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International Day of Happiness: Finding the balance

Image of balloons, some with happy faces, some with sad faces
Image credit: Hybrid (Unsplash)
Opinion by SJ Whitaker

I have no issue with the premise of International Day of Happiness – but is happiness the be-all and end-all of life?

Today, March 20th, is the International Day of Happiness. Did you know this?

I didn’t, and I don’t remember it being mentioned or celebrated when I was growing up. It seems that every day is dedicated to something, somewhere in the world, be that aunties, oral health, poetry or pandas. A glance at the various national and international day calendars shows that there is often more than one dedication for any given day. St Patrick’s Day, March 17th, is also National Corned Beef and Cabbage Day, apparently.

Here I must confess to a certain amount of eye-rolling and grimacing – accompanied by baffled shaking of the head and deep sighs – as each day is announced, usually on social media channels. Yet this is without my ever having taken the time to research the origins of these celebrations. I find myself wondering if it is just a person, or a group, who decides on a whim, in their bedroom, or offices, to dedicate that particular day to a cause they are passionate, irritated or amused about.

With days like the International Day of Happiness, my scepticism runs deeper. I can feel deeply out of touch with, or pressurised by, the label itself. This is when gloom and criticism can creep in, especially when people use the concept of a day in a superficial, banal way, fostering toxic positivity.

So, rather than descend into a negative pit of unjustified cynicism, I decided to delve into the origins of this salute to happiness, and consider what kind of an impact it actually has, and how it might affect individuals – particularly those with mental health issues.

'Positive Psychology' and the origins of International Day of Happiness

It turns out that the idea behind a day dedicated to happiness goes deeper than you might think, and is based on Positive Psychology – essentially meant to be a strengths-based approach to emotional and psychological wellbeing. It focuses on building up what is good within a person or their life, instead of always focussing on ‘repairing what is bad’. It was developed by psychology researchers Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi who published a paper in 2000 titled 'What is Positive Psychology & Why is It Important?'

When he was elected president of the American Psychological Association in 1998, Seligman was enthusiastic about using his role to promote their idea. He proposed a new branch of psychology – positive psychology – with a focus on what is ‘life-giving’ rather than ‘life-depleting’. The foundational paper of this new field was published in 2000 by Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi, the latter known as the “founding father” of flow (a term which here refers to 'moments when you’re completely absorbed in a challenging but doable task').

Since 2000, Seligman’s call for a greater focus on the positives in life has been taken up by thousands of researchers and scientists who have gone on to establish a base for the application of positive principles to every sphere of life, including coaching, teaching, relationships and the workplace. It is often the basis, now, of peer recovery techniques in mental health.

The idea of Positive Psychology ignited the passion of one Jayme Illien, advisor to the United Nations, who established the concept of a day dedicated to happiness at the first ever UN conference on Happiness, July 12th 2012. The concept was then adopted by the United Nations, with the first celebration being launched by Ndaba Mandela and Chelsea Clinton at the TedXTeen New York City conference, in March 2013. Singer-songwriter, Pharrell Williams was caught up with the event, and the first ever 24-hour global live streaming video of his song, ‘Happy’.

Happy made it to number 1 in the UK Singles Chart on 29th December 2013, returning to the top spot two more times

The United Nations now celebrates The International Day of Happiness as an annual event ‘promoting the idea that happiness is a global human right’ and promoting the ‘importance of happiness to humanity’. The campaign is organised by the non-profit making organisation, Action for Happiness, which ‘aims to reduce global inequality and protect the planet for future generations’.

Finding balance

Who could argue with this deep need in humans for a sense of wellbeing, or the lofty aims behind the campaign?

However, the very concept of a day dedicated to happiness can be misused, becoming yet another rod to beat ourselves with, another way to suppress negative emotions as ‘bad’. It brings to mind all those clichéd phrases such as ‘stiff upper lip’, ‘could be worse’, ‘always look on the bright side’, ‘smile and the world smiles with you, 'cry and you cry alone’ etc etc. All of it is more about societal discomfort with a person who is ‘not okay’. When someone says ‘cheer up, might never happen’ or when a person wants to fix you instantly and make you laugh if you are feeling down, it has its kind and compassionate side, but can also reveal our discomfort with other people’s pain and unhappiness.


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For someone with depression, for example, to be told it is the International Day of Happiness might be received as yet another reason to reproach themselves for somehow ‘lacking’ the necessary strength of character to ‘be happy’. Having suffered from depression myself, I could feel the same during the summer on a bright sunny day when everyone appeared to be in a frenzy of being active, happy, and full of energy as I did on a cold, blustery day in the deepest darkness of winter – in both instances, all I wanted to do was hole-up and cry. Being told to 'be happy' just made me feel even more isolated and ‘wrong’.

I’m not advocating giving up and making no effort at all. I know from experience that self-care tools, such as going out for a walk, being in nature, meditating, looking for what is good in our lives, reaching out to others, focussing on gratitude, can really have a positive effect and lift our mood; but they are not the whole answer. We are naive if we think this to be the case, and it can put us on course for a potential crash.

There is a balance to be had here. We need to acknowledge all our emotions and experiences of life, and not make some of them ‘negative’ and 'wrong' while others are ‘positive’ and ‘right’. Once we are able to do this, we can then turn our attention to experiencing them and perhaps moving through them towards peace and, yes, even happiness – although I prefer words such as ‘contentment’ or ‘joy’.

We can learn to build on our strengths, on our character assets – especially in the ‘good times’ – and practice doing the things that promote our wellbeing. And I do believe – because I am learning to experience this myself, particularly in meditation – that there is a state of being that has peace at its core, and does not alter with the changing tides of our circumstances and emotions. It lies beneath all that – and this is a life’s work of practice! As Martin Seligman says:

“…positive psychology is not to be confused with untested self-help, footless affirmation, or secular religion — no matter how good these may make us feel. Positive psychology is neither a recycled version of the power of positive thinking nor a sequel to The Secret.”

Don't ignore how you feel

When social media and advertising take up the baton of an International day of Happiness, the initial concept gets watered down and can lead to superficiality, which in turn leads to toxic positivity. So what do I mean by ‘toxic positivity’? It is a word that is bandied around, and can in itself be misused. Verywell Mind defines it as:

...the belief that no matter how dire or difficult a situation is, people should maintain a positive mindset. It's a "good vibes only" approach to life. And while there are benefits to being an optimist and engaging in positivity, toxic positivity instead rejects difficult emotions in favour of a cheerful, often falsely positive, facade.”

Life isn’t always easy, happy and positive – we face difficult circumstances and painful emotions. Ignoring them only leads to other, often delayed, mental health issues, including depression and, ultimately, if untreated, to potential suicidal thoughts or actions.

With all this in mind, I intend to celebrate today with a balanced attitude. I hope to actively practice an outward-looking positive psychology, understanding that if I focus on the problem, the problem increases, whereas if I focus on the solution – peace, love, gratitude and joy - then the solution increases, and so does my wellbeing.

And yet, I will take the day as it comes. I will acknowledge however I am feeling, whether that is happy, sad, angry or in pain, and tell myself "I'm okay" just as I am today.


Awesome article! Life is enduring, emotions come upon us but do not define us, and there can be beauty in all of them. We can promote gratitude and positivity without diminishing other states of mind, constantly dying to live. Thank you for writing this!


Apr 01, 2022

I can so identify with this! Thank you so much for your beautifully written perspective.


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