Happiness is…


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.”

14 thoughts on “Happiness is…”

  1. My mother, who grew up in the depression, commented that her generation was less physically comfortable but more psychologically comfortable than the current generation.
    I guess her generation found it easier too say what “better” was than her grand children.

  2. John, your mum was probably right!

    I didn’t try to define ‘happiness’. If you follow the links you find this ultimately daunting article on defining emotions.

    One researcher sys that the gold standard is self-reporting, another says that if self-reporting is the methodology he won’t bother reading the article!

  3. So the trick is in learning how to be happy tourists.

    Sounds a bit shallow to me. Sure there are times where happy observing is a good thing to do.
    But sometimes we need to achieve things that we think of as worthwhile rather than just being an observer. Achieving may require periods of discomfort, frustration and disappointment as well as the glow of achievement, approval of friends etc.

  4. John, what you say about achievement normally requiring effort, discomfort etc is true, always has been, always will be.

    Bauman is commenting on society in general and the quickening pace of change. I was suggesting we have to adapt to what we can’t do anything about.

    Bauman is saying that quickening change is part of the inner dynamic of capitalism. Perhaps the best example is fashions in the clothing industry. My parents wore clothes until they wore out. So did I in the post-WW2 years. Now even I can’t wear some stuff I bought 10 years ago although it is still serviceable.

    Generally everything changes with a new model when there is really no need for it, and the changes are not always for the better.

  5. An old chap I knew ages ago summed up happiness as “a full belly and a full pocket” but I think happiness is a lot more than that.

    Happiness does include a good measure of satisfaction and contentment – but not to the extent of excluding something new or different, nor to excluding a certain amount of risk-taking (though this is not always seeking an adrenalin-high as is sometimes assumed). Nor is happiness always laughter and smiles. Nor spending money a guaranteed way of obtaining happiness – though, occasionally, the well-considered spending of money on something of lasting value, be that on a ‘toy” or on a memorable experience, can lead to a certain amount of happiness. However, it seems to me that the more one spends pursuing happiness, the more elusive it becomes and that this leads to the weird phenomenon of people spending good money to make themselves miserable and dissatisfied.

    Happiness can come to someone in quite mundane things: going to work each day in a job one really likes, pottering around the garden; making or repairing or freshening up something; being with someone you really like, even love; going surfing or bushwalking; doing the ironing ((true)); reading a good book; getting into a robust debate with someone and solving all the world’s problems; helping someone; just resting in peace and quiet. The list of simple -and mostly free – pleasures that bring us happiness goes on and on.

    Happiness has probably been with us for hundreds of generations – and I hope it will be with us for hundreds more.

    John D. I do like your definition of happiness. 🙂

    Brian: You quoted Bauman, ” …. quickening change is part of the inner dynamic of capitalism.” Indeed it is; don’t worry though, that simply means it will hit the brick wall sooner.

  6. Graham, you’ve enunciated very much what I had in mind, especially the happiness available in the more mundane parts of our lives.

    I’d like to comment on this bit:

    However, it seems to me that the more one spends pursuing happiness, the more elusive it becomes and that this leads to the weird phenomenon of people spending good money to make themselves miserable and dissatisfied.

    Bauman is saying that the capitalist/free market society always dangles something in front of us that seems desirable. Having gained it, however, it never satisfies for long or at a deep level, so that we will be ready to desire the next thing on offer.

  7. Me thinks Bauman may not have experienced modern day Venezuela, Zimbabwe, North Korea.
    You know, those happy socialist countries with successfully nationalised everything.

  8. Jumpy, that would be insulting if it were not simply irrelevant. Bauman experienced communism up close and personal. He is not recommending any particular ideology and certainly not nationalising everything.

    Anyway, have a read of this article. It is not possible to pin him down with a label or a phrase.

  9. Having read that, his Wiki and watched him lecture I think he generalises internally painting others with broad brush in the search for paradoxes and ironies to attribute to the mass when such conditions are representative of a tiny minority.
    I can find lectures and kindly interviews but no debates with opposition, which I find common among cowardly career academics, to challenge face to face many of he ” certainties “.

    Given that I don’t care and he is highly unlikely to be aware of my musing , ” insulting ” is irrelevant to both of us.

    My initial observations are correct and Bauman has little to offer in the way of solution to anything.

    Clive James on the other hand has far more to offer.
    ( both chose to live in a Capitalist, Democratic Constitutional Monarchy to seek happiness )

  10. Sadness and misery are probably heightened in brutal regime but the deliberate or accidental collection of small pleasures that can lead to happiness can be done almost anywhere. It is one of the things that make the human spirit unquenchable.

    Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s “One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich” is a truly bleak tale of oppression in a Soviet prison yet one with a glimmer here and there of hope and happiness.

  11. Jumpy, from the article Bauman recommends that you take responsibility and get engaged.

    I see you don’t take to him, so I’ll leave it there.

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