Thursday, July 19, 2007

Happiness is Crap

Since my last post, I've been thinking more about this idea of 'happiness.' I’m a self-help professional of a sort (Heh), and I’ve noticed for awhile now that 'happiness' is the new buzzword in self-help. There are zillions of books out there designed to make us happy, present, mindful, and self-aware. Just type ‘Happiness’ into the search engine at I dare you.

The reason for this happiness binge, as far as I can tell, is the new darling of modern psychology, a supposedly new way of looking at human behavior that has been coined “positive psychology.” I’m not going to go into the background of this concept, Google will gladly tell you all you want to know about it. Suffice it to say, though, that positive psych is the science of looking not at what’s wrong with people, but about what’s right with them. Positive psychology experts help their clients and readers discover their strengths rather than study their mistakes.

On the face of it, I agree with this new way of looking at things. Personally, I’m tired of trying to figure out what’s wrong with me. But the explosion of happiness books on the market, all purporting to use positive psychology principles to help their readers become happier people, really bothers me, because having happiness as a life goal is, if you’ll excuse the vulgarity, just so much crap.

Let’s face it: nobody is happy all the time. Life is just not like that. Some experts even say that we’re all born with a happiness baseline that doesn’t change permanently. We go up or down based on life events, but we always return to our baseline, which is different for everyone. Researchers can argue about this all they want, but I suspect that this is true just from personal experience, and it’s why I get so annoyed with all the harping about finding happiness and discovering the path to happiness. Why? Because happiness is fleeting. It’s an emotion, not a way to gauge the quality of our lives. We might be happy for an hour, a day, maybe even a few days at a time, but there will come a time when we aren’t happy. The dinner we ordered will be inedible, our partner will get mad at us, someone will be rude, our car will get a flat tire. That’s just life. Does it mean we’ve failed? That we need to think more positively, meditate more, become more mindful, or volunteer more often? Or does it just mean we’re experiencing a normal life?

Sometimes, I’ll be going along in my day and I’ll notice that I’m thinking judgmental thoughts, or that I’m thinking about something difficult that’s happened, or that I’m pondering why I haven’t reached this or that goal. When that happens, often I feel a twinge of guilt for thinking about something negative. And then when I notice the guilt, most often there’ll be a little cynical voice inside my head that will say, in its best snide, put-upon tone, “Oh, right, I forgot, I’m not supposed to think anything negative.” That’s the voice of sanity.

Just today I read this article in the Huffington Post by Barbara Ehrenreich, one of my favorite muckrakers, about how studies showing that happier people with healthy diets and lots of social support are NOT proven to live longer after a cancer diagnosis than the rest of us. I know I shouldn’t gloat (damn psychology books! Now I can’t even do that!) - and I also realize that the study of studies is basically flawed; you can argue any point based on any result, if you’re talented - but this is something I’ve suspected for a long time: although lifestyle and attitude do have an effect on our health and quality of life (obviously), much of it also has to do with just plain luck of the draw. Our genetics. Our childhood. Who we meet in our lives. Where we grew up. Our socioeconomic status. Whether or not we looked first before attempting to cross the street in front of an out-of-control bus. A lot of it – maybe even most of it – is out of our control.

The same with all this positive thinking/happiness baloney. You can struggle for years to think positively, paste a smile on your face when what you really want to do is make a sarcastic comment, eat nothing but fruits and vegetables and quinoa, meditate until you’re blue in the face, but it’s not going to guarantee you anything. Not a longer life and certainly not a happier one. All it’ll guarantee you is more anxiety when you realize you’re still not what you think of as “happy.” That you still get down, you still feel angry at people who disappoint you, and that you will still age despite the rabbit diet. In short: you don’t have the perfect left, because the perfect life just doesn’t exist (unless you have a lifetime supply of morphine patches and somebody to take care of your high-ass self.)

I don’t know about you, but I can’t stand all those chipper people who float along smiling at everyone and tossing flowers in your path. It’s not real. I’m happy to share peoples’ triumphs and glories. I like it when I or my friends do well, reach a goal, have something to celebrate. But true life isn’t only about those moments. It’s also about the moments when things are hard, you don’t know if you can do it anymore, when you feel lost or cranky or depressed or confused. It’s ALL real. To my mind, happiness shouldn’t be the goal. The goal should be to live a well-lived life: To have integrity, to embody self-awareness without self-indulgence, to learn everything you can, and to hurt as few creatures as possible. That way, when that bus does come hurtling down on you, you can die knowing that at least you lived. And not wondering why you were never happy.

1 comment:

Larissa said...

I'm so delighted you wrote about this. The whole happiness fixation really bugs me. In the general way I usually hear happiness used in self-help speak it's impossible to argue against. However applied it seems to always refer to cheerfulness, fleeting moments and consumer indulgences. Rarely the general satisfaction of a meaningful life. My main concern is that it feels like a very easy way to be lazy and apathetic. As if this type of happiness absolves the individual of any sort of civic responsibility. Furthermore, we're instructed to turn off our critical mind but doesn't most innovation and change comes from people being critical and aware? Currently being happy with a SUV and a nice house and being happy saving orphans are almost held equal. It all seems rather frightening and simplistic to me.