Happiness is a Serious Matter

“Too many people confuse being serious with being solemn.” These are the words of comedian John Cleese. He’s right; we tend to associate importance with solemnity and to assume that cheerfulness belongs only with amusing trivialities.

I believe the reason comes down to our language, which conflates two different meanings in the word ‘serious.’  On the one hand, serious means ‘important,’ the opposite of which is ‘trivial’ or ‘unimportant’.  On the other hand, ‘serious’ can mean ‘grave’ or ‘solemn,’ as in ‘She had a serious expression.’ The opposite of this includes ideas such as cheerful, fun, enjoyable, uplifting. This is a bias embedded in our language, which forces us to associate a miserable demeanour with things that are important, and to assume that anything joyful, cheerful or fun must be trivial and unnecessary – an optional extra. Yet happiness is vital for our health and wellbeing, and focussing on what helps us feel happier is a critically important area of research.

I think it’s vital that we separate these two meanings. We all know of people (politicians for example?) who can look pompously indignant whilst saying nothing of substance at all. While comedians can make stingingly pertinent points whilst raising a laugh.

Separating the significant from the solemn is especially vital for those of us who want to make positive changes in the world. The idea that in order to be strong in the face of opposition, you must be angry, sad, hopeless or outraged means that resisting the status quo becomes emotionally exhausting. Imagine how powerful we could be if we could harness the forces of laughter, wellbeing, cheerfulness and fun to help us change the world!


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