The Pursuit of Happiness

by Fall Ferguson, JD, MA

There is a deep cultural story in the U.S., evidenced by the wording of our Declaration of Independence, that we have a “right” to pursue happiness. Well, that is, unless you’re fat. Fat people, one surmises from cultural messages, are not entitled to be happy. Moreover, they should apparently harness their deep misery at being so fat and use it to motivate themselves to be thin.

A quick note on what I mean by happiness: whereas joy is a transcendent moment, happiness is a state of well-being and contentment.

There does not seem to be much doubt that happy people appear to be generally healthier. How much of this is cause, and how much correlation, is a question I will leave for another day. For now, I’d like to focus on that familiar, persistent, and insidious meme that suggests that thin people have the right to pursue happiness by virtue of their thinness and fat people do not, by virtue of their fatness.

Memes, in general, are self-reinforcing; the more a meme is repeated, the more it takes on the moral authority and appearance of “truth.” Our behavior and attitudes begin to conform to the meme, which in turn transmits the meme more widely. Consistently treating fat people as unworthy and “less than” reinforces the idea that they are unworthy. Which group would you expect to be happier and healthier: people with bodies that conform to social norms or people whose bodies are called into question day after day, by family, friends, employers, doctors, the media, and by virtue of that nifty little trick of internalization, themselves? Yale Rudd Center researchers Rebecca Puhl and Chelsea Heuer confirm that “[a]n accumulation of evidence demonstrates that weight stigma invokes psychological stress and emerging research suggests that this stress leads to poor physical health outcomes for obese individuals” (citations omitted).

Are Thin People Happy?

I am sure some thin people are happy, and I’m very glad of it. But is thinness a guarantee of happiness? Just posing the question demonstrates its absurdity. There is no guarantee of happiness, and it seems unnecessary for me to offer “proof” that there are unhappy thin people in this world.

Many of us who have had the experience of cycling down to a socially acceptable weight have learned the hard way that life’s problems don’t simply vanish with the pounds. The boss is still demanding, communication problems with our partners don’t disappear, and our families are still codependent. For many weight cyclers, “low yo” (my term for the thinner phase of weight cycling) has its own problems. Personally, I was hungry almost all the time. I lived in fear of gaining back the weight. Moreover, when I began to receive significantly increased attention from potential romantic partners, I got the distinct message that what I thought of as my “real” qualities—intellect, wit, compassion—were insufficient to attract someone. None of these experiences were exactly conducive to happiness.

Losing/Giving Up Something In Order to Be Happy?

Many threads throughout our cultural discourse suggest that losing weight leads to happiness, especially the ad campaigns and book titles of the weight cycling industry. In theory, the application of a few critical thinking skills should suffice to counteract these threads, but unfortunately, the grip of this meme is powerful. As information about the harm of weight stigma and weight loss approaches filter into the mainstream consciousness, we can hope that more consumers will begin to call the weight cycling industries and the media on the absurdity of equating thinness with happiness.

I saw a ray of hope recently when a post entitled “15 things to give up to be happy” appeared in a blog called The Purpose Fairy (great name, right?) and then went viral. It has since received over 1.2 million shares on Facebook. The post describes 15 things which “if you give up on them, will make your life a lot easier and much, much happier.” I first clicked through to the blog post with dread, sure that I would find advice to give up carbs or the like. To my pleased surprise, I found a very different kind of list, a short version of which appears below. It’s thought-provoking, to say the least. Hands down, though, my favorite thing about the list is that the idea of giving up anything related to weight or eating or food or pounds is not on it. The notion that thinness is a pathway to happiness is nowhere on the list—not even close.

No doubt, the Purpose Fairy’s message about giving up certain thought habits and emotional patterns in order to be happy is appealing.  It reminds me of Thoreau’s exhortation to “simplify, simplify, simplify!”  Meanwhile, the world is full of self-help mavens, gurus, and television hosts who will dispense advice on how to be happy.  I am not interested in becoming one of them, believe me.  But I do think it’s worth exploring the thin equals happiness meme, because it is still so powerful, and because I believe it is an obstacle to the health and happiness of so many people.  This is not some amusing meme (such as pole-sitting in the 1920s or CB radios in the 1970s) that will seem quaint and amusing later on.

This meme is an insidious nocebo that is harming the health of a multitude.  As a health educator, I believe my job is to empower people to live well, on their own terms.  And that means counteracting the effects of this collective belief that some of us don’t have the right to pursue happiness.

Next time: The nocebo effect of the “thin equals happiness” meme and how we can help our clients and ourselves in our pursuit of happiness by building a sense of coherence.