25 August 2008

Happy Happy, Joy Joy

My most recent favorite blogger, jd, wrote today about the Psychology of Happiness and asks some interesting questions about the relationship between money and happiness (as well as suggesting, in the blog's self-help-ian way, 13 Steps to being happier).

His excellent post gets me thinking about my own, academic take on happiness, and in particular about whether happiness is necessarily a good thing, or a desired outcome. The answer to this seems obvious at first glance...yes. Justin Wolfers wrote recently on the Freakonomics blog about how Happiness Inequality is on the decline, while 'overall happiness' remains unchanged since the 70s & 80s, despite rampant economic growth. While i am loathe to buy into much of what such social science studies give us, the "hm, that's interesting value" is worth the read.

I also don't entirely believe the conclusions that jd, like so many others, reach that money can't buy happiness & meaningful relationships is the end-all be-all of getting happy (this is not to say that i DON'T believe those things, just that i don't take them for granted simply because it's what we've been told). I'm curious where the 'common knowledge' of money can't buy happiness comes from (and how much the person who first said it had in the bank at the time).

I certainly don't intend in this post to suggest how to get happy. Others have given plenty of advice on how to be more fulfilled or get less depressed after a huge disappointment (i highly recommend Rebecca Traister's article from just after the 2004 presidential election on the subject).

Instead, i'm most interested in whether getting happy should be a goal. Wikipedia says (for now, at least) that Happiness is "an emotion associated with feelings ranging from contentment and satisfaction to bliss and intense joy", which is well and good, but it seems to me that 'contentment' and 'satisfaction' imply inactive states. Being content or satisfied with the state of things means you likely don't want them to change, which to me seems to be the opposite of how we should hope to feel. Of course, working to enact change begs the question, "which way should we head?" or "what is the right direction for progress?", but let's set that aside for the time being.

What really interests me is the assumption, not that happiness is a good thing, it probably is, but that it should be a main goal. There's even a test you can take to find out how happy you are (followed by a course in happiness building), but it seems to me that to score happy on that particular test doesn't demonstrate happiness, rather stupidity (which are often lumped together).

"Ignorance is bliss" is the conventional wisdom that we all want to push back against... Nay, say we, we'd be happier knowing what we have or what we're striving for... Countless examples construct this argument that we don't need to be simple and innocent to be happy (most recently, in my re-watching the original Star Trek series i came to the episode where they encounter Apollo, "Who Mourns for Adonais?", a classic episode where the crew is captured by a powerful being who'd been to earth 5000 years ago and had waited for them to begin exploring space so they could live in Olympus with him, worshipping him and herding goats. Needless to say, Kirk is against the idea, fights back, and eventually wins their continued freedom.)

The real question, for me, is how do we define happiness?

Barbara Ehrenreich wrote a phenomenal and accessible book about it called Dancing in the Streets, but instead of individual happiness, her book explores collective joy. Happiness as defined as a collective feeling is something rarely, if ever, explored in modern definitions. 'How can I be happier' is what we want to know. At most, the question of 'how can we be happier' is answered in terms of a very small unit, a couple or a family, thus isolating us from our community/society/civilization by defining happiness as an individual endeavor.

So much of our current efforts focus on improving your own, personal happiness (take a stroll through any bookstore's self-help or personal finance section, or take a read through jd's site, which really is quite good), thoughts of communal or societal happiness is almost alien to us. Sure, we have collective feel-good times (look at last nights speeches by Teddy Kennedy & Michelle Obama) where we imagine ourselves to be working toward a 'common good', but politics hasn't been about a true common good for a long time, maybe it never was. Instead, talking heads on CNN & PBS talk about how the candidate (and those speaking on his behalf) needs to demonstrate to voters how electing them will improve their lives (meaning individual lives).

If everybody's happy & content with what they have, as jd (and others) suggest is a real goal, then we have no motivation for change or impetus for collective action. And so i would suggest, dear reader, that Bobby McFerrin had it half right...

Don't Worry, and Don't Be Happy...


Jacks said...

I just don't understand why they wouldn't want to herd goats. Didn't Kirk ever read Heidi?

joel said...

i'm not sure Heidi makes it to the 23rd Century...