Problems with Happiness

I know I’m going to come over as the biggest party pooper, grouch or grinch in the history of the world here, but I’ve noticed that I’m really struggling with offering up a particular word to others. The word is happy.

I can never really sing “Happy Birthday” to anyone with any degree of conviction or enthusiasm (and it’s not entirely down to my self-consciousness of how tone deaf I am). When I send birthday cards these days, I’m struggling to write the words “happy birthday” in black and white. It seems too coercive to me. My attitude is OK, be happy if you like, but if you want to be unhappy that’s good too, you shouldn’t have to feel like you have to be happy. Surely like all our feelings, happiness ought to be voluntary and accidental and spontaneous and strictly optional?

I reckon the pursuit of happiness can get us into a bit of trouble.

Often when we try to articulate the purpose of our lives, it is to the word happiness we commonly have recourse. We tell ourselves and others that the ultimate rationale for our jobs, our relationships and the conduct of our day to day lives is the pursuit of happiness. What we wish for our loved ones, our children is “to be happy”. It sounds like an innocent enough idea, but excessive reliance on the term means that we are frequently unfairly tempted to exit or at least heavily question a great many testing but worthwhile situations.

The ’be happy’ approach that we have undertaken to life, is put forward as a choice we have, not a matter of luck or circumstance. Yet the word happiness, literally derives from the middle English word ‘hap’ meaning chance or good luck (thus ‘happenstance’ or ‘perhaps’). Some believe that it is generally impossible to experience happiness for more that fifteen minutes at a time. We’ve twisted the meaning in recent time such that it is now something we just need to work at. As though it is an endpoint that exists.

In the 1990s, a psychologist named Martin Seligman led the positive psychology movement, which placed the study of human happiness squarely at the centre of psychology research and theory. It continued a trend that began in the 1960s with humanistic and existential psychology, which emphasized the importance of reaching one’s innate potential and creating meaning in one’s life, respectively. Since then, thousands of studies and hundreds of books have been published with the goal of increasing well-being and helping people lead more satisfying lives.

It’s true that we now know a substantial amount about happiness, including who is happiest and where, social patterns in happiness according to your age and gender, and what drives individual and national levels of happiness, such as income, education, social relationships, good national governance, and health. Yet levels of global economic inequality and high rates of global depression and mental distress persist. In other words, while we know a lot more about happiness, happiness as a whole has not improved. Our self-reported measures of happiness have remained stagnant for over 40 years.

One reason may be – we still have the same brains. By way of illustration, consider the following examples.

We’ve all started a sentence with the phrase “Won’t it be great when…” (I go to uni, fall in love, have kids, etc.). Similarly, we often hear older people start sentences with this phrase “Wasn’t it great when…”

Think about how seldom you hear anyone say, “Isn’t this great, right now?”

Our past and future aren’t always better than the present. Yet we continue to think that this is the case. These are the bricks that wall off harsh reality from the part of our mind that thinks about past and future happiness.

There’s evidence for why our brains operate this way; most of us possess something called the optimistic bias, which is the tendency to think that our future will be better than our present. It helps to keep us alive!

Cognitive psychologists have also identified something called the Pollyanna Principle. It means that we process, rehearse and remember pleasant information from the past more than unpleasant information. (An exception to this occurs in individuals with depression who often fixate on past failures and disappointments.)

For most of us, however, the reason that the good old days seem so good is that we focus on the pleasant stuff and tend to forget the day-to-day unpleasantness.

These delusions about the past and the future could be an adaptive part of the human psyche, with innocent self-deceptions actually enabling us to keep striving. If our past is great and our future can be even better, then we can work our way out of the unpleasant – or at least, mundane – present.

All of this tells us something about the fleeting nature of happiness. Emotion researchers have long known about something called the hedonic treadmill. We work very hard to reach a goal, anticipating the happiness it will bring. Unfortunately, after a brief fix we quickly slide back to our baseline, ordinary way-of-being and start chasing the next thing we believe will almost certainly – and finally – make us happy.

Studies of lottery winners and other individuals at the top of their game – those who seem to have it all – regularly throw cold water on the dream that getting what we really want will change our lives and make us happier. These studies found that positive events like winning a million bucks and unfortunate events such as being paralyzed in an accident do not significantly affect an individual’s long-term level of happiness.

But this is how it should be, at least from an evolutionary perspective. Dissatisfaction with the present and dreams of the future are what keep us motivated, while warm fuzzy memories of the past reassure us that the feelings we seek can be had. In fact, perpetual bliss would completely undermine our will to accomplish anything at all; among our earliest ancestors, those who were perfectly content may have been left in the dust.

Vladimir: Say you are, even if it’s not true.
Estragon: What am I to say?
Vladimir: Say, I am happy.
Estragon: I am happy.Vladimir: So am I.
Estragon: So am I.
Vladimir: We are happy.
Estragon: We are happy. (Silence.) What do we do now, now that we are happy?
( Samueal Beckett 'Waiting for Godot')

The other problem with happiness is, it is an essentially selfish state of being. It’s all about feeling good within yourself. It’s an internal, physiological and emotional state. Which means, in effect, that it is devoid of any morality. Harvey Weinstein was just trying to be happy too. Pursuing his democratic rights.

Our pursuit of happiness is a very privileged pursuit. It is a philosophy likely to be more rewarding for those whose lives contain more privileged moments than grinding, humiliating or exhausting ones. And it makes our propensity for anxiety much worse. When the goal is to be happy the expectations are high, given the reality of what happiness is. We always feel like we are falling short. It’s true that the more relentlessly we value and pursue happiness, the more likely we are to feel depressed, anxious and lonely.

So, from now on I might refrain entirely from putting the ‘happy’ on the birthday cards because personally I’m a bit fed up with being ganged up upon, bullied, battered and bruised by the imperative of happiness. I’m going to acknowledge and appreciate the fifteen minutes when it arrives, but it is not going to be the ultimate goal.



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