How Happy is Pharrell's "Happy"?

 The answer is: pretty dang happy. Seeing as the song is featured on the soundtrack to Despicable Me 2, it would have to be. The song is featured in a scene of the family film as Gru, the main character, realizing that he has surprisingly fallen in love with his quirky spy partner Lucy, dances through the streets on his way to tell her how he feels. The scene depicts Gru "sharing the love" that he has discovered in his relationship with Lucy by spontaneously joining an outdoor yoga class, playing along with a group of street performers, and encouraging isolated people to meet each other and start conversation. It's a great scene that emphasizes the joy that is the fruit of love, and how that joy radiates from us and touches everyone we meet.

Pharrell's song does the same. The repeated lyric "because I'm happy", coupled with invitations to clap and a danceable beat, undoubtedly bring a smile to the faces of those who listen. The music video also attempts to "share the love", as it depicts people of all shapes and sizes dancing their "happy dance" in the streets (the video also features Steve Carrell, the voice of Gru, and a few Minions). The music video's original release was accompanied by a much lengthier version, 24 Hours of Happy, which played the song on a 24-hour loop while showing video footage of people dancing in the streets. The entire message of the song is to let your joy shine in all that you do and bring it to those around you.

The lyrics themselves, written by Pharrell, exude the joy of loving and being loved. The first stanza expresses this fulfilling aspect of love by the poet telling the sunshine that it is no longer needed to brighten his day: "Sunshine, she's here, you can take a break". Love is the cause of his joy; no other thing is necessary to make his heart light. The second stanza follows a similar theme, addressing negativity and "bad news" by saying that it's not possible for them to take his joy away. The joy of love is stronger than that. It is not blown away by every foul wind, but weathers the storm with a smile and a song. The rest of the lyrics, though repetitive, offer the same expressions of happiness.

There are a couple of lines, however, that make me wary: "Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth / ... Clap along if you know what happiness is to you". Although the general message of "Happy" is a good one, these lines can't simply be taken at face value. The cause and effect seem to be inverted in the notion that "happiness is the truth". This idea can imply that our notions of happiness define our reality; for instance, McDonalds' fries make me happy and, therefore, it is true that I should spend as much time as possible with them, eating them, being made happy by them. You might think they are horribly unhealthy and the amount of cholesterol building up in my arteries is going to kill me, but that's only your reality. In my reality, they make me happy, so they are good, and that's the truth. Happiness is the truth. If we want to start stretching this into more dangerous territory, you could justify adultery by saying that this other person makes you happy, while your current spouse does not, so the truth is that your relationship with the other person is "real", while the marriage to your spouse is not. If we want to get absurd, we could say that murdering joggers in the park makes me happy so it is a real good for me, it is my truth, and shapes my reality. Who are you to deny me my happiness?

Of course, I'm taking the concept to its most extreme limits. But even the fact that we can take this notion to such extreme limits should give us pause. We should beware of falling into mental traps that promote the utilitarian philosophy of the pleasure principle. Jeremy Bentham, the 19th century proponent of utilitarianism, insisted that our entire human nature was built to minimize pain and maximize pleasure. Therefore, anything that could be done to increase your pleasure should be done, while anything that caused you pain should be removed from your life. Hence, Bentham was a strong proponent of divorce and laxity in the realm of sexual morals. He is the father of the modern phrase: "If it feels good, do it." The central problem with this is that happiness, as a feeling, is something that waxes and wanes, changes objects and intensity, and shifts with the circumstances of our lives. Therefore, our idea of the "reality" of our happiness is a constantly shifting thing; our reality becomes something unstable and entirely relative to our current situation and mood. I may like going to school today when I'm interested in the material, my teacher likes me, and I don't have any papers due; tomorrow, however, I might be bored, stressed, and tired, and school is nothing but a drag which steals away my happiness. Should I drop out and instead pursue the happiness of sleeping in and playing video games all day?

The idea that one's own subjective idea of feelings of happiness creates our own personal truths feeds the popular but destructive philosophy (or anti-philosophy) known as relativism. This ideology insists that there are no objective values, realities, or sources of happiness outside of one's own personal experience, and that no one person's experience can inform or set the standard for anyone else. Relativism, in effect, denies that there is a reality out there that creates the same objective values for every person on earth. With relativism, you cannot ever tell me that what I experience as a good in my life is not actually a good. You can't tell me to put an end to my heroin addiction because I enjoy it; it makes me happy; this is my happiness, not yours. Those side effects of my behavior may seem bad to you, but I'm willing to live with them, so you have no right to take away my happiness. We can all see the problem inherent in this way of thinking. And, in all honesty, when push comes to shove, none of us are truly relativists. We really do believe that there is an objective reality that applies to everyone. We really do believe in our heart of hearts that there are objectively evil things that cannot be justified by some relative pleasure principle that makes something okay for you but not for me. Murder is wrong. Rape is wrong. Theft is wrong. No matter how much anyone enjoys these things, they will always be wrong. Education is good. Acts of generosity are good. Acts of kindness are good. No matter how much anyone might dislike doing these things, they will always be good. Their value is intrinsic and objective; it is not up for discussion. This is reality. This is truth. And the more we are able to align our desires with the truth, the happier we will be.

Rather than happiness being a cause for truth, truth is actually a cause for happiness. We are really happy when a real person really loves us, not when some sort of electric impulse in our brain triggers a release of endorphins into our system. Being hooked up to some sort of "happy machine" (perhaps like the ones seen in sci-fi films like Minority Report) is not real happiness; we are not really happy when the causes for our happiness are false. An insane person who is happy because he thinks he lives in a palace on the moon with all the luxuries in the universe at his fingertips is not really happy. None of us would choose this for ourselves. We would rather choose unhappiness in reality than happiness built on lies and delusions. The good news is that happiness is a real thing, an objective reality that can be obtained by each and every one of us. It is more than an opinion, even more than just a "state of mind". There are actual concrete things in this world that are true causes for happiness for everyone: the beauty of nature, peace and prosperity, accomplished goals, smiles shared, good deeds, true love. We were built not just for pleasure, but for joy, real joy that comes from real things that really do make us objectively better and happier people.

And that's something to clap about.


The point of this blog is not to tell anyone what they should or should not consider entertaining, nor what films, books, lyrics, or television shows are morally or artistically good or bad. The point is to engage with the stories that are creating our culture on an intellectual level, to meet the morals with our minds before they go to our hearts. Once you know what's in the entertainment you imbibe and you're aware of how it may be shaping your perceptions of the world around you, well then, imbibe away!

1 comment:

  1. This is really good, Chantelle. I must say that I read the line, "Happiness is the truth" to mean that yes, the reality at the heart of the universe really is cause for great joy; that is, joy is the right response to what's really out there. But then I just dig the song a lot so maybe I'm reading into it what I want to find! I was disappointed to read elsewhere, though, that Williams considers himself only a nominal Christian. And I can't say that anything else on the "Girl" CD inspires me.