Thursday, September 07, 2006

"...and the pursuit of Happyism."

Contrary to the impression apt to be left on the casual reader of this blog, I am not a fan of misery, futility and desolation. I like happiness. Honest. I wouldn't even mind having more of it myself. I just get impatient as I continue to hear about today's entrepreneurial endeavors to turn happiness into an industry: ergo, "Happyism," as the movement has become known in self-help circles. More specifically, I get impatient with the wholly baseless arguments and push-button remedies advanced (for a fee) by those who claim to have solved the riddle of human happiness.

As is true just about everywhere else in the SHAMsphere, today's Happyism outreach relies on the extreme promise. It'd be one thing if the Happyists presented their offerings in such a way that the message was, "Now here's something that might make some contribution to lifting some people's spirits sometimes, though no one really knows for sure...." Of course, that isn't very marketable. So the final message goes, more or less:


Case in point: An article in the Taipei Times*, "Happy By Design," a piece about the Next New Thing in interior design, poses in its subhead: "In the last decade the social sciences have focused on what accounts for happiness. Some designers think they have the answer, a very colorful one." Later in the piece, the writer notes that "a number of influential East Coast decorators" argue that "a maximalist, color-saturated approach to interiors is a secret to happiness--maybe even the secret."** Yet nowhere in the piece does the author or his sources quote any corroborating evidence. Once again, the gods of Happyism pretend to a knowledge base that quite simply does not exist. And their allies in media allow them to get away with it.

The particular focus of the influential decorators' ire is the neutral color palate that predominates in Western interior design; the decorators seem especially scornful of beige. "I go by nature. Beige is not a color in the rainbow," observes Alexandra Stoddard, whom the article identifies as "a Park Avenue decorator who has written some 20 design and self-help books, including Choosing Happiness." (Presumably that establishes her bona fides to expound on happiness and fulfillment.) Stoddard then asks, exactly as if the answers were self-evident, "Why would you want a beige sky? Would you want beige water?"

Two comments here. First, a brief semi-digression to the subject of natural vs. artificial. You'll hear some very intelligent people voice their passion for natural things, as if natural by definition = wholesome. That is plainly ridiculous. Many things found in nature are harmful if not deadly--ask Steve Irwin--while many non-natural things dramatically improve life and even keep us alive long after we would've (naturally) died: e.g. kidney dialysis, to name just one of thousands of unnatural life extenders now commonly available. But natural-mania is another one of those latter-day cause celebres that gets people nodding and clapping, even though its validity breaks down if you look just one iota beneath the surface. Thus: So what if beige isn't found in the rainbow? What the hell does a color's presence or absence in the rainbow inherently have to do with happiness??*** (Prozac isn't found in the rainbow, either, and it makes an awful lot of folks happy. Or at least less hopeless.) Second, and related, the only reason the answers to Stoddard's questions about "a beige sky [or] water" seem clear is that we don't presently have a beige sky or water, unless you live near certain coal-fired power plants. If the sky were factually beige, we'd accept it for what it was, and I imagine we'd enjoy it just the same--in which case the notion of a blue sky would sound weird. Come to think of it--who knows?--maybe the real key to happiness is not to make your ceilings pastel, but to somehow, through scientific advances, make the rainbow unfold in shades of beige!

Of course, none of this cynicism will stop the happiness steamroller from steamrolling right on. The Times reports that classes in the burgeoning academic discipline of "happiness studies" (a.k.a. "positive psychology") typically rank among the most popular offerings in the catalogs of the 100-plus colleges offering such course work (which is bound to have the effect of forcing more colleges to offer more such courses, just to stay competitive). The positive-psych class taught by the esteemed Marty Seligman, already covered in this blog, is in fact the single most popular course at Harvard today. Self-help books with nichey titles (example: The Architecture of Happiness) continue to approach the subject of happiness from myriad angles and directions. Which, I suppose, is fine. I just think it would be nice if at least some of today's happy-fest was grounded in something more than, say, somebody's trendy idea about color schemes.

* You may be wondering why I took this out of the Taipei Times instead of its original source, The New York Times. The latter often asks you to register for the site before allowing you access to content. In this case, your browser may inform that you "need to install the following language pack: Chinese traditional" in order to properly view content from the Taipei Times, but if you simply hit "cancel" it should come up in perfectly readable English.
** Emphasis added, but clearly intended in the original.
*** Many women are never happier than when they put on a little black dress. When was the last time you saw a black rainbow? Yes, I know there's more going on here than that...but still...

P.S., FRIDAY AFTERNOON. This, from a fellow writer: "I don't think too many of us would want to drink red water, even though red is actually in the rainbow."


Anonymous said...

Surely this reverence for the natural is an, um, natural reaction to the unnatural state of living in concrete and cubicles. If we all lived in thatched huts in the open, the artificial would probably be revered. Or perhaps we're all simply biologically programmed to respond to the environment in which we evolved...

acd said...

This movement of "Happyism" is probably a large part of the reason why so many people are unhappy. I believe it's the same effect health and beauty magazines have on women--first they convince you that you're unattractive/overweight/undesirable, then provide the alleged solution to fix all your problems.

In essence, putting emphasis on being happy makes people needlessly question whether they really are happy and what defines happiness. Happiness should just be a way of life that you don't need to question or overanalyze. There is no "key" or "secret" to happiness. But in the self-help genre, as Steve mentions repeatedly, something that can't be described as "Seven Simple Steps to..." isn't marketable.

What leads to unhappiness for many--whether or not it's the self-help gurus encouraging this perception--is the state of constantly being discontented no matter what lifestyle one assumes. Being single is portrayed as a lonely, worthless existence. Being married means living a dull, routine life and always desperately looking for ways to spice things up. Having children leaves doubts of what you could have accomplished if you weren't tied down. Yet not having children indicates that there is no meaning or fulfillment in your life.

Many times the exact opposite path you took looks more desirable. This also relates to the natural/artificial discussion. When we have so many artificial inventions, we seek to return to the natural. However, if all we had to rely on was what could be retrieved directly from nature, we would strive to create artificial inventions to make our lives easier--those same inventions that people now decry as being unnatural and therefore less appealing alternatives.

I’m certainly not going to attempt to answer the question of what would make people happy, primarily because there is no answer. Some people accept the good with the bad and are satisfied with their choices overall. Others regret every decision they ever made. It’s all a state of a mind. There’s no specific path in life that will definitely make a given person happy. Part of it is biological, and part of it is societal influences--how we are conditioned to view life and the pursuit of the happiness.

But in the end, we all have to grapple with the same daunting questions about life, and there is no one who can provide the answers for us. What gives you lasting joy in life is just something you have to figure out on your own.

Steve Salerno said...

Welcome back, acd, after a prolonged absence--and thank you for one of the more comprehensive and provocative topical assays we've had in some time.

I agree with you, of course, that the relentless focus on "am I happy? am I happy? am I still happy?" is one of the greatest undiagnosed causes of societal UNhappiness, today. As soon as you lift your eyes from your own lawn--the very lawn that has always given you such joy--you're bound to see greener grass in the distance somewhere. But does that become, ultimately, an argument for "ignorance is bliss"?

You know, on a personal note, I recall asking my dad, when I was about 13, if he was happy. (He would've been around 45. Little did we know that he had a mere 14 years left to him.) He responded with the strangest expression I'd ever seen on his face. Then he said, "Son, a man doesn't have time to ask himself that question." I'm not suggesting that we revert to that sort of nihilist, just-take-care-of-business approach to life--the world of stoic, manly obligation that my father inhabited. (And this obviously applies to both genders.) I know that this may sound very un-SHAM-like, but in fact, I never meant to rule out or even dismiss the notion of striving for something better. There HAS to be a time and place for taking stock of things, for deciding whether the way you live your life is fulfilling and/or makes sense. I just don't know how that endeavor could be fashioned into a generic program that has revelance for all (or even most) comers.


RevRon's Rants said...

Once upon a time, I ran a singles goup for a local church, and the saddest people I encountered there were without exception the ones who constantly beamed smiles that seemed to dare anyone to challenge their profound and constant state of joyfulness. These loneliest of people believed that truly evolved beings were, by their nature, happy, and that by emphatically projecting their jolliness, they were marking themselves as nothing short of avatars.

Most of these people ended up becoming lifetime members of the singles group, while others, unable to sustain the toothsome demeanor indefinitely, moved on to other milieus.

I admit that there was a time when I, too, beamed that thousand-watt smile, but I also had the eroded septum that came as part of the package. Hated the stuff, but LOVED the way it smelled! :-)

Cosmic Connie said...

Excellent comments, anon, acd, RevRon & "Sepia Steve." (Actually, Steve, if your world is as sepia as it would appear to be in your new profile pic, then a beige sky and beige water would fit right in with the color scheme. :-))

The Rev and I often watch a movie at night, and last night it was my turn to pick. I must have been inspired by this thread, because I chose the 1990 Jim Belushi flick "Mr. Destiny," the tale of a guy who gets a chance to live out a big "what if" that has haunted him since he was a teenager. Belushi plays an unhappy – or, rather, profoundly discontented – man who is obsessed with how much more wonderful his life would have been if only he'd hit a winning home run 20 years previously, in a high school baseball game. On his 35th birthday, through a bit of mystical magic, he gets the chance to experience that alternate reality. Not surprisingly (otherwise, there wouldn’t really be a point to the movie), he learns to deeply appreciate the life he has.

Later that night I dreamed I was wandering the mall where I worked in a book store when I was much younger. That mall has since been fancied up quite a bit – it even has a Nordstrom's – but in my dream it was the nondescript mid-1960s-vintage place it used to be. I was going from store to store and couldn’t find anything of interest. Finally I walked into a gift shop that used to be located right next to my book store, and I came upon one of the ladies who worked there. She was frantically pawing through the gift baskets and other merchandise in the front display areas, explaining to me that she was shopping for a present for one of her relatives. But she couldn’t find anything worthy of giving this person. I thought it kind of strange that she couldn’t find a suitable present in her own gift shop, and I pointed out several items I thought were pretty cool. She brightened and said, “You know, you’re right!” Then I took a closer look at the stuff and saw that all of it was old and dusty and kind of sucky, after all. But I didn’t say a word to her; I just left.

I’m sure there is some deep significance to that dream. At the very least, it suggests I do have it in me to be a professional motivator, after all. :-) (Although it should be noted that in the dream, I did not charge the lady for my advice.)

I think there is often a fine line between “divine discontent” and malcontent. And obviously, marketers and advertisers and self(ish)-help hucksters are continually working to make all of us cross that line. After all, their very livelihood rests in convincing us that we need to “have, do, or be more” (in the words of a certain hustledork I often quote). I guess the real key to happiness is learning to “be here now,” as 1960s icon Ram Dass might say, without feeling trapped in the moment or in the circumstances of your life. I haven’t mastered that balance yet, but I don’t think you can learn it in a “Seven Steps To Whatever” book or a thousand-dollar weekend workshop.

acd said...

First of all, if someone thinks they have the "key to happiness" figured out, it's not going to be a set of specific changes you must effect in your life in order to make you happy (because who can write a book like that that will apply to everyone?). If anything, it would be a different way of thinking about life--a state of mind, like I said before. Even if this state of mind was a legitimate way to achieve happiness, you cannot force people to live by that philosophy. It's as good as saying, "Be happy!" or even "Be here now," as Cosmic Connie quoted.

Yes, people might be more content if they appreciate the life they have instead of feeling trapped by it, but you can't always make people perceive their circumstances in a different way. I believe that the way you look at life is a largely unchangeable part of you. Person X can be more fortunate than Person Y, but Person X might be eternally discontented just because he expects too much out of life or feels he is always entitled to something better than what he has or any number of reasons. Instructing Person X to merely think differently about his situation will do little good. He will still go away thinking that things should be going so much better than they are.

Some people get it. Some people don't. Generally, I don't think the key to happiness--if such a key exists--is something that can be successfully taught. In fact, this could once again lead to a discussion of free will vs. determinism. Are some of us destined to be unhappy merely because of the way we view life? Or are we capable of making tangible changes in either our lifestyle or our state of mind that will help us achieve contentment?

RevRon's Rants said...

I think that the belief that one does not deserve happiness is actually a greater impediment than feeling one deserves more. At least when you believe more is due, you look forward to it and seek it out. But if you believe yourself undeserving of happiness, you will tend to abort any process which "threatens" to make you happy. I know... I lived there for many years. Still do to some extent.

I am convinced that humans posess the ability to change their lifestyle and/or perception in such a way as to enhance the potential for joy. I am also convinced that some people actually choose not to do so, perhaps due to the sense of not deserving it described above, or perhaps as a result of some more deep-seated need for self-sabotage.

In the final analysis, however, if someone were actually able to come up with a universal key to happiness, the universe would change the locks. :-)

Cosmic Connie said...

Good points, acd. I do want to make it clear that I wasn't implying that happiness *can* be taught. Obviously there are too many variables, and, as you pointed out, happiness is subjective.

Also, as glib as the term "be here now" sounds, I intended it merely as shorthand for learning to fully enjoy the present moment (well, except when the present moment clearly sucks. :-)). Maybe I didn't go far enough with my statement. Not only do I feel that the art of learning to enjoy the present moment cannot be taught in a self-help book or a seminar, but like you, acd, I don't feel it can really be taught at all. (Though I do think there are certain meditation techniques that can help one develop that capacity, and certainly there are some recreational substances that can, for better or worse, ground one in the present for a short period of time.)

Rev, you make some good points too about people who seem to be guided by the belief that they don't deserve happiness. I think a lot of folks do have a deep need for self-sabotage. Unfortunately, some of the self-help hucksters jump on that too. Naturally, they have just the book or workshop to help people overcome their self-destructive patterns.

I do agree with the Rev and, for that matter, with some of the better self-help writers, that changing our perceptions can increase our *potential* for joy (however we may define joy). But it is apparent to me that not everyone has the willingness or even the ability to do this. No doubt this is due to a combination of biological and social factors, as acd suggested. In fact, as discussed in previous threads, the capacity for happiness may be dependent, to a large degree, on biology. Which, of course, just leaves the field wide open for the development of yet more "happy drugs" (legal or illegal)...

acd said...

The issue of "happy drugs" is a fascinating topic. There are obviously many ethical questions involved there. (Here, I am mainly referring to FDA-approved medications for depression and closely related conditions.)

I am not very knowledgeable about the success rate of such drugs--or how success is even defined in this regard--but if one assumes the capacity to achieve happiness as partly biological, this suggests that these medications are, at best, only capable of offering the possibility of lasting contentment.

If the circumstances of a person's life are intolerable, or if the need to suffer is so ingrained in the person's psyche that they make a conscious effort not to be happy, then medication will do little good. I believe it can be helpful for people who truly have a chemical imbalance. Their life may be objectively very rewarding, and they may want to feel happy, but they just can't.

However, this is where it becomes a very tricky situation--diagnosing these people. Perhaps some are put on drugs that inevitably will do no good. Maybe others could benefit from medication but choose not to seek help.

The overriding point is that I don't feel certain drugs are merely a way of covering up one's sadness, or at least they shouldn't be prescribed that way. I believe that they can offer people a chance at happiness who are biologically programmed to be perpetually unhappy, no matter what good fortune comes into their lives.

Steve Salerno said...

This has been a wonderful thread--one of the best. Not just because of the quality of the philosophizing, but because there is much real-world relevance here. I tell you truthfully, if we folks ever succeed at getting closer to unlocking the secret to happiness (in some sort of universal sense), we should consider collaborating on a self-help book. Lord knows it would sell rings around SHAM!