“How to be happy” according to Cosmopolitan: The metaphors of happiness at the service of positive psychology and neoliberalism ideology

DOI : 10.35562/elad-silda.875


The metaphorical representation of happiness in the women’s magazine industry appears to be of particular interest at the moment. Indeed, different political, social and economic actors have made happiness become one of the main objectives of Western societies, both at the individual (self-fulfillment, satisfaction, happiness) and at the collective (workplace wellness, well-being of society) level. However, beneath these laudable ideals, and despite their altruistic, apolitical and ideology-free appearance, there lies a discourse that pursues very clear objectives of benefit only to certain interest groups [Illouz & Cabanas 2018]. The women’s press represents a privileged source in the understanding of the expectations faced by women [Blandin 2018] and, perhaps in a more general way, by individuals in a particular culture. Finally, the metaphors used enable us to analyze certain thought patterns specific to some discourses [Charteris-Black 2004]. The aim of this paper is thus to understand how happiness is represented metaphorically in Cosmopolitan magazine and to determine whether this representation corresponds to an ideological agenda. A corpus-based analysis of the metaphors of happiness used in the Cosmopolitan magazine has been conducted. The results show that most of these metaphors can be categorized according to six conceptual patterns related to the notions of ‘strength’ and ‘limit’. The metaphors of happiness found in this corpus are shown to be ideologically charged and strongly related to positive psychology and neoliberal ideology.

La représentation métaphorique du bonheur dans la presse féminine présente actuellement un intérêt particulier. Le bonheur est devenu pour différents acteurs politiques, sociaux et économiques l'un des principaux objectifs des sociétés occidentales, tant au niveau individuel (épanouissement personnel, satisfaction, bonheur) qu'au niveau collectif (bien-être au travail, bien-être de la société). Cependant, malgré ces idéaux louables et leur apparence altruiste, apolitique et sans idéologie, on découvre un discours avec des objectifs très clairs, et qui ne profitent qu'à certains groupes d'intérêt [Illouz & Cabanas 2018]. Par ailleurs, la presse féminine représente une source privilégiée dans la compréhension des attentes des femmes [Blandin 2018] et, peut-être de manière plus générale, des individus d'une culture particulière. Enfin, les métaphores utilisées nous permettent d'analyser certains schémas de pensée propres à certains discours [Charteris-Black 2004]. Le but de cet article est donc de comprendre comment le bonheur est représenté métaphoriquement dans le magazine Cosmopolitan et de déterminer si cette représentation correspond à un objectif idéologique. Pour cela, nous avons élaboré et analysé un corpus des métaphores du bonheur utilisées dans la revue Cosmopolitan. Les résultats montrent que la plupart de ces métaphores peuvent être classées selon six schémas conceptuels liés aux notions de ‘force’ et de ‘limite’ et qu’elles sont liées à certains principes fondamentaux de la psychologie positive et de l'idéologie néolibérale.



métaphore, bonheur, néolibéralisme, psychologie positive, persuasion


metaphor, happiness, neoliberalism, positive psychology, persuasion




The study of the representation of happiness in women’s magazine industry is of particular interest. First of all, happiness has deeply permeated our cultural imagination and now occupies a central place in our lives: self-fulfillment has become the essential aim of the individual, workplace wellness is a key objective for companies, and the well-being of societies is now the unit of measure used to assess the success of political projects [Illouz & Cabanas 2018: 9]. This is why the notion of happiness now plays a fundamental role in our understanding of the individual and the world. Furthermore, women’s magazines are a privileged source for studying the construction and reproduction of gender norms [Blandin 2018: 119] and can thus reflect the expectations and injunctions to which women are subjected to in contemporary Western society. In this respect, although these magazines are written for women, this paper does not approach the corpus analysis through the prism of gender, even if I do not rule out such an approach in future studies. I claim that this analysis shows the metaphorical representation of happiness proposed by Cosmopolitan. Nevertheless, I do not aim to determine whether this vision concerns only the readers of this magazine, (French) women, or people living in Western countries. That is why the generic term “individual” is used to refer to the person involved in the “emotional event”. Finally, the significant media impact of women’s press [Soulier 2008: 192] ensures an important diffusion of this representation which also justifies the interest of this study.

Numerous studies have been conducted on the metaphorical representation of happiness in different languages and cultures [Yu 1995; Kövecses 2000, 2008; Stefanowitsch 2004; Adamizka 2011; Tissi 2008; Csillag 2016]. Nevertheless, and to the best of our knowledge, the ideological dimension of this representation has not been taken into account. The aim of this paper is thus to understand how happiness is represented metaphorically in Cosmopolitan magazine and to determine whether this representation corresponds to an ideological agenda. In this regard, I intend to contribute to the study of the happiness metaphor by adding a critical dimension and by evaluating the role that metaphors play in the discourse of happiness. This study also differs from other works on the subject by considering the notion of happiness in a very broad sense, based on the definition of happiness proposed by positive psychology. This includes concepts such as personal fulfillment, resilience or well-being.

1. Happiness and positive psychology

In this section a general definition of the concept of “happiness” is proposed as well as an introduction to the theory of positive psychology, which will be examined critically.

1.1. Happiness

The term ‘happiness’ mainly refers to two different phenomena. The first phenomenon is momentary, and is defined by Salmela, Pessi & Tissari [2008: 5] as “states of mind of a particular kind”, such as joyous, cheerful, etc. The second phenomenon is rather related to a lifetime period and is defined by these authors as “one’s settled dispositions and […] one’s objective situation, which, together, make one’s life go well”. This is the type studied in this paper.

It is important to note that the definition of happiness has changed throughout history. Aristotle considered it as the essential objective of the human being (eudemonia), and it was understood as a morally correct life [Davies 2015; Salmela, Pessi & Tissari 2008]. Christianism brought about a radical shift. As a consequence of the original sin, happiness became available only in the afterlife, when the souls of believers came into contact with God [Salmela, Pessi & Tissari 2008; Bruckner 2002]. The Enlightenment restored happiness to its terrestrial condition, and it was once again considered as a fundamental goal in the life of a human being. A theory called Utilitarianism was born in the background of this intellectual movement. Its leading representatives, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, argued that the moral value of a political action depended on the degree of happiness it produced for people. Marar [2003, cited by Salmela, Pessi & Tissari 2008] states that since the Enlightenment we have moved “from morality and the idea of being good […] towards individual needs and feeling good”. It is not possible to finish this section without mentioning that happiness has also had a negative connotation through different periods and within different social groups. For example, Bruckner [2002: 63-68] states that happiness has been often related to emptiness since the 18th century, and that the participants of the 1968 protests in France associated happiness with niaiserie petite-bourgeoise (petty-bourgeois silliness) and consumerism. Anyway, this brief introduction allows us to see the relationship that exists between happiness and political action, and to understand to what extent this emotion can be ideologically loaded and represent much more than a pleasant feeling for the individual.

At the end of the 20th century, a new and very influential psychological trend was born. It has been named “positive psychology” and it is centered on the concept of happiness. This theory is presented in the following section.

1.2. Positive psychology

Martin Seligman, Professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and president of the American Psychological Association (APA), founded a new field of study, called “positive psychology” in the late 20th century. The aim of this new field of research is to understand the optimal human functioning in terms of happiness or psychological well-being1. Happiness is understood here in a very broad sense, manifesting itself in aspects such as a constant search for personal fulfillment, a positive attitude towards life, satisfaction, resilience, etc. According to this discipline, happiness can be measured scientifically and, more importantly, the skills related to each type of happiness can be learned. The possibility of emotions being learned is fundamental insofar as happiness does not depend on destiny or the circumstances that surround us, such as purchasing power, education, nationality, skin color, sexual orientation, gender, beauty, but essentially on ourselves [Lyubomirsky, Sheldon & Schkade 2005]. Thus, according to this theory, individuals have in themselves certain assets, which do not necessarily manifest spontaneously or consciously, but which can be identified and developed by the individual thanks to a positive attitude.

Positive psychology considers that happiness is a process. As Polley [2009: 231] points out, happiness embodies three different aspects within this process. In the first place, happiness is understood as a life goal and the result of an adequate way of thinking and acting. Secondly, happiness is also considered as the process itself, manifest in the constant positive attitude that the individual must develop to encourage their personal growth [Ryff 1996: 17]. Finally, one of the peculiarities of positive psychology is that happiness also constitutes a starting point. According to this theory, the causal link between success and happiness is understood in diametrical opposition to what we have done so far: it is not success that causes happiness, but rather happiness that enables success in very different domains (health, love, studies, work, family, etc.) [Cabanas and Illouz 127: 2018]. In fact, individuals are not happy because they have friends, but on the contrary, they have friends because they are happy (a happy individual will be more pleasant company than a miserable person). The same happens in other areas, such as the professional domain (a person with a positive attitude will find a better job than a depressed person) or even one’s health (negativity and stress contribute to the deterioration of physical well-being, while a positive attitude promotes health and cures illnesses). The crucial point of this conceptualization is that not only is happiness available to anyone, so is success.

For the reasons just outlined, we can conclude that happiness is not considered in this theoretical framework as something utopian, inaccessible, immoral, boring or related to petty-bourgeois conformism. On the contrary, happiness is considered as a set of heterogeneous and positive psychological states, which constitute a desirable and essential objective for the human being and then are the starting point of success. Happiness ultimately depends on individual will, and is available to anyone, provided that there is a proactive attitude to try to get it [Illouz & Cabanas 2018: 10]. According to their representatives, this new trend entailed a 180 degree turn in the field of psychology. Traditionally focused on individual’s weakness and the need to overcome mental illness and trauma, psychology now concentrated on human virtues, strengths and well-being, with the aim to construct a better person. However, despite this apparent rupture, it is important to point out that this scientific trend was built on certain existing ideas, such as utilitarianism, humanistic psychology or the psychology of adaptation. Furthermore, Illouz & Cabanas [2018: 28] claim that this trend is also strongly related to other movements of a more popular nature, such as the whole self-help culture. It is also important to point out that positive psychology has had a great influence in the field of psychology and among the general public. Its success was almost immediate and was due to the prestige of its major representatives, to the attention that this movement has aroused in different interest groups, and to the economic means available to them to develop and implement this theory.

1.3. Positive psychology: an ideology?

A growing number of voices have expressed their concern about the way in which this search for well-being has been transformed into an ideology. This concern is understandable if we consider the term ideology in the same way as Goatly [2007: 64], as “meaning in the service of power”. One of the essential reasons to describe positive psychology as an ideology is the implication that this theory has for people. The first consequence relates to people's responsibility for what happens to them. As I have pointed out previously, since happiness depends to a large extent on the psychological constitution of individuals and their attitude to life rather than on the circumstances surrounding their life, individuals become responsible not only for their emotions but also for their successes and failures. The second consequence is related to the responsibility of individuals relative to the common good. In fact, individual happiness is presented as a key requirement to maintain the economic, political and social health of a given community. For example, a positive employee (hard worker and committed to the company) contributes to the success of the business network in which he is immersed, while a depressed employee (not very energetic, often on sick leave) is likely to harm the company economically, and by extension, society. It is important to point out that the economic repercussions of citizens’ happiness are nowadays taken very seriously. Davies [2015: 9] cites the example of the United States, where the unhappiness of employees has been estimated as having an annual loss of 500 billion dollars. The fact of having positioned happiness as a key requirement for individual and collective success has contributed to its consideration as a moral imperative, and to the fact that negative emotions are perceived as moral faults. This line of thinking has been called ‘biomoral’ [Zupancic 2008; Spicer & Cedeström 2018] and brought us to the conclusion that positive psychology, like most trends in the self-help movement, is a victim-blaming approach [Barbara Ehrenreich 2009; Davies 2015; Illouz & Cabanas 2018; Spicer & Cedeström 2018].

These authors also argue that positive psychology is closely related to the neoliberal and capitalist values insofar as they present the structural deficits of contemporary societies, such as income redistribution, gender equality, access to health and food, etc. in terms of individual responsibility. The idea that emanates from this ideology is that there are no structural problems but individual deficiencies. It is important to emphasize that the relationship between neoliberalism and positive psychology is not virtual, but very concrete. By way of an example, David Cameron adopted some aspects of this theory as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom [Spicer & Cedeström 2018: 88-89]. He considered that a policy that had happiness as a horizon could substitute public spending to a certain extent, since it supported arguments justifying that the welfare state is not the engine of well-being, but rather a source of laziness for citizens and a brake on their personal fulfillment. In this regard, considering happiness as a political priority against other criteria (equality, freedom, etc.) provides justification to some of the most controversial tendencies of capitalism and neoliberalism. For example, Kelley & Evans [2017] stated that orienting economic policy towards equality and not towards economic growth is a serious mistake, because inequality has no effect on happiness in rich nations (in normal times) and that inequality could be a source of happiness in developing nations. This is because the greater the inequality, the higher the expectations of citizens’ progress. This political prioritization of well-being is equally expressed in the birth of new indicators of political success based on happiness, such as the World Happiness Report [see for example Helliwell, Layard & Sachs 2017], which tries to replace others kind of studies essentially based on economic data, such as GDP.

On the other hand, if we consider that positive psychology is an ideology, it is necessary to determine which interest groups benefit from it. First, this new theory opens a new field of scientific research. This allows researchers to publish articles and survive in an academic world dominated by the maxim “publish or perish”. This approach also benefits psychologists, since it puts at their disposal a new and huge niche of clients: people who do not have psychological problems, but who wish to “improve”. It also benefits a set of professions (coaches, editorial world of self-help, etc.) that are legitimized by the “supposedly” scientific character of this new psychological trend [Illouz & Cabanas 2018: 39-43]. Happiness has also become a vital issue for companies, which are interested in how to get the most out of their employees, fostering attitudes such as commitment, availability, flexibility, productivity, etc. Finally, politicians also benefit from this ideology, to the extent that this doctrine holds the individuals responsible for their situation and minimizes the negative consequences of the social policies implemented by the government.

It is important to bear in mind that the pressure to be happy constitutes only one more source of pressure among many others. Western citizens are saturated with information and are constantly placed at a crossroad of contradictory messages following different ideological, economic and political objectives and to which they must respond. This is the case, for example, of the relationship between body and health. In this area, individuals face their own desires (drinking a beer, eating a hamburger vs. feeling good about themselves and their appearance), the contradictory expectations of society (eating healthy, exercising, vs having fun, drinking alcohol), advertising messages (eating industrial food vs thinking that a perfect body is a normal body), and articles from women’s magazines (Accept yourself! vs. Lose weight!). The fundamental aspect that must be taken into account is that positive psychology has not been presented as another element of this set of opposing forces, but on the contrary, it has been introduced as the solution to all these pressures. In the same vein, the concept of happiness, key to this trend, is completely free of stigma, unlike other concepts such as individualism, which have a strong negative connotation [Cabanas 2019: 298]. The fact that positive psychology is characterized within the category of ‘solution’ allows its ideological character and consequences to be hidden and turns it into a particularly effective tool for spreading strong cultural and ideological values.

This section concludes by presenting some of the main criticisms that have been made against positive psychology. Spicer & Cedeström [2018: 148-149] denounce the consequences of this theory for individuals, such as a narcissistic drift, the permanent distress that results from being responsible for their fate, and the feeling of guilt that arises when the expected goals are not achieved. Another series of criticisms are related to the lack of scientific rigor of studies on positive psychology. This science is criticized for its religious roots, its great resemblance to the theories of self-help literature, its ethnocentric approach combined with universalist aspirations, the contradictions, tautologies and theoretical and methodological weaknesses of numerous studies, and even its therapeutic efficacy [Cabanas 2019: 300]. However, despite these criticisms, positive psychology has not ceased gaining influence, and has managed to counter the skepticism of its critics by portraying it as an example of retrograde negativity [Illouz & Cabanas 2018: 37]. The success of this psychological trend is extremely important insofar as the dissemination of psychological knowledge does not only contribute to describing human behavior, but also has the potential to build it [Medina Cárdenas 2019: 3].

2. Characteristics of the women’s press: the case of Cosmopolitan

The women’s press covers a large number of heterogeneous publications, which are essentially characterized by the desire to build a female audience around a particular gender identity [Blandin 2018: 107]. Unlike the news press, which focuses more on the darker impulses of our societies, the women’s press is characterized by privileging the positive aspects of human existence, such as beauty or pleasure. This does not imply that women’s magazines close the door to deeper issues [Soulier 2008: 189]. They adapt to social and political transformations in a desire for permanent modernity, and can sometimes contribute to spreading militant discourses, such as ones related to feminism [Blandin 2018: 120].

Women’s magazines have three essential functions: recreational, educational and coercive [Bruckner 2002: 83]. The recreational function relates the reading of this type of press to a moment of relaxation and pleasure [Soulier 2008: 197]. The educational function is related to the contents of the magazine, such as news reports, makeup techniques or articles about fashion and interior design. Finally, with regard to the coercive function, Eck & Blandin [2010: 15] argue that this type of publication constitutes a call for action. They encourage readers to take charge of their lives and undertake constant improvement on different levels, such as health, beauty or emotions. According to Bruckner [2002: 83], the women’s press transmits two contradictory messages. The first message is positive, and insists on the fact that beauty, health and pleasure are available to everyone if we do what is necessary to achieve them. The second message, which is negative, conveys the idea that those who do not make an effort will be the only ones responsible for their failure. As we have seen in the previous section, the responsibility of individuals for their own failure is closely related to neoliberal ideology and positive psychology.

Cosmopolitan magazine is part of the women’s press. Readers of Cosmopolitan are young liberated women [Blandin 2018: 112] belonging to the highest socio-cultural and socio-professional categories [Soulier 2008: 194]. The editorial line is characterized by a heteronormalized discourse, centered on beauty and sexual attraction, self-realization and personal success. According to authors such as Biscarrat [2013], Winship [1987: 122] or Conradie [2011: 402], these characteristics show how the magazine is embedded in neoliberal and capitalist logic.

3. Metaphor and persuasion

One of the modern theories of metaphor, in the field of cognitive linguistics, was presented by Lakoff and Johnson in 1980 in the book Metaphors we live by. This theory was revolutionary in the sense that it challenged some traditional theories of metaphor and, in particular, the idea that conventional language is literal. Lakoff and Johnson argued that metaphor is essential in the daily use of language and, in a more general way, that it is a fundamental element for the cognitive processes related to conceptualization. This theory is based on the basic idea that some conceptual areas (‘source domains’) serve as support to conceptualize other more abstract or complex areas (‘target domains’). A good example of this theory is the conceptual metaphor happy is up, which allows us to conceptualize and express emotions in spatial terms and manifests itself in metaphorical expressions such as “How to cheer someone up2” or “Matthew is in heaven”. Metaphors can be more or less conventional, that is to say, more or less settled in the linguistic usage of a given community of speakers. As Lakoff & Turner [1989] point out, a metaphor is conventional when it is treated cognitively automatically and effortlessly, and when it is a natural way of thinking and expressing a certain concept in a linguistic community. This is the case, for example, in the expression previously mentioned “to cheer someone up” to express the inducement of joy. However, Charteris-Black [2004: 17] mentions that it is important to highlight that conventional metaphors are paradoxically situated in a middle position between literal and metaphorical language, in that its diachronic evolution has shown that originally metaphoric expressions established over time as literal ones. For this reason, it is difficult to establish a clear boundary between literal and metaphorical uses of an expression. In this study we consider metaphorical expressions as such, regardless of their degree of conventionalization or vitality. This is based on the idea that ‘metaphor’ is not an absolute but rather a relative concept [Charteris-Black 2004: 20].

3.1. Happiness metaphors

In this section, the main metaphors that are used in different languages to express happiness, the cognitive model that has been used to analyze metaphors and the persuasive value of this figure of speech and thought will be exposed.

Given the preponderance of metaphorical language in emotional discourse, a large number of studies have been devoted to the metaphorical expression of happiness [Yu 1995; Kövecses 2000, 2008; Polley 2009; Stefanowitsch 2004; Adamizka 2011; Tissi 2008; Csillag 2016]. Some metaphorical patterns are particularly recurrent. One of the main metaphors to express happiness in different languages is the aforementioned happy is up. Another essential metaphor to represent happiness is happiness is a fluid in a container, instantiated in expressions like “to be full of joy”. Another recurrent metaphorical model is that related to the notion of transfer, which manifests itself in expressions such as “to share joy”. Other significant metaphors are those centered on the concept of ‘quest’, such as trying to achieve happiness is searching for happiness, instantiated in expressions such as “looking for happiness”. The conclusions of Stefanowitsch [2004: 144] regarding these metaphors are particularly interesting. He argues that American English speakers prefer a more active and dynamic view of this search, we can call it ‘pursuit mapping’, while German speakers prefer a less active and dynamic search, we can call it ‘search mapping’. He claims that these different representations have ideological roots. In the case of the United States, individuals are conceptualized as responsible for their well-being, implying an active and conscious approach to achieve it, whereas this is not exactly the same case in Germany. Two other relevant metaphors appear in the consulted studies: happiness is light, which is expressed in expressions such as “you are a sunshine”, and the process of trying to experience an emotion is a journey, which manifests itself in expressions such as “that is the only road to happiness”. As we will see in the results section, all these metaphors are present in the Cosmopolitan corpus, and have been categorized according to certain conceptual schemes that allow us to highlight their ideological charge.

3.2. The cognitive models of emotion

This study is based on two cognitive models of emotion that have been integrated into a single final model. The first of these models comes from Kövecses [2000, 2008]. According to him, there are prototypical cognitive patterns with which individuals of a certain linguistic and cultural community intuitively conceptualize emotions. The author presents the following model as the most schematic, which therefore allows very different emotions to be encompassed, and among them, happiness. This model represents an event in which a stimulus causes an emotion and this, in turn, leads to a particular bodily, mental or behavioral response.

Cause of emotion > emotion > (controlling emotion >) response

Our study adds another stage to this model, called ‘cognitive evaluation’. This stage refers to the cognitive analysis that the experiencer makes of the stimulus to which they are exposed, and which does not correspond to the concept of ‘controlling emotion’ proposed by Kövecses. As Ortony et al. [1988: 4-5] point out, emotion does not depend only on stimulus, but also on the evaluation process that the experiencer performs in response to it: a film (stimulus) does not cause the same result (emotion) to all spectators (experiencers), since the result depends on how the spectator interprets the movie. For this reason, I propose the following model of the popular conceptualization of emotion in the West:

Stimulus > cognitive evaluation > emotion > reaction

I agree with Kövecses to the extent that both this model and emotional metaphors are based on a force dynamics pattern [Talmy 2000]. Force dynamics is one of the fundamental categories in language structuring and organizing meaning. It has been presented by Talmy as a generalization of the traditional notion of causation and reflects the way in which different entities interact with respect to a given force. Force dynamics can be applied to very different areas, such as the physical one, as in the statement “the hut remained standing despite the storm”, in which the hut maintains its tendency to be upright despite the strength of the rain and the wind. It can also be instantiated in the psychological realm in an expression such as “Marina forced herself to speak”, in which Marina feels she has to speak against her will in response to certain (social) expectations. Finally, force dynamic interactions can also be emotional. It is the case of a statement such as “I cannot hate Pedro despite what he has done to me”. In this example, the subject is not capable of hating Pedro despite his desire to do so and/or despite the fact that this is the socially expected scenario in this type of situation. As we will see below, force dynamics is an essential concept in the metaphorical representation of happiness in the corpus.

The second model used to represent happiness is the ‘control cycle model’. According to Langacker [2009, 2013], it represents the very general conception of a cyclical process related to the will to take control over a certain event or entity. It is composed prototypically of four stages. The first stage is characterized by a homogeneous state. In the emotional domain it would be a primary emotional state, such as, for example, being calm. The second stage represents a stage of tension, because of the appearance of an element that disturbs the previous situation. It can be, for example, a comment that can be interpreted as a compliment. The third stage represents the interaction that will solve this tension through a process of force dynamics, which can take many different forms, more or less abstract. It can focus on the energetic process by which the stimulus causes a change in the experiencer (“his flattery made her happy”). It can also be a phenomenon of divided self [Talmy 2000] that happens when a situation of tension occurs within the same individual (“she could not stop herself from being happy about the flattery”). A final example may be one in which the experiencer manages to control the emotion (“she maintains optimism despite what happened”). The fourth stage of this model represents the result of this force dynamic interaction, characterized by representing the continuity of this new state. Figure 1 offers a diagram that summarizes the four phases of this cycle applied to the emotional event.

Figure 1: The control cycle

1 2 3 4

The control cycle model adapted to the emotional event [Gómez Vicente 2012: 2019] allows us to represent the many different ways in which the emotional event can be expressed according to the conceptualization of the speaker, both literally and metaphorically. For example, a metaphorical statement such as (1) presents wellbeing in a static way, essentially focusing on phase 1, i.e. a homogeneous initial state (or phase 4 if this state is presented as a result). On the other hand, a statement such as (2) focuses instead on phase 2, i.e. the tension phase. It highlights the stimulus (the useless thoughts that arise in the brain). Example (2) focuses also on phase 3, i.e. the force dynamics phase (the interaction between the ideas that are going to enter the brain and the strength of the individual to keep them out).

(1) Bien dans ma peau.3 Bronzage écru, tongs râpées, libido hors contrôle… La devise de Cosmo : plus on s’en fout, plus on rit ! [CO3]
  Comfortable in my own skin. Ecru tan, tatty thongs, libido out of control… Cosmos’s motto: the more we don’t care, the more fun it becomes.
(2) Apprendre à reconnaître les pensées inutiles et leur refuser l’accès à mon cerveau. [CO9]
  Find out how to recognize unnecessary thoughts and how to deny them the access to my brain.

I consider that this model of ‘emotional control cycle’ assimilates the essential phases described in the Kövecses model. For this reason, I will use this model as a schematic representation of the Western vision of the happiness event.

3.3 The persuasive value of metaphor

Metaphorical language is not neutral, but contributes to building, settling and reproducing social ideologies and practices [Goatly 2007: 25]. Conventional metaphors create ‘ready-made categories’, and the individual assimilates them as part of common sense without realizing the ideological weight they carry. For this reason, it is possible to conclude that metaphors not only have a linguistic and cognitive function but also a pragmatic one. The pragmatic function can often be related to a persuasive intention [Charteris-Black 2004: 10]. In this regard, Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) [Charteris-Black 2004] is particularly relevant for this work. It has two essential objectives: the first one consists in explaining the ideological motivations that are hidden in certain discursive practices that reflect and reinforce the structures of socio-political power; the second one is to propose modifications to these practices in order to benefit society.

I will end this section by saying that the relationship between metaphor, positive psychology and persuasion analyzed here is not necessarily the result of an involuntary process but can be a conscious alliance to achieve certain aims. The conscious nature of this relationship can be seen, for example, in the abstract of the following article “This Is Your Life! The Design of a Positive Psychology Intervention. Using Metaphor to Motivate”4:

“This Is Your Life” is a training aimed at personal growth, or “flourishing”, and is based on the science of positive psychology. The objective of this project was to create a design for a digital version of a book with theory and exercises about positive psychology. The target group for the digital version were primary school teachers. A user-centered design approach was used together with persuasive and gameful design frameworks. More specifically, a metaphorical design was used to motivate the target group to start using the training and to continue using and complete the training. Several metaphors were explored and tested with the target group. Finally, a working prototype of the digital training was developed and tested by the target user group. From this final test we found that the chosen metaphorical design indeed motivated people. [Ludden et al. 2014]

From my point of view, this type of document might validate the hypothesis that underlies this research, that is, that the use of metaphor in the discourse of positive psychology may be related to the intent to persuade.

4. Methodology

This study is based on the analysis of a corpus composed of 12 articles of the French version of Cosmopolitan magazine, belonging to the “Psycho” section (psychology section) and published between 2017 and 2018. Among the issues available in the library, only the articles that referred to happiness were selected.

Unlike other studies, I do not rely solely on metaphorical expressions in which a certain list of lexemes appears, such as “happiness”, “joy”, “well-being” or “fulfillment”. In this study, all the metaphors that are used to characterize the very general notion of happiness are analyzed. Metaphors were selected regardless of the particular realm to which this applies, such as the professional (3) or the psychological (4). The selected metaphors refer to different components of the emotional event, such as the way to achieve happiness (3, 4), the elements that help to achieve this objective (5) or, on the contrary, the obstacles that hinder it and how to overcome them (6):

(3) Pour avancer, il faut formuler les choses : on n’a aucune chance d’obtenir une augmentation si on ne la demande pas. [CO5]
  To move forward, you have to speak up: you have no chance of getting a raise if you do not ask for one.
(4) Le dépassement de soi commence par des petits pas. [CO5]
  The surpassing of oneself starts with small steps.
(5) […] il m’aide à dépasser mes limites. Victor représente une force motrice : il me prend par la main et me tire vers le haut [CO7]
  […] he helps me to go beyond my limits. Victor represents a driving force: he takes me by the hand and gives me a boost.
(6) Donc on apprivoise la source du stress plutôt que de la fuir. [CO1]
  So, we tame the source of stress rather than fleeing it.

Since there were no metaphorical terms defined in advance, the identification of metaphors was done manually. Specifically, the collection of metaphors was carried out according to the CDA method [Charteris-Black 2004). The first step was to collect examples of linguistic metaphors for happiness. The second step consisted in the classification and qualitative analysis of these metaphors in order to establish particularly salient conceptual schemes. Finally, thought patterns underlying these schemes were established.

5. Results and discussion

Thanks to a qualitative analysis of the corpus, it has been found that two concepts are particularly salient in the metaphorical representation of well-being: the concept of ‘limit’ and the concept of ‘force’. On the one hand, the concept of force refers to the representation of the emotional event in terms of force dynamics (the pressure exerted by society on the individuals, the individuals who fight against their drives or thoughts, the individuals who fight against this pressure in order to be happy, etc.). On the other hand, the concept of limit is understood as a cognitive construction used to delimit different spaces related to the individual’s happiness. This study is therefore based on the metaphors of happiness related to these two notions. Six main metaphoric schemes have been found, organized according to the notion of limit. As we can see, each of those schemes is also related to the notion of force. These six schemes are presented in the following subsections.

5.1 The internal space of the individual is divided into two spaces: ‘bottom’ / ‘surface’

This scheme divides the internal space of individuals according to a criterion of depth. Individuals are conceptualized as containers. The entities placed in the bottom represent aspects that are unknown, forgotten or dismissed by individuals, and that they cannot therefore control. This is the case of a part of an individual that has been neglected (7), of questions that someone has not faced (8), of abandoned projects (9) or of true desires of people (10). It is interesting to note that this is the only scheme of our corpus in which individuals rarely take part in a force dynamics interaction. This is clearly explained by the fact that the essential feature of this scheme is the inaccessibility of this space for them. However, it is important to note that individuals can mentally access these elements if efforts have been made. This is the case of (10), in which people must try to decipher their authentic desires despite the difficulty represented by the immediacy of the internet. In this case, the force dynamic interaction is particularly obvious thanks to the expression “ne doit pas nous empêcher” (“should not prevent you”). Finally, these hidden elements are usually positive aspects, and are related in some way to the ‘authentic’ part of the self. As we will see later, the search for the most authentic (and best) part of the individual is fundamental in the imagery of positive psychology.

(7) Mon bilan fait ressurgir ma partie créative, enfouie. [CO5]
  My skill assessment makes my buried creative part ‘crop up’.
(8) […] les questions longtemps enfouies refont surface : qui suis-je vraiment ? [CO11]
  [...] long-buried questions are resurfacing: who am I really?
(9) Mes projets avortés refont surface. […] [CO11]
  My failed projects are resurfacing. […]
(10) L’instantanéité d’Internet ne doit pas nous empêcher de nous questionner sur notre désir profond. [CO10]
  The immediacy of the Internet should not prevent us from questioning ourselves about our deep desire.

5.2. The internal space of the individual is divided into two spaces: ‘center’ / ‘periphery’

This scheme also separates the internal space of individuals, but this time according to a criterion of centrality. In this scheme the center is synonymous with essential aspects to achieve well-being, such as pleasure (11), priorities (12), humanity (13), or individuals themselves (14). On the contrary, the periphery is synonymous with superficial aspects of life, which do not help in the search for happiness. In this scheme, individuals must “concentrate”, “refocus” (11, 12), stop spreading themselves (14) or put the essential aspects of life in the center (13). The participation of individuals in the force dynamic interaction is very obvious and manifests itself in linguistic aspects such as the imperative mood (11), the middle voice construction (12)5, expressions such as “se sentir obligé” (“feel obliged”) (13) or modal verbs such as “falloir” (“have to”) (14).

These linguistic aspects highlight the injunction exerted on individuals to achieve a state of well-being. The ‘tips’ or ‘calls to action’ of the magazine also highlight the prescriptive values of this journalistic medium in terms of social behavior, as well as its connection with the positive psychology ideology. Finally, the metaphors belonging to this scheme show a pronounced individualism, since it is understood that happiness is obtained thanks to the focus of individuals on their own interests and well-being. The fact of presenting well-being in individual and non-collective terms makes it possible to relate Cosmopolitan’s discourse not only to positive psychology but also to neoliberalism.

(11) Concentrez-vous sur votre plaisir, et pas sur un objectif, qui a tendance à être culpabilisant quand on ne l’atteint pas. [CO1]
  Concentrate on your pleasure, not on a goal, which tends to lead to guilt when it is not reached.
(12) […] le chemin vers la détox digitale pour prioriser, se concentrer, se recentrer. [CO12]
  [...] the path towards digital detox to prioritize, focus, refocus.
(13) On ne se sent plus obligée de ressembler à telle ou telle personne en achetant la même paire de Nike […]. À la place, on remet au centre ce qu’il y a de plus essentiel, l’humain. [CO10]
  We do not feel obliged any longer to look like this or that person by buying the same pair of Nike [...]. Instead, we bring back to the center what is most essential, the human.
(14) Vous le savez : il va falloir faire des pauses dans votre course folle, prendre le temps de vous concentrer sur vous, arrêter de vous disperser pour pouvoir enfin recharger les batteries en profondeur. [CO11]
  You know it: you will have to take breaks in your crazy race, take the time to focus on yourself, stop spreading yourself to finally deeply recharge the batteries.

The metaphors that underlie these schemes are not new; on the contrary, they are related to the prototypical metaphors of emotions, such as people are containers. The important thing is that this study highlights the relationship that these metaphors, organized under conceptual schemes, can have with a certain ideology in a particular context.

5.3. The internal and the external space of the individual are separated: ‘inside’ / ‘outside’

This scheme is particularly recurrent in the corpus. Individuals are characterized as containers. The container layout delimits the internal and the external space of individuals. To achieve happiness, the positive elements must be placed in the inside space and the negative elements in the outside one. Bringing or maintaining the positive aspects within individuals is important insofar as this internal space is subject to a condition of ‘emptiness’ (15-17). The existential void must be actively filled by individuals, as it is possible to see in the expression “on a sans cesse besoin de” (“we constantly need to”) (15) and in the verb “essayer” (“try”) (16), which show the force dynamic interaction in which individuals participate.

(15) […] Et tout ça, renforcé par une société qui érige la consommation en loisir essentiel. Et la possession, en clé du bonheur. On se piège parce qu’on a sans cesse besoin de combler le vide. [CO 10]
  [...] And all this, reinforced by a society that makes consumption the essential leisure. And possession, the key to happiness. We are trapped because we constantly need to fill the void.
(16) Il n’y a rien de plus angoissant que d’être mal sans savoir vraiment pourquoi. La rumination donne un support, un sujet. Car nous essayons tous de remplir une faille. [CO9]
  There is nothing more distressing than being hurt without really knowing why. Rumination gives support, a subject. Because we are all trying to fill a gap.
(17) Plutôt que de se précipiter pour combler le vide et la peur (naturelle) de la solitude, on prend son temps. [CO1]
  Rather than rushing to fill the emptiness and (natural) fear of loneliness, we take our time.

Sometimes the emotional event is expressed as a homogeneous state devoid of force dynamics, which corresponds to the static phases of the control cycle model. The following examples present situations in which individuals have positive elements inside them, such as energy (18), ideas (19) or projects (20), which participate in the attainment of well-being.

(18) Moi qui suis pleine d’énergie d’habitude, je suis crevée, irascible avec mes proches […] [CO11]
  I am usually full of energy, but now I am exhausted, irascible with my relatives [...]
(19) J’ai plein d’idées et d’envies pour la suite. Il suffisait de leur faire une petite place pour qu’elles germent. [CO11]
  I have lots of ideas and desires for the future. It was enough to give them a small place to germinate.
(20) Avoir un vrai projet en tête, ça change tout ! [CO8]
  Having a real project in mind, it changes everything!

However, the statements in which force dynamics are present are much more recurrent in our corpus. In this scheme, numerous metaphors present a participant who exerts a force in order to fill the gap with positive things (15-17), to preserve the positive elements in the interior (21), to feel a certain resistance to the irruption of an emotion (22), or even to put the positive aspects that are initially within the participant in a suitable place (23).

(21) Garder de l’humour et une certaine distance, c’est essentiel, mais pas toujours facile. [CO1]
  Keeping a sense of humor and distance is essential, but not always easy.
(22) Puis je m’offre l’ensemble survêt (…), et ça me donne envie de le rentabiliser. Rien que de le regarder chez moi, l’énergie m’envahit. [CO5]
  Then I offer to myself the overall tracksuit (…) and I want to make it worthwhile. Watching it at home and the energy invades me.
(23) Aujourd’hui, j’ai changé de cabinet, avec un meilleur poste, mais pour moi c’est un tremplin vers une activité qui me conviendra davantage : monter ma propre boîte, et mettre mes compétences au service d’une activité qui me passionne. [CO5]
  Today, I changed my law firm. I now have a better position, but for me it is a stepping-stone to an activity that will suit me better: to set up my own business, and to put my skills to the service of an activity I am passionate about.

Many metaphors indicating that negative aspects must be located outside individuals also appear in the corpus. Individuals must make a classification to decide what should be placed inside or outside (24), take the negative elements out (25-27), or face certain negative stimuli and emotions (28, 29). Individual may exceptionally preserve the negative aspects in the interior, but only if this procedure is aimed to control this emotion (30). Force dynamic interaction is again persistent in this metaphorical scheme, and is performed thanks to the lexical nature of terms such as “se libérer” (“free oneself”) (25), “rester” (“stay”) (26), “évacuer” (“evacuate”) (27), “être capable” (“be able”), “envahir” (“invade”) (28) or “apprivoiser” (“tame”) (30), and also thanks to reflexive (25) or transitive constructions6 (28-30). These linguistic elements represent the external, internal and internalized pressures that the individual receives in order to manage emotions and be happy.

(24) Je m’allonge, je prends mes idées une par une et je fais le tri. [CO9]
  I lie down, take my ideas one by one and sort them out.
(25) Se libérer d’une mauvaise habitude n’est pas qu’une question de volonté […] [CO1]
  To free oneself from a bad habit is not only a matter of will […]
(26) […] pourquoi ne pas lister ce qu’on veut faire et tester ? En amateur et sans pressions. […] Mais on ne reste pas avec des regrets. [CO5]
  […] why not list what we want to do and test it? As an amateur and without pressure. […] But we do not stay with regrets.
(27) Le soir, on note ce qui nous a pollués dans la journée, pour évacuer, puis on se remémore ce qui nous a fait plaisir. [CO5]
  In the evening, we write down what contaminated us during the day, in order to evacuate it, and then we remember what made us happy.
(28) Ça contient la preuve de ce qu’on peut faire avec ses mains, et la preuve aussi qu’on est non seulement capable de s’évader des tourments qui nous envahissent, mais qu’ils peuvent aussi nourrir notre créativité. [CO4]
  It contains the proof of what one can do with one’s hands, and the proof that one is not only able to escape the torments that invade us, but that they can also nourish our creativity.
(29) […] les effets de la méditation et du yoga se font sentir : le flot de pensées qui m’assaillaient se calme progressivement. [CO11]
  [...] the effects of meditation and yoga make themselves felt: the flow of thoughts that assailed me is gradually calming down.
(30) Donc on apprivoise la source du stress plutôt que de la fuir. [CO1]
  So, we tame the source of stress rather than fleeing it.

This scheme is interesting insofar as it represents individuals as active participants in their own emotions, a kind of ‘emotional managers’. Individuals must fill the existential void, which appears as inherent to being human, with positive experiences, emotions and attitudes. At the same time, they have to remove the negative aspects from their existence. The linguistic elements indicating the force dynamic interaction show proactive individuals, emotionally involved in a constant situation of emotional tension and therefore constantly situated in phase 3 of the control cycle model. The introspection and continuous management of their emotional state places them equally within the logic of positive psychology and contributes to the idea of individuals as responsible for their own well-being, their successes and also their emotional and life failure.

5.4. The individual is separated into two different entities: ‘the divided self’

This scheme presents individuals as dual beings, constituted by two different versions, i.e. a version of individuals that is true and authentic as opposed to another one that is less so. The mission of individuals is to ‘find’ (31) or ‘discover’ (34) the authentic version of themselves, which is considered the best by default. For this reason, the authentic part of individuals must be celebrated (32) or at least accepted as strength (33). On the other hand, this authentic version of the self is only available to the individual and must be conceived outside any external influence (34, 35). The existential question that underlies this scheme is not so much “what I want to be”, but rather “who I really am”. This implies that the answer to existential questions is not found outside (friends, society, teachers, etc.) but in the individuals themselves.

On the other hand, it is important to underline the importance of the notion of vision in this scheme (33-35). This notion is relevant to the extent that the advice offered in the magazine does not seek to change reality, but rather the individual’s perception of reality. This type of attitude corresponds to the precepts of positive psychology, which consider that the important thing is to concentrate on what we can change, i.e. our thoughts, emotions and attitudes, rather than the circumstances that surround us. Needless to say, this type of guidance is very beneficial for companies or the political system, insofar as individuals are advised to divert their gaze from everything that does not work and concentrate on themselves. On the other hand, it is important to specify that force dynamics are also present in this scheme, with lexical resources such as the verb “rompre” (“break”) (32), the noun “force” (33), and also with reflexive constructions such as “s’accepter” (“accept oneself”) or “se detacher” (“detach oneself”) (33, 35), which are particularly pervasive. I agree with Marquis [2014: 153] on the idea that the subject and complement pronouns which appear in reflexive constructions in this type of discourse refer to two different entities. In effect, this scheme often represents a confrontation between two different versions of individuals. One version is encoded by the subject pronoun and is the one that seeks authenticity. The other version, encoded by the complement, is the authentic and ideal version of individuals and must be celebrated, accepted, found or discovered.

(31) Je suis partie au bout du monde pour me trouver [CO8]
  I went to the end of the world to find myself
(32) Il ne s’agit pas de célébrer l’obésité ou l’anorexie, mais de rompre avec un regard stéréotypé sur la beauté, et de célébrer la personne que vous êtes. [CO6]
  It’s not about celebrating obesity or anorexia, but breaking with a stereotypical look at beauty, and celebrating the person you are.
(33) En fait, ce n’est pas la timidité qui devient une force… C’est la façon dont nous considérons ce trait de personnalité. La véritable force de Myriam, c’est de s’accepter telle qu’elle est. [CO7]
  In fact, it’s not shyness that becomes a force... It’s the way we look at this personality trait. Myriam’s real strength is to accept herself as she is.
(34) Cette période donne l’opportunité de se découvrir soi-même, sans le regard de l’autre. [CO1]
  This period gives the opportunity to discover oneself without the gaze of the other.
(35) […] on se regarde avec bienveillance, bref, on apprend à se détacher du regard que les autres portent sur nous, pour ne dépendre que du nôtre [regard]. [CO1]
  [...] we look at ourselves with kindness; in short, we learn to detach ourselves from the gaze that others have on us, to depend only on ours [gaze].

This scheme clearly highlights the internal struggle of individuals in their search for happiness in the psychological discourse of Cosmopolitan magazine.

5.5. Division of the individual’s social space: ‘positive people are inside’ / ‘negative people are outside’

This scheme also presents an inside/outside conceptualization, but the boundaries do not correspond anymore to the layout of individuals’ body. People who contribute to well-being must be situated in the domain of individuals. Cohabitation in this inner space is expressed by the metaphor of physical contact between the individual and these people. This explains why these people can support the individual (36) or shake hands (37-38). It is interesting to note that, as Medina Cárdenas [2019: 8] maintains, the discourse of positive psychology claims the importance of the individual but also insists on the need of other people. However, these people are often mostly defined as sources of benefit to the individual, which contribute to reinforcing individualism more than peer interaction. In the examples below, people are not valued because of the emotions that they seek as human beings, but because of the help they can provide to achieve the individual’s own goals. It is interesting to note that these help-humans are a source of driving energy in terms of force dynamics: “soutenir” (“support”) (36), “dépasser” (“go beyond”), “force motrice” (“driving force”), “tirer vers le haut” (“give a boost”) (37) “tendre la main” (“reach out”) or “avancer” (“progress”) (38).

(36) Heureusement, mon copain me soutient. [CO8]
  Fortunately, my boyfriend supports me.
(37) Je ne dis pas que j’existe grâce ou à travers lui. Simplement qu’il m’aide à dépasser mes limites. Victor représente une force motrice : il me prend par la main et me tire vers le haut. [CO7]
  I do not say that I exist thanks to or through him. He just helps me to go beyond my limits. Victor represents a driving force: he takes me by the hand and gives me a boost.
(38) Mais avoir une force de caractère ne signifie pas se construire une armure, ou aboyer « bas les pattes, je me débrouille toute seule » dès que quelqu’un nous tend la main. Ça, ça s’appelle de l’orgueil, et avec lui, on n’avance jamais loin. [CO7]
  But having strength of character does not mean building an armor, or barking “leave me alone, I can manage myself” as soon as someone reaches out to us. That’s called pride, and with it, we never progress far.

In parallel, there are multiple utterances in the corpus expressing the idea of moving away from negative people. Two metaphorical source domains are particularly important. The first one is war. Individuals must ‘free themselves’ from an ‘invading’ family (39), must use strategies such as ‘burning bridges’ (40) and defending themselves in a ‘hostile’ environment (41). This implies the consideration of others as potential enemies in the struggle for well-being. The second important source domain is cleansing. Friends who bring negative emotions to individuals, such as guilt (42) or the inability to develop their most authentic self (43), deserve to be eliminated in a cleansing process. In the same way, people who feel negative emotions, such as dwelling on negative issues, must be eliminated from their domain and this even if the individual also possesses this trait (44). Needless to say, both the war process and the cleansing process entail a significant involvement of individuals in these tasks and highlight the force dynamics interaction.

(39) Libérée d’une famille envahissante ? [CO1]
  Released from an invasive family?
(40) En coupant les ponts avec ma mère, je pensais être enfin capable d’entreprendre sans qu’elle me juge sans arrêt. [CO1]
  By burning my bridges with my mother, I thought I was finally able to undertake without her judging me constantly.
(41) […] force qui me sauve à de nombreuses reprises. Quand je me sens dans un environnement « hostile », je prends le temps de mettre en forme mon discours avant d’entrer dans le débat [CO7]
  [...] force that saves me many times. When I feel I am in a “hostile” environment, I take the time to format my speech before entering the debate
(42) Les amis, les vrais, ne nous feront jamais culpabiliser. Dans les cas contraires, il suffit de trente secondes pour faire « contact » « delete » et nettoyer le répertoire. [CO10]
  Friends, real ones, will never make us feel guilty. Otherwise, it only takes thirty seconds to click on “contact” “delete” and clean up the contact list.
(43) Côté relationnel, là aussi, on fait le ménage et on refuse le désordre causé par les autres. Ras le bol de tordre notre personnalité et de zapper nos envies [CO10]
  On the relational side, too, we do the housework and we refuse the disorder caused by others. We get sick of twisting our personalities and curbing our own desires.
(44) Éviter de m’entourer des gens comme moi. Plus on est de ruminants, plus on rumine. [CO9]
  Avoid surrounding myself with people like me. The more ruminants we are, the more we ruminate.

It is important to note that getting away from negative people is a leitmotiv in discourses inspired by positive psychology. These types of messages encourage loneliness and lack of empathy and convey a warning: “smile and be agreeable […] or prepare yourself to be ostracized” [Ehrenreich 2009: 55].

5.6. From the comfort zone to the happiness zone: the path scheme

This scheme implies that there is a spatial domain in which each individual is located, and which is different from the space in which happiness is situated. The individual must therefore move from one to another in order to achieve well-being. This type of metaphorical construction of happiness corresponds to the pervasive metaphorical (multimodal) expression “step outside your comfort zone” (Figure 2). The ‘comfort zone’ is the domain in which each individual is situated. This domain is separated from the space where the necessary resources to be happy are located (“where the magic happens”). Paradoxically, individuals must leave the area in which they feel good to look for what will lead them to true happiness.

Figure 2: the comfort zone [oklanica 2012]


In the corpus, the elements that lead to happiness are usually outside the domain of individuals and therefore are not within their reach (45, 46). Individuals and the conditions to be happy are in the same domain in only one case in our corpus. The requirements to be happy have been reached with great effort but strangely enough this does not imply that happiness has been reached (47).

(45) Parce que vous n’êtes pas assez qualifiée, parce qu’il n’y a pas d’opportunités à saisir. [CO8]
  Because you are not qualified enough, because there are no opportunities to seize.
(46) Le courage, ce sont les efforts que l’on fournit au quotidien pour atteindre notre désir. [CO7]
  Courage is the effort we provide on a daily basis to reach our desire.
(47) À la clef un poste de responsable webmarketing avec un gros salaire où je ne compte plus mes heures. J’ai enfin atteint ce pour quoi je me suis préparée toute ma vie, et pourtant, mon moral est au même niveau que mon envie d’aller bosser : à zéro. [CO8]
  At stake is a job as a web marketing manager with a big salary where I do not count my hours. I have finally reached what I have been preparing for all my life, and yet, my mood is at the same level as my desire to go to work: zero.

Since the goal promoted by Cosmopolitan is a constant improvement of individuals’ life and their self, being motionless is considered a negative situation. Immobility is represented as a situation of tension in which individuals face a force that prevents them from moving (48-52). It is also interesting to note the creativity of some metaphors, which adds a humorous aspect to this conceptualization (51, 52). In any case, the solution to immobility is to start moving (53, 54) and thus move as far as possible (55-56) in the right direction (57-60), which can sometimes resemble a search (61).

(48) Je suis coincée, sortez-moi de là ! [CO8]
  I’m stuck, get me out of here!
(49) Neuf fois sur dix, ça permet de réaliser qu’on a tous les mêmes freins. [CO5]
  Nine times out of ten, it helps you realize that we all have the same brakes.
(50) être dans l’action, même si elle est minuscule, pour ne pas se laisser paralyser. [CO9]
  to be in action, even if it is tiny, in order to stop yourself from being paralyzed.
(51) À croire que le monde entier s’est mué en clone de Gisele Bûndchen. Sauf moi, bloquée devant mon bol de Smacks Choco en matant « Phénomène Raven » le dimanche. [CO2]
  One would think that the whole world has become a clone of Gisele Bûndchen. Except me, stuck in front of my bowl of Choco Smacks while watching “Raven Phenomenon” on Sunday.
(52) C’est comme si vous étiez bloquée dans la saison 1 d’une bonne série. [CO8]
  It’s like you’re stuck in Season 1 of a good series.
(53) Mode d’emploi pour un nouveau départ. [CO1]
  Instructions for a new start.
(54) Démarrer du bon pied le matin en évitant par exemple les tristes nouvelles qui vont donner le ton pour le reste de la journée. [CO9]
  Get off to a good start in the morning by avoiding, for example, the sad news that will set the tone for the rest of the day.
(55) Pour avancer, il faut formuler les choses : on n’a aucune chance d’obtenir une augmentation si on ne la demande pas. [CO5]
  To move forward, you have to speak up: you have no chance of getting a raise if you do not ask for it.
(56) Ça me donne envie d’aller plus loin et je commence un travail avec une coach, sans but réel. [CO5]
  It makes me want to go further and I am starting a job with a coach, without real purpose.
(57) […] pour faire reconnaître ses acquis, se perfectionner ou se réorienter… [CO8]
  [...] with the goal of recognizing one’s achievements, improving oneself or reorienting oneself ...
(58) Et si je m’étais trompée de voie ? [CO8]
  What if I’m not on the right track?
(59) J’ai suivi mon feeling [CO8]
  I followed my intuition
(60) […] une force évolue avec le temps. Elle peut grandir ou s’étioler. Tout dépend des directions que l’on choisit. [CO7]
  [...] a force evolves with time. It can grow or wither. It all depends on the direction you choose.
(61) Se prendre en main. Psychothérapie, hypnose, sophrologie, tout est bon à tenter et il faut parfois tester plusieurs solutions pour trouver la bonne. Mais quoi qu’il arrive, je me bouge car c’est en marchant qu’on avance. [CO9]
  Take charge. Psychotherapy, hypnosis, sophrology, anything is good to try and sometimes you have to test several solutions to find the right one. But whatever happens, I progress because it is in taking a step forward that we move on.

The metaphors of this scheme essentially focus on the fact of moving on, i.e. the process, but the arrival, is never represented. This is consistent with considering well-being as a continuous process, but perhaps it would be worth asking if the type of happiness proposed by this theory is not a never-ending road.


The first conclusion is that metaphor is a very pervasive resource in the Cosmopolitan discourse of happiness. Metaphors are used to represent very different aspects of the emotional event such as the steps to achieve happiness or the obstacles that impede its achievement.

This study has been based on the Critical Metaphor Analysis methodology. The metaphors in the corpus have been analyzed in order to find underlying thought patterns. I have detected two particularly salient concepts. The first concept is limit, i.e. the cognitive boundaries that define different spaces related to the participant involved in the emotional event. This concept has been selected as a starting point for the categorization of the metaphors present in the corpus7. Happiness metaphors have been categorized through six conceptual schemes organized around the concept of limit. The first three schemes are characterized by representing individuals as recipients. The ‘bottom/surface’ scheme delimits the individuals’ interior space in two zones according to the criterion of depth. The elements situated at the bottom correspond to the unconscious and therefore unmanageable aspects of individuals. However, with effort, these elements can be reached and thus managed by individuals. The ‘center/periphery’ scheme also divides the interior space of individuals into two zones, but this time according to the criterion of centrality. In this scheme, the essential elements for a happy life are located in the center. The elements located in the periphery are characterized by their superficiality. These two schemes show that happiness requires hard, conscious and constant work. The ‘inside / outside’ scheme separates the inner space of individuals (conceptualized as a container) from their outer space. In order to achieve happiness, positive elements must be placed on the inside and negative aspects on the outside. This scheme shows that individuals who manage their emotions are in a constant state of tension. The fourth scheme is called ‘divided self’. Individuals are divided into two different versions of themselves that cohabit in the same body, i.e. the authentic one and the other one. In order to reach well-being, the less authentic part of the self (often encoded as the subject) must work to discover and develop the most authentic version of the self (often encoded as the object). This scheme conveys the idea that the vital quest of individuals is about themselves, which can be seen as an individualistic message. The fifth limit is related to individuals’ social space. In this scheme, positive people must be placed in the individual domain, since these people are sources of help in the attainment of happiness. On the contrary, negative persons, often conceptualized metaphorically as enemies or as mess / dirt, must be kept outside the individual domain, since they are an obstacle to one’s well-being. The sixth and last scheme is related to the notion of path. In this scheme, individuals are located in a particular domain, whereas happiness is located in a different one. Individuals must therefore move from where they are towards the happiness location, walking on a path that resembles an endless road where happiness is never reached.

I consider that the concept of ‘limit’ here echoes the call to manage the different aspects of individuals’ life in order to achieve happiness. To this end, individuals must categorize the different situations, emotions and aspects of their life, and must manipulate them to obtain well-being (placing essential things in the center or positioning negative people outside). The second of these concepts is ‘force’ and it is omnipresent in each of the schemes. According to this analysis, the linguistic expressions related to ‘force’ are instances of the force dynamics notion, which is inherent to the emotional event. From an ideological point of view, these expressions reveal the tension to which individuals are exposed in their quest for happiness. If we take into account the theoretical model proposed for the representation of emotions, individuals involved in the emotional process are predominantly in phase 3 of the control cycle, i.e. the phase of force dynamics interaction. Individuals are therefore continuously in a situation in which various forces interact, such as deep longings / immediate desires, expectations / the actual situation or also the confrontation between the alleged strengths of individuals and their weaknesses. Obviously, it is not a serene vision of this emotion, and it can be the reflection of a society in emotional distress.

The association of the happiness metaphors found in Cosmopolitan magazine with the concepts of ‘force’ and ‘limit’, as well as their categorization in the previously detailed schemes, make it possible to highlight the ideological dimension of these metaphors. The result of our analysis allows us to claim that the metaphorical representation of happiness offered by Cosmopolitan in its psychology section perfectly corresponds to the foundations of positive psychology, and by extension, to neoliberal ideology:

  • The human beings have inner strengths they might develop, in spite of their circumstances.
  • The key to happiness and success is in ourselves and is therefore available to everyone.
  • Success or failure is the responsibility of each individual.
  • The quest for happiness is a continuous, conscious and individual process.
  • To be happy, individuals should not be concerned with changing the world, but rather with the vision they have of their world and themselves.

Furthermore, it is important to point out that these schemes perfectly embody the new coercive strategies of our society. Illouz & Cabanas [2018: 24] argue that the ideology of happiness has brought with it a new notion of citizenship, accompanied by new coercive strategies. They consider that society is in a new Orwellian phase of control, in which the physical borders have partially disappeared and have become diffuse and invisible limits. A good example of this idea would be the concept of professional vocation, which is conceived as a source of personal fulfillment and success. Vocational professionals do not count the time devoted to work. In addition, their mobile phone and computer contribute towards blurring the temporal and physical boundaries between professional and personal time. The vocational professional responds to the standards that have been established in the company and in society, but which have been assimilated as their own criteria to judge happiness and success. By doing this, the individual becomes the guardian of their own prison. However, the happiness paradigm is sporadically challenged by some groups of individuals. That’s the case of overweight people who said they are at ease with their bodies, but who fail to detach themselves completely from these standards. Escaping the grip of this ideology is particularly complicated [Spicer & Cedeström 2018: 148].

It is particularly important to define the role of cognitive metaphor in the psychological discourse of Cosmopolitan magazine. Firstly, metaphors have a cognitive role, because they allow the readers to understand an abstract concept, such as emotion, thanks to other more concrete domains, such as space. The fact of presenting happiness metaphorically as a tangible or concrete object favors the conceptualization of this emotion as a truly attainable goal. This can help reinforce the idea that happiness is accessible to everyone, and thus contribute to the persuasion process. Secondly, cognitive metaphors also have a linguistic role, insofar as metaphorical expressions are part of the communication system. Thirdly, metaphors have a pragmatic role. Concretely, I affirm that metaphor is a persuasive tool in the different discourses that emanate from positive psychology, as it is the case of the psychological discourse in Cosmopolitan magazine. This is possible insofar as such a motif is capable of constructing and reproducing patterns of thought without its ideological load being perceived. In this sense, conventional metaphors contribute to the acceptance of this ideology to the extent that they go unnoticed and they are part of the natural way of thinking about happiness. On the other hand, creative metaphors exert a stronger impact on the reader. Creativity in metaphors can be put to the service of humor. The humorous nature of metaphors contributes to blurring its ideological load even more.

If the psychological discourse on happiness of Cosmopolitan magazine is not assimilated by the reader as an ideological and political message, this does not depend solely on metaphor. Other characteristics of this discourse make it possible to hide its ideological character, such as the type of format, i.e. a women’s lifestyle magazine, whose message is imagined as apolitical. The term that is selected to describe individuals’ life purpose is also essential. The term happiness seems innocuous and apolitical, compared to other terms such as individualism. Finally, the presence of paradoxical injunctions disguised as ‘tips’ or ‘solutions’ also contributes to hiding their prescriptive nature.

To conclude, we will argue that Cosmopolitan magazine can be considered as a product belonging to the happiness industry, which contributes to the widespread dissemination of the (neoliberal) message of positive psychology. At the same time, Cosmopolitan magazine benefits from this ideology, since its sales depend in part on offering consumers a generous range of merchandise to accompany a continuous improvement of themselves [Illouz 2019]. This message is not limited to enabling fleeting pleasurable moments but encourages a specific lifestyle according to a particular ideology [Cabanas 2019: 328] that promotes, among other attitudes, the abandonment of critical thinking [Ehrenreich 2009: 199] and a greater conformism [Cabanas & Illouz 2018: 220].

1 The terms happiness and well-being are used in the framework of positive psychology indistinctly, as synonyms [Jiménez 2011: 622].

2 Underlined type is used to draw attention to metaphorical happiness utterances.

3 The original examples have been found in French. The translation below each example is my own.

4 I added the emphasis (in bold).

5 Middle voice construction allows placing the individual in an active and a passive role [Maldonado 2008; Gómez Vicente 2013].

6 According to Langacker [2009; 2013], transitive and reflexive constructions are characterized by highlighting energy transfer (physical, mental

7 Some other metaphorical expressions, related to particular source domains such as health or religion, were found. Despite their interest, they have



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Corpus (in chronological order)

[CO1] Schmidt Fiona, 2017, « Enfin libre ! », Cosmopolitan, 519, January 2017, 132-134.

[CO2] Billaud Sophie, 2017, « Lâchez-moi avec le bien-être ! », Cosmopolitan, 520, February 2017, 76-79.

[CO3] Schmidt Fiona, 2017, « Bien dans ma peau », Cosmopolitan, 526, August 2017, 93-96.

[CO4] Szulzinger Chloé, « Fière de moi », Cosmopolitan, 528, October 2017, 120-122.

[CO5] Szulzinger Chloé, 2018, « Rêvez, osez, foncez ! », Cosmopolitan, 532, February 2018, 63-66.

[CO6] Billaud Sophie, 2018, « Le body positivism, c’est quoi ? », Cosmopolitan, 534, April 2018, 106-107.

[CO7] Pibouleau Manon, 2018, « Ça, c’est ma force », Cosmopolitan, 534, April 2018, 102-104.

[CO8] Plancoulaine Chloé, « Je suis coincée, sortez-moi de là ! », Cosmopolitan, 535, May 2018, 128-131.

[CO9] Prothery Louise, 2018, « Je pense trop », Cosmopolitan, 536, June 2018, 114-117.

[CO10] Pibouleau Manon, 2018, « Moins de superflu, plus de légèreté », Cosmopolitan, 536, June 2018, 109-112.

[CO11] Plancoulaine Chloé, 2018, « Je donne du sens à ma vie », Cosmopolitan, 537, July 2018, 97-100.

[CO12] Mauboussin Audrey, 2018, « Principes pour se faciliter la vie », Cosmopolitan, 540, October 2018, 120-122.


1 The terms happiness and well-being are used in the framework of positive psychology indistinctly, as synonyms [Jiménez 2011: 622].

2 Underlined type is used to draw attention to metaphorical happiness utterances.

3 The original examples have been found in French. The translation below each example is my own.

4 I added the emphasis (in bold).

5 Middle voice construction allows placing the individual in an active and a passive role [Maldonado 2008; Gómez Vicente 2013].

6 According to Langacker [2009; 2013], transitive and reflexive constructions are characterized by highlighting energy transfer (physical, mental, perceptual, etc.) between at least two participants, one who exercises force and another who receives it.

7 Some other metaphorical expressions, related to particular source domains such as health or religion, were found. Despite their interest, they have not been analyzed. This study has focused on the metaphors related to recurrent linguistic and cognitive patterns, organized around the concepts of force and limit, which are particularly salient according to our analysis. The metaphors that have been left out of this study may be analyzed in future studies based on other methodological assumptions.


Figure 2: the comfort zone [oklanica 2012]

Figure 2: the comfort zone [oklanica 2012]


Electronic reference

Lucia Gomez Vicente, « “How to be happy” according to Cosmopolitan: The metaphors of happiness at the service of positive psychology and neoliberalism ideology », ELAD-SILDA [Online], 5 | 2020, Online since 21 juillet 2020, connection on 19 octobre 2021. URL : https://publications-prairial.fr/elad-silda/index.php?id=875


Lucia Gomez Vicente

Université Grenoble Alpes