Forget buying a house or finishing that PhD. Some people today are turning to “privatizing happiness” — or, in simple terms, fixing themselves — over marking their 20s and 30s with the usual milestones of marriage, home purchase, parenthood and more. They’re using methods like self-help books, therapists and their own will to garner a sense of happiness on their own — away from the socially praised markers their parents’ and grand-parents’ generations had.
I talked to Jennifer Silva, the Harvard University researcher and author of Coming Up Short: Working-Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty who coined the term about dealing with demons and taking happiness into our own hands.
Q: What is privatizing happiness?
A: This means we accept full responsibility for our own emotional well-being. If we feel unsatisfied or disappointed with our lives, we search inside ourselves for the roots of this unhappiness, trying to discover the personal demons that keep happiness out of our reach and to combat these demons on our own. Maybe it’s a history of troubled relationships, or an addiction, or a painful childhood, or a mental illness like anxiety or depression. Whatever it is, we privatize our happiness by deciding it is up to us to fix ourselves. As one young woman I interviewed told me, “Nobody is going to fix me but me.” This can be very empowering.
Q: How has this concept come about?
A: Modern life is full of disruptions and uncertainties: you can’t count on having the same job or the same partner “for life” anymore. People are also more isolated. We learn early not to expect loyalty from our jobs or our relationships. We take risks, often without guidance from others because we don’t know our neighbours or communities, to try to create lives that give us happiness.
And when we fail — when a relationship ends or a job falls through — we pick up the pieces on our own and start again. Privatizing happiness is taking sole responsibility for putting the pieces back together. It gives us a sense of control and meaning over the disruptions and uncertainties present in modern day life.
When our families feel fragile, and our communities are less close, and our jobs are less secure, we feel like we have only ourselves to depend on.
Q: You note that young people aren’t defining themselves anymore by “milestones” — marriage, babies? Why is this?
A: We typically think of adulthood as achieving social markers or milestones, like moving out of your parents’ house, finishing school, becoming financially independent, getting married and having kids. But these markers have become much more delayed and disorderly over the past few decades, with young people taking longer to become financially independent, sometimes moving back in with their parents and postponing marriage and families. People can’t count on these markers to “feel like an adult” especially since their jobs and their relationships are insecure.
The young people I spoke with are redefining adulthood on more personal terms — they look inside themselves for personal milestones. Adulthood is more about finding your true self, managing your own emotional growth and overcoming personal problems. Instead of collective rituals like weddings or graduations or promotions, we have individual journeys toward adulthood.
Q: Should we be concerned about this shift or welcoming it?
A: It might feel empowering to take happiness into our own hands, but there are also concerns. We put a great deal of pressure on ourselves to be happy! And we might have to invest a lot of time and energy and money into trying to find happiness — whether by seeing a therapist or reading self-help books or travelling. Not everyone has that time and those resources, which means happiness might be out of reach for some people.
And if we focus only on fixing ourselves, we don’t notice the social and economic forces that are working against our happiness. People get very focused on their own improvement and may not have much time and empathy for others.
Q: So what does this mean for our readers?
A: Just to be aware of the cultural pressures we face, to always be trying to improve ourselves, and work on our happiness can be helpful. Sometimes this pressure can be overwhelming. Maybe working with others and trying to build lasting relationships can take the pressure off having to do it all alone.