The Promise of Happiness

The Promise of Happiness

Book Pages: 328 Illustrations: Published: April 2010

Author: Sara Ahmed

Cultural Studies, Gender and Sexuality, Theory and Philosophy > Feminist Theory

The Promise of Happiness is a provocative cultural critique of the imperative to be happy. It asks what follows when we make our desires and even our own happiness conditional on the happiness of others: “I just want you to be happy”; “I’m happy if you’re happy.” Combining philosophy and feminist cultural studies, Sara Ahmed reveals the affective and moral work performed by the “happiness duty,” the expectation that we will be made happy by taking part in that which is deemed good, and that by being happy ourselves, we will make others happy. Ahmed maintains that happiness is a promise that directs us toward certain life choices and away from others. Happiness is promised to those willing to live their lives in the right way.

Ahmed draws on the intellectual history of happiness, from classical accounts of ethics as the good life, through seventeenth-century writings on affect and the passions, eighteenth-century debates on virtue and education, and nineteenth-century utilitarianism. She engages with feminist, antiracist, and queer critics who have shown how happiness is used to justify social oppression, and how challenging oppression causes unhappiness. Reading novels and films including Mrs. Dalloway, The Well of Loneliness, Bend It Like Beckham, and Children of Men, Ahmed considers the plight of the figures who challenge and are challenged by the attribution of happiness to particular objects or social ideals: the feminist killjoy, the unhappy queer, the angry black woman, and the melancholic migrant. Through her readings she raises critical questions about the moral order imposed by the injunction to be happy.


The Promise of Happiness is a wonderfully written book we would recommend to anyone working at the intersections of philosophy, anti-racism, and critical race studies, as well as both gender and cultural studies, and, of course, those involved in the field of happiness studies and positive psychology. . . . [W]e have appreciated The Promise of Happiness in its ability to speak to us on a personal level. Thus, being moved, intrigued, and stimulated by this book, we can say that we are happy with it.” — Krizia Nardini and Matilda Lindgren, Nora

The Promise of Happiness features a series of creative hermeneutic adventures that Ahmed describes quite simply as a matter of 'reading’ certain visual and textual archives. Her own ‘readings’ of cultural objects and
events, mediated as they are through her personal and political experience, throw into relief the productive capacities of such practices of meaning-creation that we all can and do engage in with the texts, tales, images, performances, and cases to which we give new expression in and through our engagement with them. While her interpretive dance between these texts is far more fast and loose than is the familiar academic custom, it provides an invigorating spectacle, all the while inviting its readers to reflect on the many archives we traverse in our affected lives and respective disciplines.” — Margaret Denike, Canadian Journal of Women and the Law

The Promise of Happiness is an extraordinary text that should become a mainstay of affect studies and that serves as a strikingly powerful model of astute cultural critique. Ahmed offers an insightful study of our preoccupation with and desire for happiness.” — Jenna Supp-Montgomerie, Women's Studies Quarterly

“Expand[s] the political horizons of feeling and cultural politics with exciting complexity . . . brilliant.” — Sarah Cefai, Cultural Studies Review

“[W]hat makes Ahmed’s book so readable, and so read worthy, is that it is like the best forms of comedy. The kind of comedy that makes you laugh not because you have never experienced the kind of thing being described but, rather, because the thing being described is so common, so familiar, so ordinary, and yet by its rendering the comedian has refracted that experience through another lens. One that shows up the way things might be.” — Kim Brooks, Canadian Journal of Women and the Law

“By unpacking the attribution of happiness to specific choices and lives, Ahmed encourages us to consider how ‘the promise of happiness’ serves as a moral imperative. A stimulating and—dare I say—pleasurable read, the book may not have a happy ending, but it does propose what might happen instead.” — Kestryl Cael Lowrey, Lambda Literary Review

“Engaging with a rich history of literature, theory, and film, Sara Ahmed’s The Promise of Happiness highlights the myriad ways in which happiness has been used to form our desires, goals, and aspirations. Throughout the book, Ahmed insightfully points to the ways in which the promise of happiness dictates how we live and, more importantly, how the path to this ideal is often fraught with much unhappiness for those who experience oppression and injustice.” — Kira Tomsons, Canadian Journal of Women and the Law

“For anyone interested in Feminist Theory or Feminist Philosophy this book should be most interesting, and for those engaged in Cultural Studies this book offers an exciting study of alternative theories of emotion.” — Jenell Navarro, Women's Studies

“Fresh in its premises and elegant in its follow-through, with plenty of incisive questions to move it along, The Promise of Happiness offers new lenses on an emotion rarely challenged. I suggest you make room for it on your shelf.” — Vani Natarajan, Feminist Review blog

“Many things from The Promise of Happiness will stay with me—indeed, her call for the ‘freedom to be unhappy’ may paralyze me as I next inscribe a friend’s birthday card. However, the most salient of these may be a heightened alertness to the conditions of possibility, the sense that happenings arise from complex facilitating elements.” — Robert Leckey, Canadian Journal of Women and the Law

“The promise of happiness is useful for queer theorists, feminists (of various persuasions) and critical race theorists who are interested in exploring the place that the politics of unhappiness continues to hold in discourses about a more ethical world. Students who are coming to queer, feminist and critical race studies would also benefit from this book, especially as it traverses three study areas, drawing on many philosophers and key theorists along the way. Its use of texts and film to contextualise quite abstract and complex ideas around (un)happiness and affect also makes it a good read for students.” — Elizabeth Smith, Culture, Health & Sexuality

“There is an immediate appeal to work which so overtly brings happiness to the killjoys and melancholics, usually excluded from communities of happiness. It is the appeal of identification, however, which risks replicating the exclusions of which it complains. In this case, however, Ahmed’s killing joy should appeal not only to those who identify with her figures, but to those who are interested in philosophical and rigorous ethical debates.” — Carolyn Broomhead, Women: A Cultural Review

“This is a daring but welcome challenge in the context of a mainstream liberal metropolitan global north that celebrates the political achievements and legal changes for queer life as welcoming former sexual dissidents into the norm…. It offers is a counter-argument to dominant discourses about happiness and those who are seen to spoil it.” — Shamira A. Meghani, Year's Work in Critical and Cultural Theory

“Fascinating and important, both in showing us how to read some key texts differently and in showing how to think more carefully about happiness and its politics. . . . [T]here is a perverse happiness to be taken from reading such an interesting book about the insufficiency of happiness.” — Richard Ashcroft, Textual Practice

“The Promise of Happiness is richly valuable not only for its discussion of utilitarianism but also for its broader deconstruction of the workings of happiness in a range of works of philosophy, literature, and social science. Whereas other feminist theorists also occasionally cast a critical eye toward happiness, or raise consciousness of female unhappiness, Ahmed has produced a volume that is unparalleled in its sustained and extensive expose´ of the entanglements between discourses of happiness and oppression.” — Andrea Veltman, Hypatia

The Promise of Happiness bridges philosophy and cultural studies, phenomenology and feminist thought—providing a fresh and incisive approach to some of the most urgent contemporary feminist issues. Ahmed navigates this bridge with a voice both clear and warm to convey ideas that are as complex as they are intimate and accessible. Her treatment of affect as a phenomenological project provides feminist theorists a way out of mind-body divides without reverting to essentialisms, enabling Ahmed to attend to intersectional and global power relations with acuity and originality.” — Aimee Carrillo Rowe, Signs

“Ahmed enhances feminism’s critical toolbox by guiding us to regard affect as a cipher for society as we track how it produces and is produced by politics. ... Ahmed draws on feminism to potentially enhance the quality of life for her readers, who are offered mindful practices of relinquishing attachment to various ideals in a text that is neither Pollyannaish nor depressing.” — Naomi Greyser, Feminist Studies

“Ahmed’s analyses are spot-on and provocative. . . . Ahmed’s analysis of this and other topics is unpredictable and engaging.” — Heather Seggel, Gay & Lesbian Review

“Ahmed's language is a joy, and her work on each case study is filled with insight and rigor as she doggedly traces the social networks of dominance concealed and congealed around happiness. . . . The Promise of Happiness is an important intervention in affect studies that crucially approaches one of the major assumptions guiding social life: the assumption that we need to be happy.” — Sean Grattan, Social Text

“At a time when happiness studies are all the rage and feminism is accused of destroying women’s happiness, Sara Ahmed offers a bold critique of the consensus that happiness is an unconditional good. Her new book asks searching questions about the nature of the good life, making its case in a wonderfully pellucid prose. What a paradox that a defense of the kill-joy should be such a pleasure to read! This timely, original, and intellectually expansive book is sure to trigger a great deal of debate.” — Rita Felski, University of Virginia

“What could be more naturalized and less subject to ideological critique than happiness? How are we to get critical perspective on it? Through her readings of texts and films, Sara Ahmed shows how this might work. By revealing the complexity and ambivalence of happiness, she intervenes in several fields—including queer and feminist theory, affect studies, and critical race theory—in a genuinely new and exciting way.” — Heather K. Love, author of Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Sara Ahmed is Professor of Race and Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths College, University of London. She is the author of Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others, also published by Duke University Press; The Cultural Politics of Emotion; Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-Coloniality; and Differences that Matter: Feminist Theory and Postmodernism.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments ix

Introduction: Why Happiness, Why Now? 1

1. Happy Objects 21

2. Feminist Killjoys 50

3. Unhappy Queers 88

4. Melancholic Migrants 121

5. Happy Futures 160

Conclusion: Happiness, Ethics, Possibility 199

Notes 225

References 283

Index 301
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

Rights and licensing

Sara Ahmed is the recipient of the 2017 Kessler Award, presented by CLAGS

Winner, 2011 Feminist and Women's Studies Association Book Award

Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-4725-5 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-4666-1
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