“Most folks are as happy as they make up their minds to be,” Abraham Lincoln is reputed to have said. A whole lot of psychologists and social scientists would seem to have proved this point in the last 30 years. Many of them have made their living teaching other people the five steps, or three steps, or eight steps to happiness.
Thank God for the pandemic, I say. Because it messed up everyone’s life, many of us became more open to seeing structural suffering. And it’s there to see, isn’t it: residential school graves, protestors beaten at old growth sites, refugees everywhere.
I don’t want to badmouth the importance of gratitude, of meditation, of compassion, of presence. Those practices are central to my own wellbeing. But to assume that a little improvement in your attitude should somehow compensate for years of injustice is just Pollyanna baloney.
Structural inequities—unjust relationships that are woven into our social fabric—make people unhappy. How could they not? Research is finally catching up to what vast numbers of people have known for years: If the only job I can get doesn’t pay enough to feed my children, no compassion practice will fill their bellies. If I am denied an education because of skin colour or ethnicity or gender, meditation won’t change this. If the government attempts to eradicate my culture, gratitude won’t bring back ancestral wisdom. You’d better believe that all these situations of injustice reduce a person’s happiness. This kind of unhappiness has nothing to do with individual efforts to be cheerful or grateful; it has everything to do with the weight of conditions imposed by societal structures.
I recently learned that Abraham Lincoln probably never made that remark. The source of the quote seems to be a character in the movie Pollyanna! I’d say that someone took grave liberties with the historical record; after all, it’s hard to imagine those words coming from the mouth of a man who risked everything—including his own life—to end slavery. He knew that structural injustice caused grievous suffering for others. He knew that some things couldn’t be fixed by simply making up your mind to be happy.
Spiritual paths often encourage us to see beyond causes and conditions; to detach our wellbeing from the vagaries of daily life. This is a noble endeavor when we choose it for ourselves, and I hope that everyone who reads this will so choose. But we have no right to prescribe that solution for another, especially when the structure of the society in which we live tends to distribute suffering—those causes and conditions—unequally. Abraham Lincoln recognized, if you will, the interbeing of life. The suffering of enslaved Africans made him unhappy and hence he worked to end that injustice. This is an appropriate, and deeply spiritual, response.
As for quotes, I personally prefer the Dalai Lama over Pollyanna: “Happiness is not something ready-made. It comes from your own actions.” Actions, I’d add, that work to reduce others’ suffering.