At this time of the year we invariably wish for people to be happy.
I recently came upon an article where Tiffany Watt Smith was interviewed about how language affects emotion. It seems that the assumption that happiness could be within our reach is a relatively new phenomenon. Not so long ago we aspired to be sad:
- We give happiness a lot of space in our discussions. But it’s a relatively recent phenomenon that happiness is something you’d want to aim for. If you look back to 16th-century Renaissance Europe, there’s a fascination with sadness that’s almost the equivalent of today’s fascination with happiness. You start seeing a lot of authors writing about how to be sad better, and what the appropriate sort of sadness is. It’s seen as valuable because it brings you closer to God. It makes you more humble and more serious. In some cases, a more severe form of sadness, melancholia, was aligned with genius. I think the way we valorize happiness today is problematic. It creates pressure to feel upbeat and cheerful all the time.
She was then asked whether we could be happier if we didn’t obsess about happiness so much. Her reply:
- I definitely think so. I’ve read self-help books about happiness that make the case that if something’s important, you need to measure it and you need to figure out how to have more of it. I think that’s a mistake. There’s been some interesting research on the concept of emodiversity recently. The cause-and-effect relationship isn’t completely clear, but stronger physical and mental health is correlated with experiencing a range of emotions instead of just being happy or content all the time. It means allowing yourself to feel sad, angry, irritable, bored, and frustrated. All the things we’re told we ought not to feel.
No doubt life for the common people in 16th-century Renaissance Europe was a vale of tears, to be used as preparation for bliss in the life hereafter. Prospects must have improved by 1776 when “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” turned up in the American Declaration of Independence as inalienable human rights.
Tiffany Watt Smith’s interview is a useful reminder of how culture influences how we feel and how we think about how we feel. Ethan Watters has taken this thought into the field of psychiatry. He finds some mental illnesses new. Also they spread to other cultures in a manner that is hegemonic, connected with American cultural influence and the pharmaceutical industry. The fourth case in his book Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche talks about how the Japanese were encouraged to experience depression as a disease, vaguely defined so that everyone would be a candidate for buying a pill to fix it.
When I was in an Ed Psych class nearly 30 years ago the lecturer asked us to sum up our lives in a phrase. I immediately thought “a search for meaning”. The woman next to me jotted down “looking for cloud nine”. I thought her phrase was hedonistic, shallow and trivial. What she thought of mine is unknown to me, but I’m sure she wasn’t impressed.
I’m sure at the time I was expending efforts to improve the chances of enjoyment and happiness for me and my family, while she was not neglecting more serious matters of meaning.
Thing is, there’s a serious philosophical dilemma beneath that binary, addressed by Zygmunt Bauman in his concept of ‘liquid modernity’. Modernity, he says, was always:
- characterized by radical change, by a constant overthrowing of tradition and traditional forms of economy, culture, and relationship—“all that is solid melts into air,” as Marx characterized this aspect of modern society.
Postmodernity has amplified the capacity for constant change.
- For Bauman, the consequences of this move to a liquid modernity can most easily be seen in contemporary approaches to self-identity. In liquid modernity, constructing a durable identity that coheres over time and space becomes increasingly impossible, according to Bauman. We have moved from a period where we understood ourselves as “pilgrims” in search of deeper meaning to one where we act as “tourists” in search of multiple but fleeting social experiences.
So the trick is in learning how to be happy tourists. Happiness is not in a bottle, or in stuff, or in events. As brain researcher Richard Davidson says, feeling permeates everything we do, so the simple routine things matter as well as how we relate to other people, how we think about the present and the future.
Anyway, all that thinking makes my head hurt, so I’ll join Graham in wishing everyone “an enriching, successful, satisfying, healthy, peaceful and happy 2016.”