What’s Up With Happiness?
In this period of worldwide political and economic turmoil, one of the hottest topics out there is happiness. Hardly a day goes by when someone isn’t releasing a book, publishing a study, blogging or lecturing on this most elusive of subjects: what happiness is, what it isn’t, why we want it, how to get it, who has it, and who doesn’t.
It hardly stops there. There are those who explain why we should forget happiness and pursue melancholy instead, how happiness is nothing but neurochemical reactions, how it’s not okay to be a happy suicide bomber, and so on. An entire happiness industry is evolving before our screen-blurred eyes. Soon you will be able to major in Happiness Studies in college, if you can’t already. If you’re not happy, you can hire a Happiness coach.
The former president of Harvard, Derek Bok, has written a book, The Politics of Happiness: What Government Can Learn from the New Research on Well-Being. He makes the case for expanding the definition of GDP beyond measures of economic growth to include measures of individual and social well-being. He gives the examples of chronic depression, pain and sleep-deprivation as areas where government might focus its efforts and increase the happiness of its citizens. No doubt this will show up as a line of inquiry in some future NIH budget to the delight of free market economists everywhere.
But no matter. We are only entitled to pursue happiness, not to obtain it. Most of what we’re learning from happiness research is what common sense already tells us: More money doesn’t necessarily make you any happier (although having enough money certainly helps); the GDP has increased dramatically over the past 50 years, but not expressed levels of happiness; people who say they are generally happy have caring relationships and close friends, good or tolerable health, some kind of gainful employment, a deep sense of faith, like to help others and live in a relatively free and democratic society.
Of course, you could be a despot with slaves who cater to your every desire and imagine yourself to be a successful, happy person. But surely that’s not what we mean by happiness.
Well, why not? That really is the question. For all of the studies and polls, it’s not at all clear what happiness is. Better to read Aristotle on the subject than consult the field of “positive” psychology.
For argument’s sake, I would posit that happiness is a temporary state of agreeable deception. If such a state becomes permanent, you’re basically brain dead. Happiness is the accidental effect of being engaged in something else, like enjoying the company of a friend, contemplating the demise of an enemy, or learning that you just won the lottery. Happiness is like pornography: You know it when you see or feel it.
Personally, I’m suspicious of terminally happy people. Instead of happiness, I think we should pursue a higher quality of discontent, which is the chief motivator for change, growth and discovery. Truly sane and productive people are those who grow discontented when things are going well. The fact that so many people report feelings of malaise and uneasiness during periods of prosperity is therefore a healthy sign.
My wife doesn’t see it this way. She thinks happiness is what we all should pursue in life. She thinks I’m a crank. She thinks I take this attitude just to annoy people.
Maybe so. We’ve been together almost 40 years. I can’t understand why. We’re not at all alike. But I’m content when I’m with her. She doesn’t take any crap. In the greater scheme of things, this makes me happy.
Feedback? Send it my way: Roger.Hughes@slhi.org.
*The Drift reflects the views of the author, and does not represent the official view of SLHI’s Board of Trustees and staff.