what can we as writers and artists, as cultural critics and researchers in the humanities and the arts offer to the “cross-cutting” conversation on happiness? The articles in this issue offer a range of responses written across the fields of queer and literary studies, life writing, sociology, cultural studies and history. They draw on personal experience as much as on cultural theory; they discuss YouTube sensations, romance fiction, sex work, postcolonial novels, practices of self-harm and personal memories. The writers in this issue discuss happiness not as the sum of practical steps resulting in a measurable state of overall wellbeing. Instead they parse the umbrella term of happiness into specific and more graspable states and experiences: complex moments of pleasure or affective rush, the trajectory of increased autonomy and personal growth, states of physical or intellectual satisfaction, flashes of insight, or the experience of empathy and care. What becomes clear in their writing is the particularity and situatedness of positive affect and emotion on the one hand and their inevitable entanglement with negative states on the other. Because personal happiness remains unruly and resistant, our pleasures may be bound up with shame or anxiety; autonomy bears the traces of alienation; satisfaction is inscribed with histories of struggle, and growth is permeated with uncertainty. This does not devalue the experiences of happiness described in this issue. On the contrary, I would argue that this is what makes them meaningful and also more precious.


The connecting thread between the contributions is their explicit or implicit engagement, and at times disagreement, with the role of critique as the central critical framework across the humanities.[2] Although the “post-critical turn” (Felski & Anker 2017) is by now well underway, suspicion as a mode of enquiry continues to shape our work and our ethos as cultural critics. This has immediate implications for the study of happiness. I want to draw on one of the earliest texts of the “post-critical turn”, Eve Sedgwick’s seminal essay “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay is About You”, in order to think about the (dis)connect between critique and happiness studies as it becomes visible in the contributions to this issue of Writing from Below. In her essay Sedgwick notes that the “hermeneutic of suspicion” is “a theory of negative affects” (2002, 136) – “hatred, envy, and anxiety” (128) among them. For the cultural critic this is relevant in two ways. First of all, it fosters a particular orientation towards the text or culture at hand. The paranoid critic speaks from a position of suspicion or distrust and accordingly seeks to unmask, deconstruct and dissemble the object of analysis in order to get at a hidden (and usually negative) truth. Secondly, this affective stance privileges the analysis of negative states of being. Freud, the most enduringly powerful godfather of critique, had much more to say on shame, anger, melancholia, disgust and fear than contentment, joy or satisfaction. Accordingly, our analytic toolbox is much better equipped for enquiries into negative feelings, which has had a direct effect on affect studies and studies of the history of emotion.


Having said this, critique can and must play a central part in the conversation on happiness as is clearly evidenced by Sarah Ahmed’s seminal study The Promise of Happiness (2010). Ahmed’s ground-breaking examination of the exclusive and prescriptive aspects of happiness studies and the public discourse on happiness indicates the crucial contributions that critique might offer to the conversation on happiness. However, the immediate success and influence of Ahmed’s study, in fact the strong affective attachment that scholars have with her work, is not just fuelled by the precision and heft of Ahmed’s analysis. Rather, I read it as evidence of another important point Sedgwick makes on the relationship between paranoid and reparative positions: “it is sometimes the most paranoid-tending people who are able to, and need to, develop and disseminate the richest reparative practices” (150). In fact, Ellis Hanson (2011), Heather Love (2010) and others have noted the close relationships between paranoid, depressive and reparative positions in Sedgwick’s own writing. We can see how the paranoid drive of Ahmed’s analysis is deeply reparative in that it makes visible, gives voice and space to those who are marginalized and silenced by the dominant discourse of happiness. In that sense, her book is liberating and restorative, which is central to the great appeal of her writing. Turning our backs on the oppressive imperative to be happy in the right ways “is to open a life, to make room for life, to make room for possibility, for chance” (Ahmed 2010, 20). To make room for chance, for possibility and even delight is in Sedgwick’s view one of the key characteristics of reparative readings:

Because there can be terrible surprises, however, there can also be good ones. […] Because the reader has room to realize that the future may be different from the present, it is also possible for her to entertain such profoundly painful, profoundly relieving, ethically crucial possibilities as that the past, in turn, could have happened differently from the way it actually did. (2002, 146)

The paranoid and the reparative impulse can both be grounded in an ethics of care, in “the subject’s movement toward what Foucault calls ‘care of the self’,” as Sedgwick puts it (137).


The first three essays of this issue are closely aligned with Ahmed’s examination of happiness from a perspective of critique fuelled by a reparative ethics of care. It is a form of care in which the personal informs and inspires the political drive of analysis, be it through teaching, personal or professional experience. These essays open up and make visible the complicated and unruly conglomerate of affects, emotions and attitudes surrounding happiness that otherwise might get reduced, simplified, and silenced.


Shane McCoy reads Lucy, the protagonist of Jamaica Kincaid’s eponymous novel, as one of Ahmed’s “melancholy migrants”, who refuse to be co-opted into white middle-class notions of happiness. In this reading, Lucy’s resistance is crucial to her growing sense of self-determination. To McCoy, the novel’s lessons on damaging colonial legacies unfold their full potential in the classroom. In his teaching, he invites students to explore Lucy as a novel about the forces of a colonial past as they affect the quest for personal happiness in a neoliberal present.


B Lee Aultman’s essay on the “Trans Ordinary” turns to phenomenology for a personally inspired critique of the assumed link between happiness and health in normative accounts of the good life. Examining the common narratives of trans life as suspended between an injurious present and the promise of a better future, Aultman discusses the act of cutting as a non-normative practice to achieve a momentary sense of grounding and relief. Aultman reads happiness as affect – a rush, unruly and unsustainable, but no less powerful for that. What’s more, in Aultman’s reading the gendered practices of cutting offer a starting point for interrogating normative gender performances, thereby raising the question of what makes a life worth living in the supposedly never-ending meantime of trans experience.


Sadie Slyfox’s examination of the Happy Hooker is grounded in her personal experience as a sex worker. Slyfox examines the public discourse on the Happy Hooker as a fantasy figure of liberal feminism – alternatively glamourized in the media as a stylish high-end escort with expensive tastes, or condemned by a zealous alliance of radical feminists and conservatives seeking the abolition of sex work altogether as invariably demeaning and damaging to women. Instead, Slyfox directs our attention to sex workers’ own artistic takes on the Happy Hooker: witty, articulate and contradictory, these artworks defy easy categorization and raise questions about our expectations of happy faces across all sectors of the service industry – from tertiary education to sex work.


And yet, in spite of the shared terrain between suspicious and reparative reading, there remain important differences between them that have immediate effects when trying to write about happiness. Reparative reading entails an affective shift in our perception, in how we look at the objects of our enquiry. “In the paranoid Freudian epistemology,” Sedgewick argues, “it is […] inconceivable to imagine joy as a guarantor of truth” (138). Although as writers and critics we are all familiar with the rush of endorphins when we recognize aspects of ourselves in a text, an artwork or a song; when we are getting it and it is getting us; when we see and feel seen – in our critical writing these moments of affective attunement, of partial self-loss and overdetermined proximity often remain unacknowledged and they are certainly undertheorized. They are, as Rita Felski (2008) argues, relegated to the nether spheres of uncritical cultural consumption, tainted with the middlebrow, open to accusations of being “sappy, aestheticizing, defensive, anti-intellectual or reactionary” (Sedgwick, 2002, 150). Felski’s neo-phenomenological concern with experience resonates with Susan Sontag’s much earlier demand for “an erotics of art” (1969, 10). Rather than maintaining our distance, we are invited to examine and enjoy these instances of an erotically charged proximity.


That such proximity is not to be confused with naivety or uncritical gullibility is demonstrated by the first essay of the second part of this issue of Writing from Below, Lynn Jagoe’s short memoir “‘I’ll eat you up!’ Fears and Fantasies of Devouring Intimacies” about the pleasures and dangers of love and hunger. Jagoe examines the giddy childhood delight of devouring monsters through reflections on her own family stories, her mother’s disordered eating and the close bond she shared with her siblings. Her exploration of the oral pleasures of consumption, with the help of a psychoanalytic vocabulary, comes from a place of deep familiarity and tenderness, which takes into account both her mother’s inability to care and the love she shared with her sisters.


An affective shift in our perception may not only change how we look at the objects of our enquiry, it can also lead to changes in what we look at. Pawelski & Moores call this shift in focus a “eudaimonic turn”, which involves “an increased interest in well-being, human flourishing, and thriving” (2013, 7). Such a turn is founded on nothing less than a full acknowledgment that “that the good things in life are just as real as the bad things” and “that positive emotions are just as real as negative emotions and are not just the relief from or transformation of negative emotions” (8). In our study of happiness, we need to tune our critical sensors into the frequencies of positive affect and emotions. Just as we have trained ourselves to perceive and examine even faint tremors of fear, shame, anger and melancholy in a text, we need to learn how to sense, describe, examine the reverberations of joy, contentment, satisfaction and happiness, which “are just as mysterious and labyrinthine as […] anguish and despair” (39).


Examining the positive aspects of affect is precisely what Rachel Walerstein does in her essay on Kirsten Lepore’s unabashedly affirmative stop animation video “Hi, Stranger”, which went viral in 2017. Walerstein looks not only at our cultural responses to the queer pleasures of the butt, but also pays attention to the intimate yet anonymous space of social media, which holds the potential for encounters with strangers, including those moments when we become stranger(s) to ourselves by virtue of our pleasures and desires. Walerstein discusses “Hi Stranger” as an invitation to a friendly encounter – disarming, seductive, slightly uncomfortable – and draws out the political and personal potential of this, hopefully pleasurable, experience.


Finally, reparative reading may lead to very different styles of academic writing. In principle at least, “the paranoid aesthetic […] is one of minimalist elegance and conceptual economy. The desire of a reparative impulse, on the other hand, is additive and accretive” according to Sedgwick (149). This is not necessarily a sign of lacking analytic acumen, but an acknowledgment of the messiness and complexity of most texts and cultures. Bruno Latour (2004) points in a similar direction when he works with terms like “gathering” and “association” in his call for new forms of academic writing. Sedgwick’s reparative critic embraces plenitude and excess in celebration of the material at hand. With reference to happiness, the linear logic and probing drive of much academic writing may not be able to capture all there is to say about positive affect and emotion.


The final contribution to this issue demonstrates the creative and analytic potential of accretive forms of interpretation. Heather Schell and Katherine Larsen have conducted interviews on the happy ending with a range of scholars, writers and publishers working in the field of romance fiction. Their voices form a tapestry of opinions, perspectives and stories on a much-maligned, yet persistent narrative convention. Examined in this way, the happy ending loses much of its aesthetic and ideological terror and instead turns into a complex, nuanced and much-loved narrative trope that can speak to and satisfy some of our deep cultural and personal desires for lasting interpersonal connection. Their essay is an important contribution to an element in fiction that for all its ubiquity remains disparaged and extremely under-researched.


Writing about happiness opens up new territory. As the essays in this issue show, it both enables and requires shifts in thinking and practice, but the rewards can be substantial. The essays stand in conversation with each other. Sarah Ahmed’s work runs like a thread through most of them. The authors demonstrate that in mining our histories for creative representations of happiness, we might start creating our own. While thinking about positive affect and emotion in our cultural contemporary, we find manifestations of happiness that resist attempts at being measured, managed or prescribed. Writing about happiness may push us to develop different critical vocabularies, strategies and creative practices and invite cross-disciplinary research. It may lead us to see different affective, critical and creative genealogies and trajectories in our work and our cultural archives. We are currently still mapping our potential contributions as academic writers, critics and artists to the discursive field on happiness. Let’s continue the conversation.





Works Cited


Dalziel, Paul, Caroline Saunders, and Catherine Savage. “Culture, Wellbeing and the Living Standards Framework: A Perspective. A Discussion Paper”



Felski, Rita. 2008. The Uses of Reading, Hoboken NJ: Wiley-Blackwell.


Felski Rita, and Elizabeth S. Anker. 2017. Critique and Postcritique, Durham: Duke University Press.


Flatley, Jonathan. 2010. “Unlike Eve Sedgwick”, Criticism, 52 (2): 225-234.


Hanson, Ellis. 2011. “The Future’s Eve: Reparative Reading after Sedgwick”, The South Atlantic Quarterly, 110 (1): 101-119


Journal of Happiness Studies



Latour, Bruno. 2004. “Why has Critique Run Out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern”, Critical Enquiry, 30 (Winter): 25-248.


Love, Heather. 2010. “Truth and Consequences. On Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading”, Criticism, 52 (2): 235-241.


Pawelski, James O., and D.J. Moores. 2013. The Eudaimonic Turn. Well-Being in Literary Studies, Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.


Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. 2003. “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay is About You”, in Touching Feeling Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity, 123-152. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003.


Global Council for Happiness and Well-Being. 2019. Global Happiness and Well-Being Policy Report



Sontag, Susan. [1964] 1969. Against Interpretation and Other Essays. London: Penguin.


“What is the World Happiness Council?”, no date.



World Happiness Summit 2019


[1] The LSF offers detailed definitions of the term culture and “cultural wellbeing”. The latter includes manifestations of “embodied culture and tangible culture; and cultural identity and cultural vibrancy”. In order to emphasize their value, the LSF employs the term “cultural capital” (Dalziel et al. 28 June 2019, sections 3&4).


[2] For the role of suspicion as a mode of critique, see Rita Felski The Limits of Critique (1915) and Rita Felski & Elizabeth S. Anker, “Introduction” in Critique and Postcritique (2017), pp. 1-28.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License.

ISSN: 2202-2546

© Copyright 2015 La Trobe University. All rights reserved.

CRICOS Provider Code: VIC 00115MNSW 02218K