What is happiness, why is it so important, and why is it so hard to achieve?

Black adults and kids sitting in a backyard and talking

Together, individuals and communities will go through many measures to achieve happiness. Starting in the late 1990s, positive psychology set out to understand how people become happier—but from the beginning, its perspective was skewed: Researchers and practitioners tended to overlook how race, racialization, and culture shape how an individual or community experiences, expresses, and practices happiness.

As documented in Mia Bay’s essay “A Short History of Black Happiness,” Black communities encounter extensive social, cultural, and political obstacles that attempt to hinder their well-being. Some of these obstacles include living in poverty-stricken communities, physical and psychological violence, trauma, homophobia, oppressive policies, over-policing, over-surveillance, sexism, anti-Black racism, and displacement.

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Although this is well-documented and discussed, the honoring and centering of Black people’s experiences continues to be ignored. As a result, Black people’s everyday experiences are commonly absent from psychological studies on emotions, happiness, and well-being.

That’s changing. Recent studies have begun to unpack the ways culture relates to happiness. Unfortunately, however, these studies continue to lack racial specificity, especially as it relates to the experiences of Black people in the United States of America.

It is important to note that Black people all over the world have an unwavering commitment to unapologetically re-writing, recreating, and re-structuring the very world that oppresses Black lives. Whether at the local barbecue, barbershop, park, classroom, or community event, Black people are reimagining a world where Blackness is centered, celebrated, protected, and loved. All across the world, Black communities—via cultural practices, teachings, and wellness practices—have and are deconstructing the current ways in which anti-Black racism shapes the way society understands and treats Black people.

That’s why the GGSC invited us, in partnership with the Karuna Happiness Foundation, to conduct narrative interviews with 10 adults who identify as Black or African American. We interviewed each of the participants on what happiness means to them, why it is important, and what prevents their happiness. Each of the participants grappled deeply with the ways various isms and social issues present challenges to or initiate practices of wellness.

As part of the process, we and the GGSC team shared 15 happiness practices from Greater Good in Action (GGIA), a website that is operated by the Greater Good Science Center (GGSC) at the University of California, Berkeley. These practices were Small Talk, Active Listening, Capitalizing on Positive Events, Three Good Things, Finding Silver Linings, Random Acts of Kindness, Self-Compassion Break, Loving-Kindness Meditation, Gratitude Letter, Gratitude Journal, Mindful Breathing, Body Scan Meditation, Raisin Meditation, Walking Meditation, and Awe Walk.

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We asked our participants to authentically respond to these practices, as presented on GGIA, through semi-structured interviews that explored questions including childhood emotional experiences, experiences with racism, understandings of emotions, ways they express emotions, who taught them about emotions, and more. The goal was to engage deeply into the lives of the participants through in-depth and authentic conversations.

We distilled core themes from participants’ interview responses to relay positive feedback, areas of critique, spaces of opportunity for revision, and things to take into consideration. Their responses contribute to the larger movement around making wellness practices more racially and culturally appropriate. While our interviews focused on how Black participants experienced a particular website published by the Greater Good Science Center, we believe that the insights we gleaned are applicable to many projects that seek to enhance individual well-being.

1. Anti-Black racism, respectability politics, and policing. Throughout the interviews, each of the participants revealed the structural barriers that prevent Black people from participating in happiness practices. Each participant explained how anti-Black racism, respectability politics, and policing structure various environments (e.g., workplaces, grocery stores, community parks) and individual behaviors (racial bias, ignoring Black people’s experiences, and microaggressions).

Due to oppression, Black communities are reminded of the ways they are not allowed or offered opportunities to experience and express themselves emotionally without fear of retaliation, ostracization, or violence. Participants expressed the ways that they are not afforded space to cry, be angry, be sad, or be joyful without side comments, questionable stares, or pure neglect. This policing of emotions—in particular, how, when, and where an individual expresses their emotions—fuels dynamics of othering.

For example, one of the participants sighed, “I think people do a lot of policing of Black people. . . . And then they sort of come up with things like [the 15 happiness practices] that don’t do [anything] for Black people.” There was a consensus regarding the feeling that society imposes certain kinds of expectations on how to feel, express how you feel, manage how you feel, and practice happiness. Instead of the box fitting the lives of Black people, they are having to shrink themselves to fit in.

2. Black emotional labor: Historical trauma and radical healing. Black communities encounter extensive social, cultural, and political obstacles that deplete their emotional well-being. These obstacles may include living in poverty, physical and psychological violence, trauma, over-surveillance, gentrification, sexism, and racism. Such pressures cause harm to Black people’s sense of self, relationship to the world, and overall well-being as a community. Especially, their history of slavery plays a significant role in how culture shapes how Black people feel or are expected to feel emotions. A participant shared that “Black people are always taught to be grateful; it goes back to this slave mindset of like, Yes, Master, you did that great for me . . . If you want to ask me how to make this culturally relevant, can people start telling me how they’re grateful for me so I can stop . . . feeling like I have to work 10 times harder than the other person just to get to the same place they are at?”

3. For the privileged and not the marginalized: Economic and accessibility concerns. Privilege is important when understanding each happiness practice. Participants noted that the 15 happiness practices feel inaccessible and unaffordable (not limited to socioeconomic status). Specifically, participants mentioned the practices being too time-consuming; ineffective when their main concerns in life are too much to handle; and privileging able-bodied individuals. They noted being unable to access safe environments to engage in the practices, and that positivity does not solve oppression.

How to improve happiness practices

Although each participant in our focus group expressed numerous concerns with the visions, language, and purpose behind the 15 happiness practices, all participants offered a thorough list of how to improve the happiness practices in order to center the experiences of Black people. Here is a list distilled from those conversations, which, if taken seriously, could help educators, mental health workers, and psychologists to revise happiness practices in a way that could speak to a Black audience.

1. Black Vernacular English and radical self-expression. Freedom to express oneself authentically was important to each participant. However, the possibility of authentically expressing oneself is at times hindered due to the violence of oppression. Black communities have developed sophisticated linguistic and cultural practices (e.g., African American Vernacular English, yoga, meditation, hip hop, and jazz) that have offered opportunities to resist dominant forms of oppression. Participants yearned for a world in which they are able to laugh, cry, yell, or simply just be without experiencing isolation, violence, and discrimination. In addition, participants identified the differences in the ways Black people can self-express based on their gender and sexual identity.

2. Honoring the feelings that come from race and culture. Race and culture impact how individuals experience, express, and manage their emotions. Furthermore, each participant discussed how historical and contemporary oppression such as enslavement and mass incarceration shape how Black communities “feel” about the world around them. Participants advocated for the 15 happiness practices to critically provide specificity in regard to the impact of race and culture on the emotional lives of Black communities. It’s important to note that different racial and cultural groups convey the ways they feel in various forms such as dancing, hand gestures, hand clapping, colorful mannerisms, loud laughter, and cultural usage of language.

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3. Shifting from the individual to the collective. Community matters greatly to communities of color, especially Black communities. As part of a community-oriented racial group, participants noticed that many of the happiness practices focused on the individual rather than taking into consideration a communal perspective. Therefore, each participant requested that the 15 happiness practices shift from the individual to the collective by way of community-oriented examples, scenarios, and language.

Things to consider on your happiness journey

Engaging in happiness practices requires work and work that differs racially and culturally. While taking a journey through the 15 happiness practices, each participant identified several areas that must be considered while practicing happiness:

1. Mapping emotional childhood memories and disclosing the emotional self. Practice healing your inner child. Check in with your inner child. Protect your inner child. It is important to consider that before you are able to practice happiness and have successful results, you must open yourself up to mapping your childhood memories and the emotions associated with them. It is important to note that allowing your inner child to lead can be unfamiliar and daunting. It is true that vulnerability, at times, comes with its fair share of aches and pains. But vulnerability comes with its fair share of beauty. Participants brought us this crucial question: What are the people, places, and things that make you feel safe enough to just be?

2. Embracing ugly or uncomfortable feelings. Distractions are normal. Uncomfortability is normal. Embracing the feelings that come with it is essential to the long journey toward happiness. Participants’ perspectives required grappling with a vital question: How do you effectively use distracting feelings to contribute to your learning of self-transcending feelings such as happiness, joy, or awe?

The participants highlighted the important role that feelings such as rage, paranoia, embarrassment, shame, guilt, and irritation play in achieving happiness. Participants suggested that it is essential to embrace, care for, and channel these feelings into inspiring us to take ownership of our happiness and visualize these emotions as the stepping stones to achieving the goal of happiness. Learning about yourself is a lifelong process that will uproot emotions and feelings that can be considered uncomfortable. To some these are ugly—but beauty and radical forms of healing can exist within those various feelings that can support our journey toward happiness.

3. Practicing emotions for interconnectedness and belonging. It is important to practice. So, practicing emotions—fully feeling and expressing—should be important to our overall well-being. However, within an oppressive society, authentically experiencing and expressing one’s emotions can lead to judgment, exclusion, and at times harsh discipline.

The “refusal to feel takes a heavy toll,” writes Buddhist teacher Joanna Macy. “Not only is there an impoverishment of our emotional and sensory life . . . but this psychic numbing also impedes our capacity to process and respond to information. The energy expended in pushing down despair is diverted from more creative uses, depleting the resilience and imagination needed for fresh visions and strategies.”

As a society, we’ve embraced a culture that “requires violence to sustain itself,” and the violence can be physical, psychological, cultural, spiritual, or, more importantly, emotional. Acknowledging the impact of oppression on the emotional lives of Black people does not neglect the beauty created by Black people to obtain interconnectedness and belonging.

4. Centering critical perspectives on love. Center the concept, practice, and philosophy of love that continues to be essential to the livelihood of Black communities across the world. Black people have historically and contemporarily shown love and expressed love through the art of creating space in which storytelling or communion can manifest. Acts of love, storytelling, cooking, and intimacy weren’t only minimal acts but a “necessary and essential life force” as they helped preserve the creations, lives, cultures, and realities of Black people in the midst of oppression.

As our research participants suggested, an everyday wellness practice rooted in a “love ethic” requires us to “critically interrogate our locations, the identities, and allegiances that inform how we live our lives, so we can begin the process of decolonization.” In order to create social change, we collectively must choose love, which requires us to admit our need to see, know, feel, and create love.

“Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within,” writes James Baldwin in The Fire Next Time. “I use the word love here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace—not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.”

Scholarly appreciation: Major thank you to the greater community of scholars that contributed to the project. Special thank you to Linda Kawamoto, Emiliana Simon-Thomas, Dacher Keltner, and Karuna Happiness Foundation.

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