Navigating Happiness

Reaching past self-care

by Gabriela Naigeborin

Illustration by Jonathan Muroya

published March 2, 2018

One of the threads linking so-called “global cities” together runs through their subway tracks. I always found it soothing to ride the subway back in São Paulo—the yellow line, the one I would most often take, looked almost as neat as the ones in Tokyo. One of the newest and most central lines in the city, and the first to be operated by a private company, the yellow line is known for its distinctively “technological” features. Bright colors and disembodied announcements in both Portuguese and English make their way through the spotless stations that dot the line. Alongside the platforms, a black barrier containing a series of automatic gates that only open upon the train’s arrival keeps passengers safely away from the tracks below. Inside each car, small TVs relay the most recent news, in addition to information about the weather and all sorts of advertisements. The nearing of each station is accompanied by the recording of a jazzy jingle played by a saxophone. The tone of the yellow line is almost satirical, as if it were welcoming passengers to some sort of dystopian modernity.

These ads playing on the TV roll by my eyes one by one, marking the seconds of my daily trips. I can never tell what they say, as their movement is quick enough to prevent me from focusing on the content of any one announcement. It feels as if I am allowing my mind to rest in these ads. In exchange, I allow the concatenation of words and signs from different sources to imprint onto my eyeballs and inhabit my headspace. I become embedded in the ads as they become embedded in me: their dissolution thickens the disorienting mass that I confuse not only with my thoughts, but also with the inner workings of my mind. The images that jump from one idea to the other teach my thoughts to jump from one image to the next. I do not remember what I have just seen, I do not recall thinking about it, and yet this is already my station and I need to get out.


The integration of the means of communication into networks of transportation secure an interdependent circulation of people and products. The primary purpose of marketing, or at least one which is closely related to the effectiveness of the functions it performs, is to communicate desires. In some cases, this means bringing together disjointed desires: those of the producer and those of the consumer. In other cases, it involves expressing a desire of the seller to the consumer in such a way that the consumer confuses her desire with the one being communicated to her. The communicated desire must, however, be autonomous and abstract enough to tap into the more concrete immediate goals of the people to which it is being transmitted. In order to ensure a smooth circulation of desire, the current traveling along the producer-consumer chain of communication must strategically interfere with the inner current of one’s thoughts and feelings. This is where attention to the language being employed comes in: like a vessel that determines the shape of the liquid inside it, the language of the ad defines the idea that it carries. The words say themselves: they say what they contain and, in doing so, they tell us what they are.

Careful wording addressing competing desires allows for contradiction to remain at a standstill and, perhaps more importantly, to go unnoticed. Careful wording and conceptualization are key for the establishment of a sense of coherence that optimizes the purchase of products belonging to different collections across a maximal array of target groups. It is such efforts that allow companies like Apple to advertise previous generations of the iPhone while investing most of its resources in showcasing the latest version of the product. Two ads, one for the iPhone X and one for the slightly more obsolete iPhone 8, occupy the same space—but the space is shared, not disputed. One of the pictures presents us with two iPhone 8s, each in a metallic color. Perfectly vertical and touching one another but slightly, one of the iPhones intersects the other perpendicularly, its reflection clearly announcing itself on the other one’s glossy shell: “A new generation of iPhone.” Water-resistant and made entirely out of glass, the iPhone 8 stirs up the desire for effortless novelty. On top of the first image, stretching across one’s entire field of vision, a second picture gives a horizontal view of the iPhone X. The text underneath it further conveys a sense that this most recent version of the product is a promise, something looming on the horizon: “Say hello to the future.” If the iPhone 8 is “now,” the iPhone X is the “future;” if the iPhone 8 is “immediate,” the iPhone X is “impending;” and if the iPhone 8 is “new,” the iPhone X is “nearing.” Apple makes the unknown desirable, and eases the task of welcoming an indeterminate future that, now equated with X, we would have no logical reason to look forward to. Now the future can be pre-ordered; all it takes is that we greet it happily as it approaches.


Trying to decipher ads while in Japan became one of my most cherished pastimes. The ones whose general meaning I could not make out on my own would be decrypted with the help of my friend, whose knowledge of Japanese was akin to mine. Working on these precarious translations in conjunction with her was like putting together blocks of different shapes and sizes; we would  try, even if in a fragmented way, to devise the floor plans of an unfamiliar building. She was better at breaking down the kanji—the logographic component of the Japanese writing system—and working out the meaning of their compounded apparitions, whereas I held the upper hand when it came to making sense of the katakana, the Japanese syllabary used for the transcription of foreign words, most commonly the ones taken from English—a language which was more familiar to me than to her, as she had never lived outside Brazil.

Some weeks into this little conjoined exercise, I started picking up on a curious pattern. Ads more rich in katakana, especially the ones that included words actually written out in English, referenced the concept of “happiness,” or similar ones in the same semantic field, more often and more directly. Ads that look formally different thus index the communication of different desires. For some reason, explicit references to “happiness”—as the logical outcome of acquiring a specific product, enrolling on a specific program or being provided a specific service—were more present in ads heavy with English words. Ads written exclusively in Japanese were nothing out of the ordinary; they would make evident the appealing qualities of the products being advertised and call attention to how effective these products were for performing whatever function they were meant to perform. Time and again, these would include the image of some endearing and familiar-looking character, or that of a charming and attractive actor. When happiness was referenced, it did not seem to be hierarchically above any other positive subjective qualities associated with the product, thus becoming part of a larger net of positivity rather than setting the tone of the ad. Conversely, in the case of most of the ads containing words in English, associations with happiness that were as vague as they were straightforward would overlay the discourse, promoting the more specific functionality of a brand or product. “Panasonic: feel happiness”; “Go to Tohoku! Be happy!” The distilled desire for happiness seemed to call for a foreign language to contain it. Happiness, understood as something that could follow from a mere economic exchange, was communicated in English. Was the idea that happiness could be acquired by any resourceful consumer, so long as that person had a desire, a goal, and a clear motivation tying these two together, as foreign as the words that expressed this possibility?

The association between consumerism and the promise of happiness did not strike me as especially surprising. But it did call attention to the fact that this association is not equally obvious—or at least not the rule—everywhere. Indeed, the kind of advertisements that I would see back home played with other desires, desires that spoke more to their audiences.

This does not mean that desires are defined on a national basis, but rather that they are fluid enough to manifest in different forms, and communicate through different means. I do not desire happiness when I express myself in English any more than I do in Portuguese. Nonetheless, my relationship to happiness, and the way I go about my longing for it, are configured in slightly different ways depending on where I am, and by whom I am surrounded.


A couple years ago I went to a lecture by social psychologist Shigehiro Oishi, from the University of Virginia. The talk centered around his research on cross-cultural conceptions of happiness. One of his projects consists of an extensive survey on how happiness is defined in dictionaries across different countries, in addition to an investigation of changes in the official American definition of happiness across the past century and a half.

The word for “happiness” found in the linguistic tradition of most countries surveyed—a group containing both Japan and Brazil—includes a translation of the word as “luck,” “good fortune,” and implies the idea that happiness is tied to an alignment of favorable external circumstances. Such associations, however, seem more far-fetched in American English, which could point to an estrangement of the idea that the environment poses constraints not only to the individual psyché, but also to collective experience. With luck and external conditions in exile, happiness is turned inwards in a twofold manner: it pertains more to the realm of subjective internal feelings than to the state of interpersonal relations, and the control over it is removed from the social locus and relegated to the individual.
Interestingly, this understanding of happiness is not present in most English-speaking cultures, and has only become mainstream in the United States within the past century. The shaping of the concept is historically determined, and different threads and developments in Western culture inform the variations that are observed across different English-speaking traditions. There was great debate among ancient Greek philosophers, and also in the context of tragedy as a genre, as to what role luck and destiny played in the course of people’s lives. The approach to happiness in Greek drama and poetry tended to attribute favorable outcomes to events outside the scope of an individual’s agency. Writers such as Aeschylus centered plots around actions determined by superhuman entities. What mattered in these plays was not the course of individual human action, but rather the way in which human action reflected the will of the gods, the way in which it conformed to circumstances brought about by external influence. Human will was, bluntly, irrelevant.

Tragic fate is not necessarily that which has already been written, but rather that which no human hand can write. The human is only happy when she is fated to be happy—that is, when natural or supernatural external forces  determine that it be so. Individual happiness does not matter nearly as much as the overall movement created by means of the complex articulation of individual parts of the tragic apparatus. Tragic outcomes tend to be the strongest, and elicit the most intense feelings of catharsis, precisely when they explode the contradiction between what the individual wants and where they end up. The frustration of such desires is what is nowadays read as a “sad ending,” although sadness was not meant to be the primary feeling elicited in the audience. Instead, the expected reaction was one of awe at, and fear of, the ineluctability, invincibility, and incontestability of the forces lying outside the scope of human control. The salvation of such desperate desires through the intervention of unexpected power of event—deus ex machina, a concept thought to have first appeared in the work of Aeschylus himself—is the result of similarly impersonal action.

On the other hand, discussions of happiness in ancient Greek philosophy were somewhat more divided on questions of agency and fate. Socrates understood happiness to be at least partially under the individual’s willpower. Following in his steps, Aristotle defended the view that the individual was an agent in the attainment of her happiness, but nonetheless emphasized the idea that this happiness was contingent on the availability of resources, and on the presence of favorable circumstances, that would allow for a happy life. This “internalizing” view, which allows for more individual agency relative to the forces exerted by the environment, was recuperated with the Protestant Reformation throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. This reform in Western Christianity helped establish the theoretical and ritualistic framework that allowed believers to pursue earthly happiness, while still ensuring that this quest would retain the status of religious endeavor. The Enlightenment worked to render the religious question of salvation secular and transformed it into a question of happiness. 

Finally, as research by Oishi and his colleagues shows, usage of the word “happiness” to reference fortunate or luck-determined outcomes has been in decline since the 1920s, although this use of the term would not be “officially” deemed archaic until 1961, with the release of a new edition of Webster’s Dictionary. The current American understanding of happiness also bears close ties to modern consumer culture. During the 1920s, with the expansion of mass media in the advertising industry, companies began to endorse the view that consumption is a means to accelerate the country’s modernization process, bringing modern life into each and every household that subscribes to this kind of relationship to objects. Advertising companies thus quickly adopted an approach to selling that focused on the products’ capacity to enhance the expression of one’s desires, and to satisfy those very desires. Underlying the race for accumulation of objects was the ambition to accumulate happiness, now attainable in its private form.


This much is true: here I feel more in charge of my own happiness—more in charge than I ever could be. The “pursuit of happiness,” which figures as one of the unalienable rights in the Declaration of Independence, is not self-evident, and to me is not even desirable. To have full agency over my happiness is a Sisyphean task. I do not want to think of happiness as something residing entirely in me, especially if it is something to be kept under my unremitting vigilance and control. This is why I am hesitant to say, when others compliment my willingness to take out a few minutes every day to cook or meditate or swim or go to the movies or do whatever it is that does not involve my direct obligations, that I am engaging in “self-care.” Yes, I am taking care of myself, but to think of this practice as a parallel set of circumscribed actions that one must take individually, for the sake of individual sanity is—as the modifier “self” announces—an individualistic way of going about wellbeing.

Happiness, the way I understand it, is not individual, or at least not entirely so. In this sense, it should not be approached at an individual capacity, taken up as an individual enterprise. If understood as something to be constructed and experienced collectively, happiness encompasses a notion of justice, acknowledges the importance of support systems, and highlights the interplay between factors that are internal and external, controllable or outside the individual’s control. When read as a “taking care of oneself” that is inherently dissociable from the radical kindness involved in taking care of others, self-care becomes a trap, as it outsources the responsibility for a community’s mental and physical health to the individual. It is dangerous because it divides and individualizes, allowing for divestment in support and healthcare systems that count on a better, more equitable distribution of resources. Maybe if our happiness were not a burden for us to bear individually, it would not be as much of a burden.

GABRIELA NAIGEBORIN B’19 is looking forward to her therapy session next Thursday.