Friday, January 29, 2010

With All the Happiness Books, How Come We Aren't Happy?

Two interesting articles (one a review of anti-happiness books) suggest it is much harder to be happy than the recent books on how to be happy might suggest. And then, a whole issue of Collegium (Volume 3, 2008) is devoted to articles on happiness from a multidisciplinary perspective.

It seems that Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America (published in England as Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World), by Barbara Ehrenreich, is the center of these two articles (both from British papers - The Telegraph UK and The Financial Times - and both written by Julian Baggini).

The miserable results of our quest for happiness

Those who pillage rich traditions for contemporary tastes take the easy but shallow route to happiness, writes Julian Baggini.

Blaine Harrington III / Alamy The miserable results of our quest  for happiness
Pillaged: Buddhist traditions are being looted for hollow wisdom Photo: Blaine Harrington III / Alamy

Should we be happy that happiness has been taken down a peg or two? Barbara Ehrenreich's new book, Smile or Die, has struck a chord with its argument that the benefits of positive thinking have been oversold. But the adoption of "mindfulness" classes at Tonbridge, a leading private school, suggests that the deeper problems at the heart of our cult of positivity have hardly even begun to be uncovered – and reminds us of why we should positively delight in hearing negative thoughts about positive thinking.

This may sound paradoxical. All things being equal, it is good to be happy, and it's certainly awful to be severely depressed. But what worries me is that our pursuit of happiness is leading us to judge the great intellectual and spiritual traditions of the past according to only one measure: do they increase happiness and reduce misery? That which passes the test is plundered and that which fails is left behind. The result is that wisdom is hollowed out and replaced with a soft centre of caramelised contentment.

Take, for instance, the increased use of Buddhist mindfulness meditation as a therapeutic practice. Professor Mark Williams, the director of the Mindfulness Centre at Oxford, has been leading research into this for several years now. As a psychologist concerned with mental wellbeing, he is perfectly entitled to borrow anything that might help. So too Wellington College and Tonbridge School (and soon Charterhouse and Hampton) might be right to introduce meditation classes for their pupils. As Williams put it, "This is not about converting people to Buddhism, but showing there is scientific evidence that these practices are useful."

However, it's that last word, "useful", that sums up what is lost when rich traditions are pillaged for contemporary tastes. For what does it mean for a belief or practice to be useful to human life? Those not willing to grapple with that question tend to assume the thinnest, feeblest answers: practical utility, or happiness.

The concept of mindfulness, of living in and being utterly aware of the moment, was not originally meant to serve either of these mundane goals. Rather, it was supposed to cultivate our insight into impermanence, by providing a direct awareness of the absence of persisting essences to all things. It is not simply a technique to make you feel good – it is deeply connected with a way of seeing the world, one that contains insights as well as errors. But why bother with the hard work of distinguishing the two if you can just discard the belief system completely?

Those keen to adopt mindfulness training as a mere means to a happier life ignore the fact that the ideas Buddhists have traditionally wanted people to be mindful of are not necessarily comfortable ones, even if they ultimately lead the way to nirvana. Being mindful of the flavour of freshly brewed coffee or the beauty of a common sparrow is one thing; fostering awareness of the emptiness at the heart of the self quite another.

Aristotle is another ancient sage who has been watered down for the dulled palates of the modern positive thinker. He is frequently quoted as saying that happiness "is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence". But, as any first-year undergraduate knows, the word translated here as happiness – "eudaimonia" – actually means something more like "flourishing". Eudaimonia requires that we exercise the full range of our capacities as humans – especially, but not only, our intellects. The crude adoption of Aristotle as a champion of feeling good helps happiness flourish, while flourishing flounders.

What is strange is that so many religious leaders and thinkers have gone along with this instrumental use of their core beliefs and practices. The Dalai Lama is not the only senior Tibetan Buddhist to have written books which lead on the promise of happiness; Abbot Christopher Jamison's book Finding Happiness shows that even the austere, monastic life can now be reframed to appeal to those seeking a gentler, easier fulfilment.

If we can find practical, secular advice in the works of Buddhists, stoics and saints, so be it. If Montaigne can soothe your troubled soul, take the balm. The problem is that ways of living and thinking which offer, and demand, so much more, are simply being looted to fill a toolbox for the crass engineering of positive thoughts and warm emotions. The looters are at best blind to the deeper riches on offer, at worst disfiguring the very source of their ill-gotten riches.

To be fair, many of the experts in these fields are fully aware of these dangers. But what about the management consultants, life coaches and even government agencies who are clamouring for their services? By the time the plunderers have themselves been plundered, there could be very little real meat left to nourish more demanding souls. We are witnessing deep thought being driven out by positive thought; true self-awareness sacrificed in the name of shallow happiness.

Julian Baggini is the editor of 'The Philosophers' Magazine'
* * * * *

Where happiness lies

By Julian Baggini

Published: January 15 2010 23:50 | Last updated: January 15 2010 23:50

Gene Kelly as Don Lockwood in 'Singin' in the Rain'
Gene Kelly as Don Lockwood in ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ (1952)

Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World
By Barbara Ehrenreich
Granta £9.99, 240 pages
FT Bookshop price: £8.79

Happiness Around the World: The Paradox of Happy Peasants and Miserable Millionaires
By Carol Graham
Oxford University Press £14.99, 268 pages
FT Bookshop price: £11.99

The Age of Absurdity: Why Modern Life Makes It Hard To Be Happy
By Michael Foley
Simon & Schuster £10.99, 272 pages
FT Bookshop price: £8.79

The Happiness Project: Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun
By Gretchen Rubin
HarperCollins, £16.99, 320 pages
FT Bookshop price: £13.59

A few decades ago, philosophers, economists and scientists didn’t pay much attention to happiness. They left that to the likes of comedian Ken Dodd, who famously sang that it was “the greatest gift that I possess”. Today, however, the lyrics of that chirpy ditty are virtually indistinguishable from the key claims of positive psychology – the flourishing “new science of happiness”.

“Don’t count my money, count my happiness,” sang Dodd, explaining that “Happiness is nothing but a frame of mind,” something he “thanks the Lord” for. His lyrics may be folksy in style but the content encapsulates the essence of positive psychology. In 1998, the discipline was more or less unknown, until Martin Seligman, the then president of the American Psychological Association, began promoting the message that psychology needed to get over its historic obsession with what made people feel bad and start thinking about what made them feel good instead. His 2002 book, Authentic Happiness, became an international bestseller. But perhaps more significant, politically, was Lord Richard Layard’s Happiness: Lessons from a New Science (2005). Layard is not a psychologist but an economist, and his service as the the British government’s “happiness tsar” has taken positive psychology beyond influence to the heart of power. Its prescriptions lie behind a range of measures, from the huge increase in NHS-funded cognitive behavioural therapists to the forthcoming provision of mental health co-ordinators in Job Centres.

Despite its prominence, the contemporary, science-backed pursuit of happiness nevertheless raises serious questions about our value system. If all that matters is that we feel good, then what about other ideals we hold for the good life? In particular, if truth and happiness conflict, which one should prevail: blissful ignorance or painful knowledge?

The most recent bunch of happiness books each provide different answers. The best, Barbara Ehrenreich’s Smile or Die, sides squarely with the truth. The least convincing, Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project, has a disregard for objective reality that even the most garrulous spin doctor would find breathtaking. Michael Foley declares in The Age of Absurdity that the modern world makes happiness impossible, while Carol Graham presents some sober, much-needed socio-economic evidence, in Happiness Around the World.

Rubin’s book chronicles a year in which she worked really, really hard on being a sunnier, more positive person by pick-and-mixing advice from psychologists, philosophers and self-help books. To outsiders, her motivation seems obscure. After all, at the time Rubin, author of biographies of John F Kennedy and Winston Churchill, was living happily in New York with a loving husband and two children. Despite this, one day she realised, “I’m not as happy as I should be.” Instead of realising that this desire for ever more happiness could be precisely what was stopping her being content with her contentment, she set out with obsessive dedication to broaden her smile, identifying what seems to work for other people and awarding herself stars on a resolutions chart when she succeeded in emulating them.

The deep ethical flaw in her project is the trumping of truth by feeling and desire. When her husband told her the year had not changed him, for instance, she simply insisted that it had. “Maybe I was seeing what I wanted to see,” she wonders, but then adds, “Maybe, but who cares?” This is where you end up if you make the pursuit of happiness your primary goal, indifferent to reality, concerned only with how you feel.

Rubin would probably have little time for the relentlessly negative-thinking Michael Foley. In his book, the novelist, poet and IT lecturer sets out to explain “Why modern life makes it hard to be happy?” Foley’s charge sheet covers pretty much everything. The promise of consumer culture, where all things good are just a chip and pin away, makes people feel entitled to everything but responsible for nothing; when anybody can be anything, talent and effort become irrelevant. Only desire matters, and nothing is easier than wanting. As we are increasingly connected to the internet or plugged into our iPhones, quiet contemplation is almost impossible – our attention spans are reducing to almost zero. There’s more but, if Foley is right, you’ve probably lost your concentration already, distracted by a tweet from a “friend” you don’t know, telling you things you don’t care about.

The problem with Foley’s entertaining tirade against the woes of late modernity is its lack of balance. He ignores truths such as the fact that most people are reasonably happy, whether rich or poor, African or European.

That is one of the surprising facts revealed in economist Carol Graham’s Happiness Around the World. As might be expected from a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think-tank, this is a solid but arid assessment of the evidence about how factors such as income, health, education, religious belief and marital status affect subjective well-being. The headline findings are already widely known: once people are lifted out of poverty, rising incomes do not make them happier; unequal societies are more miserable than equal ones; being religious, married and healthy enhances your well-being. Graham’s book demonstrates how we should not be hasty to draw conclusions from what are only statistical averages.

For example, although inequality is generally correlated with unhappiness, in the US the statistics suggest that “the only people made less happy by inequality are left-leaning rich people”. The most plausible explanation is that, for those who still dream the American dream, “inequality remains for many respondents a sign of future opportunities and mobility”.

Another complication, according to Graham, is that although richer countries do tend to be happier ones, when economies are in the midst of rapid growth, discontent rises. It seems that uncertainty, change, and the perception that there is a gravy train others are riding but you’re not, conspire against the gains of economic growth.

Graham is rightly cautious about what practical consequences follow from all this. Should you allow people to remain deceived if their false beliefs make them happier? Do you prioritise making the really unhappy reasonably content or should we aim to maximise the total amount of happiness in society? These are issues for policymakers, but also for individuals. If marriage makes you happier, for example, should you do your best to get married? Not if the wrong spouse will make your life a misery, and, as Graham points out, it depends where you live – in Russia, married people, on average, are no happier.

Barbara Ehrenreich is too committed a truth-seeker to protect happiness with falsehoods. The American writer, journalist and activist has proven herself to be a humane and astute critic of her country’s culture, exposing the harsh realities of working for the minimum wage in Nickel and Dimed, and of white-collar professional life in Bait and Switch. Her new book, Smile or Die, is a measured and informed attack on the “cult of positive thinking” that first infected the US and then spread to the rest of the world world.

Smile or Die traces the roots of American optimism and positive psychology to the 19th-century backlash against the Calvinist Puritanism of the first European settlers. The critical year was 1863, when the then invalid Mary Baker Eddy sought a “talking cure” from Phineas Parkhurst Quimby. She recovered and took up his teachings when he died three years later. Both have competing claims to be the true founder of the New Thought movement, which promoted the idea that illness was essentially a psychic disturbance and could be cured by the mind alone.

Eddy went on to found Christian Science, but her ideas have trickled out across the world. William James, a psychologist and philosopher, praised them in his classic The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), and they appear in such seminal 20th-century self-help texts as Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich! and Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking.

Ehrenreich examines the pernicious contemporary versions of these ideas, from the new-age mumbo jumbo of “The law of attraction” – which tells us the universe gives to those who ask – through the relentless positivity preached by career and life coaches, to the promises of earthly rewards by American mega-churches. She even claims positive thinking was at least partly to blame for the current economic crisis, pointing to can-do chief executives who ended up captains of sinking ships, and those who sensed things were going wrong but were ostracised for their “pessimism”.

In each case she discusses, the imperative to accentuate the positive entails a disrespect for truth, which in some cases can have terrible consequences. In the powerful opening chapter, for instance, Ehrenreich describes how she was diagnosed with breast cancer and then discovered that the majority of her fellow sufferers had bought into a bogus ideology that says cancer can make you a better person, and that really wanting to get better is the key to recovery. The flipside of this, of course, is that if you don’t get better, it must somehow be your own fault for being too negative. It also has the perverse implication that it is better to get cancer than not to. “If I had to do it over, would I want breast cancer?” asked sufferer Cindy Cherry. “Absolutely.” As Ehrenreich points out, such an attitude “encourages us to deny reality, submit cheerfully to misfortune, and blame only ourselves for our fate.”

The real value of Ehrenreich’s book is that it shows that the choice is not between being positive or negative. The issue, according to Ehrenreich, is whether we start with the facts or with our attitudes. What positive psychology gets right is that when we confront reality, we always have some control over how we then respond to it, and that a lot of misery is avoidable if we try to make the best rather than the worst of things. In practice, however, this sensible advice often degenerates into an excessive optimism, in which reality is whatever we think it to be. But you can’t make the best of a bad situation if you pretend it’s really just a good one in disguise.

With happiness, as with much else, there is no algorithm and there are no secrets. Modern life can make you miserable but on average it doesn’t and, in any case, a good life is not just a happy life but a truthful one. Knowing the facts can help us to live well but no one can provide you with a bespoke map to guide you through it. What they can do, however, is lead you astray with the promise that – with some survey data, positive thinking and a resolutions chart – mortal bliss is just a few steps away.

Julian Baggini is editor of The Philosophers’ Magazine and author of ‘Complaint’
Finally, for some perspectives from all over the philosophical, humanities spectrum, the 3rd issue of Collegium was devoted to articles on happiness.

Happiness: Cognition, Experience, Language

Edited by Heli Tissari, Anne Birgitta Pessi & Mikko Salmela (2008)

Contents - Volume 3

Cover, Details & Acnowledgements (pdf)

A Happy Introduction
Full text (pdf)

Happiness in Ancient Philosophy
Juha Sihvola
Full text (pdf)

The Logical Structure of Joy (and Many Other Emotions)
Mikko Salmela
Full text (pdf)

Can We Raise the Level of Happiness?
Markku Ojanen
Full text (pdf)

What Constitutes Experiences of Happiness and the Good Life? - Building a Novel Model on the Everyday Experiences
Anne Birgitta Pessi
Full text (pdf)

Sour Faces, Happy Lives? On Laughter, Joy and Happiness of the Agelasts
Sari Kivistö
Full text (pdf)

Happy in Changing Contexts: The History of Word-use and the Metamorphoses of a Concept
Hans-Jürgen Diller
Full text (pdf)

The Conceptual Structure of Happiness
Zoltán Kövecses
Full text (pdf)

Happiness and Joy in Corpus Contexts: A Cognitive Semantic Analysis
Heli Tissari
Full text (pdf)

List of Contributors (pdf)

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