a revolution in happiness?

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a review of some writings on the new "happiness studies"

Audio here

The other day, in line at the grocery store, I noticed that the cover of Real Simple magazine's January issue invited me to "be happier this year." I can't tell you about the "9 surprising strategies to get you there," because I was pretty sure that spending $4.99 on the magazine was not one of them.

But I can tell you that the study of happiness is not just the business of popular magazines and self-help books. It's also a field of academic endeavor. The Journal of Happiness Studies: An Interdisciplinary Forum of Subjective Well-Being has been around for ten years, and Erasmus University in Rotterdam maintains a "World Database of Happiness."

Because I want to spend most of my time today explaining what's wrong with happiness, and happiness studies, and the pursuit of happiness, I'll start with some of the happier aspects of happiness studies. And I promise to end with some tips on being happy, because I know everyone likes a happy ending.

The happy side of happiness studies can be found in some economic responses. Richard Layard's 2005 book Happiness: Lessons from a New Science takes up what's known as the Easterlin paradox, named for the economist who concluded in the 1970s that as nations become wealthier, people do not become happier. Layard, a member of Britain's Labour Party, argues from this that the success of a society should not be measured by Gross Domestic Product.

It's not news that there are problems with GDP—for instance, disaster can increase GDP because it increases the money spent on rebuilding, illness can increase GDP because it means more money is spent on medical care, environmental destruction can increase GDP because it may entail money spent on remediation. But the devastation of New Orleans, or your mother's cancer, or the eroding of wetlands are hardly signs of social well-being.

In contrast, the GINI index, which measures economic inequality, seems to line up rather well with some measures of happiness. For instance, Denmark has been ranked as both the most economically equal of societies studied, and as the happiest. So perhaps Layard, in his role as the UK's "happiness tsar," can encourage policies that will promote sustainability and diminish inequality. Similarly, Derek Bok, in his book, The Politics of Happiness: What Government Can Learn from the New Research on Well-Being, advocates ameliorating the unhappiness of job loss and chronic pain by expanding unemployment coverage and access to health care.

But of course it's not that simple. It might be promising to hear a world leader respond to the economic crisis by shifting national measures from GDP to indicators of wellbeing and sustainability, saying, "A great revolution is waiting for us. . . . The crisis doesn't only make us free to imagine other models, another future, another world. It obliges us to do so." Unfortunately, those are the words of Nicolas Sarkozy, and I doubt that his view of a great Revolution is the same as a Moles' view. His pension reform plans, for instance, didn't add to the happiness of the three million people in France who protested his austerity policies earlier this year.

So, "happiness economics" might mean a lot of different things.

Barbara Ehrenreich has suggested that the financial crisis is at least partly a result of an overemphasis on willed happiness. "The relentlessly optimistic forecasts about subprime mortgages and endless increases in real estate values were the product of the positive-thinking culture," she contends in Bright-Sided, her 2009 book, subtitled How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America. The culture of consumer capitalism, Ehrenreich points out,

encourages individuals to want more — cars, larger homes, television sets, cell phones, gadgets of all kinds — and positive thinking is ready at hand to tell them they deserve more and can have it if they really want it and are willing to make the effort to get it. . . . Perpetual growth, whether of a particular company or an entire economy, is of course an absurdity, but positive thinking makes it seem possible, if not ordained.

In addition, [Ehrenreich continues,] positive thinking has made itself useful as an apology for the crueler aspects of the market economy. If optimism is the key to material success, and if you can achieve an optimistic outlook through the discipline of positive thinking, then there is no excuse for failure. The flip side of positivity is thus a harsh insistence on personal responsibility: if your business fails or your job is eliminated, it must because you didn't try hard enough, didn't believe firmly enough in the inevitability of your success.

The imperative to surround yourself with other positive thinkers and “get rid of negative people," Ehrenreich suggests, led to a culture of delusion, in which, for instance, the US government could not imagine that the levees around New Orleans would fail, and could imagine that invading Iraq and Afghanistan would have happy outcomes.

But Ehrenreich's target here may be too narrow. After all, hasn't the science of happiness come a long way since Norman Vincent Peale's anecdotal 1952 bestseller The Power of Positive Thinking? Today, we have "positive psychology" a term coined in 1998 by Martin Seligman, then president of the American Psychological Association, who called for shifting the emphasis of "psychology away from pathology and toward functionality, resilience, and well-being."

But as cultural critic Sara Ahmed points out in her book The Promise of Happiness,

Happiness research is primarily based on self-reporting: studies measure how happy people say they are, presuming that if people say they are happy, they are happy. This model both presumes the transparency of self-feeling (that we can say and know how we feel), as well as the unmotivated and uncomplicated nature of self-reporting. If happiness is already understood to be what you want to have, then to be asked how happy you are is not to be asked a neutral question. It is not just that people are being asked to evaluate their life situations but that they are being asked to evaluate their life situations through categories that are value-laden. Measurements could be measuring the relative desire . . . to report on one's life well (to oneself or others) rather than simply how people feel about their life as such.

Moreover, just as economists are disagreeing about what policies might contribute to happiness or whether increasing the population's happiness level is an appropriate goal for government, so, too, psychologists disagree. According to British psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, “Happiness is fine as a side effect,” . . . . “It’s something you may or may not acquire, in terms of luck. But I think it’s a cruel demand. It may even be a covert form of sadism. Everyone feels themselves prone to feelings and desires and thoughts that disturb them. And we’re being persuaded that by acts of choice, we can dispense with these thoughts. It’s a version of fundamentalism.”

Unlike Seligman, Phillips declares happiness “the most conformist of moral aims.” “For me,” he continues, “there’s a simple test here. Read a really good book on positive psychology, and read a great European novel. And the difference is evident in one thing—the complexity and subtlety of the moral and emotional life of the characters in the European novel are incomparable. Read a positive-psychology book, and what would a happy person look like? He’d look like a Moonie. He’d be empty of idiosyncrasy and the difficult passions."

“It seems to me that if you were to take a rather stringent line here,” concludes Phillips, “then anyone who could maintain a state of happiness, given the state of the world, is living in a delusion.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, that delusion seems to be more available to the privileged. According to the CDC, depression affects 1 in 10 American adults, and is more likely to affect women than men, people of color rather than white people, poor people rather than rich people, and unemployed people rather than employed people.

Sara Ahmed argues that

Feminist critiques of the figure of "the happy housewife," black critiques of the myth of "the happy slave," and queer critiques of the sentimentalization of heterosexuality as "domestic bliss" . . . . expose the unhappy effects of happiness, teaching us how happiness is used to redescribe social norms as social goods. Simone de Beauvoir shows . . . how happiness translates its wish into a politics . . . [De Beauvoir ] argued "It is not too clear just what the word happy really means and still less what true values it may mask. There is no possibility of measuring the happiness of others, and it is always easy to describe as happy the situation in which one wishes to place them'"

In Happiness: A History, Darrin McMahon points out that "the words for happiness in . . . every Indo-European language include, at the root, a cognate for “luck.” In English, it’s happ, or chance—as in happenstance, haphazard, perhaps. The implication is that being happy means being lucky. And luck is not something we can entirely will." As Ahmed puts it, "The etymology of “happiness” relates precisely to the question of contingency: it is from the Middle English “hap,” suggesting chance. . . . Such a meaning now seems archaic: we may be more used to thinking of happiness as an effect of what you do, as a reward for hard work, rather than as being “simply” what happens to you."

I promised some tips on being happy, so here's one we can derive from the CDC report: try to be white and male and affluent and employed.  Not what you had in mind? How about this list of "Fundamentally Sound, Sure-Fire Top Five Components of Happiness" from psychiatrist and fiction writer Amy Bloom: (1) Be in possession of the basics — food, shelter, good health, safety. (2) Get enough sleep. (3) Have relationships that matter to you. (4) Take compassionate care of others and of yourself. (5) Have work or an interest that engages you."

As Sara Ahmed points out,

The history of happiness is . . . also about the exclusion of the hap from happiness, as the exclusion of possibility and chance. . . . Revolutionary forms of political consciousness involve heightening our awareness of just how much there is to be unhappy about. Yet this does not mean unhappiness becomes our political cause. In refusing to be constrained by happiness, we can open up other ways of being, of being perhaps.

Happy New Year!


Frann Michel's picture

<p>update:&nbsp; there's a movie coming out on <a href="http://www.theeconomicsofhappiness.org/">The Economics of Happiness</a>--about going local, with the voices of Vandana Shiva, Bill McKibben, David Korten, Michael Shuman, Juliet Schor, Richard Heinberg, Rob Hopkins, Andrew Simms, Zac Goldsmith, Samdhong Rinpoche.</p>