Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Unhappy with Happiness?

 There are those who conduct the polls, and those who tell us what the polls mean. Then there are people like me, who read such reports online and notice that the explanations being offered don’t match the statistics being presented.

A recent case in point: an article appeared in the Atlantic with the title, “There’s More to Life Than Happiness.” It begins with a discussion of Victor Frankl’s influential book, Man’s Search for Meaning, in which he contends that those who feel their life has meaning, and therefore “have something to live for,” fare better and deal with adversity more successfully than those who don’t. (For what it's worth, I read that book 40 years ago. I liked it.)

Frankl suggests that Americans don’t think much amount meaning nowadays, placing an emphasis, rather, on “being happy.”

"To the European," he’s quoted as saying, "it is a characteristic of the American culture that, again and again, one is commanded and ordered to 'be happy.' But happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to 'be happy.'"

At this point the author of the article, Emily Esfahani Smith, shifts gears a little, referring to a recent Gallup poll that suggests 6 out of 10 Americans are happy. Two sentences further on, she notes a recent finding of the Center for Disease Control that 4 out of 10 Americans “have not discovered a satisfying life purpose.”

Here’s where the trouble begins. It would be reasonable to presume that those 60 percent who are happy have found meaning, and the 40 percent who are glum are drifting aimlessly through life. But that’s not what the evidence reports. It comes from two separate studies, one of which dealt with happiness, and the other with meaning.

There is no good reason to present these findings in the same paragraph. Perhaps recognizing that she has failed to “connect the dots,” Smith immediately moves on to yet further assertions with less specific data behind them: “Research has shown that having purpose and meaning in life increases overall well-being and life satisfaction, improves mental and physical health, enhances resiliency, enhances self-esteem, and decreases the chances of depression. On top of that, the single-minded pursuit of happiness is ironically leaving people less happy, according to recent research.”

Here is a real story…but it isn’t the one she’s reporting. It’s Todd Kashdan’s story. You can follow the link to explore his studies showing that those who pursue happiness more assiduously have less success finding it. 

But even here there’s a fly in the ointment. Listen to this sentence: “People putting the greatest emphasis on being happy reported 50 percent less frequent positive emotions, 35 percent less satisfaction about their life, and 75 percent more depressive symptoms than people that had their priorities elsewhere.”

That may be true, but perhaps it should have been phrased the other way around: People who have less frequent positive emotions, less satisfaction about their life, and more depressive symptoms, are more likely to place an emphasis on being happy than those who are already experiencing a high level of well-being.

In other words, people who are happy don’t think much about it. Those who are fighting an unending battle with anxiety or depression, perhaps due to childhood trauma or physiological issues, must work harder to “find” happiness any way they can.

Kashdan agrees with Frankl that Americans think too much about happiness:
The United States is obsessed with happiness … There are cultural pressures to be happy. Go on amazon.com and look at how many books have happiness in the title.
So I did. I also keyed in a few other categories for comparison. Here are the results, in thousands:

Happiness        29
Baseball           32
Meaning          34
Gardening      54
Sex                 142
Philosophy     376
Music             749
Religion         928
Art               1,898  

 Doesn’t look too obsessive to me. And we ought to be open to the possibility that most of the books that deal with happiness are saying the same things these researcher are – Give it a Rest.

Meanwhile, back in the original story, Smith is pushing her argument further, citing evidence that there is a strong correlation between those things that give meaning to life, such as responsibility and commitment, and genuine unhappiness. Thus the often-cited relationship between childrearing and unhappiness. The upshot of it all, according to Smith, is that “the amount of time people report feeling good or bad correlates with happiness but not at all with meaning.”

This strikes me as hogwash, pure and simple. It seems to me that happiness, meaning, social responsibility, and commitment are like peas in a pod. It's worth noting that Frankl doesn’t shy away from using the word “happiness,” but puts it in context. Smith quotes him as saying: “… happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue.” He doesn’t deny that it exists; he doesn’t suggest it's unimportant. He merely says that it’s futile to pursue it directly.

I suspect it is only by making use of the shallowest definition of happiness that researchers have been able to differentiate it from meaning, satisfaction, and even bliss. It may be that the standard research definition of happiness basically correlates with thrill-seeking. But that’s not what happiness is.

In the end, studies like the ones I’m reviewing here are muddled and the conclusions wrongheaded and misleading, What’s worse, they give happiness a bad name. 

Why should we care? Because one of the enduring misconceptions of modern life, in America or anywhere else, is that if we’re happy, we must be doing something wrong. It is from this soil that guilt and neuroses arise. It would be far better to start celebrating Gaudium essendi, the joy of existing, and go on to note that we’re more likely to feel it as we become more deeply engaged in life.  
“Happy is the man who’s found his work.”

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