Sunday, January 27, 2008

States of happiness. Part 1.

Happiness has been much in the news. Which is not to say that the news itself has been happy. (An unhappy view of life is, of course, built into the news business, which occupies itself with murder, malfeasance, and the dark side of humanity as a whole.) But there's been a fair amount in the news lately about happiness—and the paucity of same here in the U.S.

Notably, the U.K.'s University of Leicester once again has been touting its "happiness map," a first-of-its-kind global assessment introduced by the university, amid much media hoopla, in 2006. (The map got at least a mention on any number of newscasts and TV newsmagazines I watched.) The Leicester findings, credited to analytical social psychologist Adrian White, are the product of what's known in academic circles as a "meta-analysis"; that's a research project that seeks to extrapolate some overarching truth from other studies and data that have been variously compiled in the subject area. White's research considered no less than 100 prior studies encompassing 80,000 people worldwide.

The happiest nation, according to White? Denmark. Rounding out the top 10 are Switzerland, Austria, Iceland, The Bahamas, Finland, Sweden, Bhutan, Brunei, and Canada. To which I say:

Bhutan?*

And where does the U.S. place in this cartography of good cheer? Twenty-third. Behind not just the foregoing, but also the likes of Malaysia, Malta, Costa Rica and St. Kitts. And if you look at the point system White used, we're not all that far ahead of Guyana, a third-world Machete-dom—best known for a historic cult massacre—whose overall social ambiance was summarized as follows a few years ago by one editorialist: "...35 per cent poverty and 15 per cent unemployment, as well as the crimes of narco-trafficking and gun-running, strident anti-government attacks from the main opposition People's National Congress (PNC) and on the police that blend with that party's rhetoric to make the country 'ungovernable.' "

All is not lost for us. We do beat out Japan (90) and India (125), while we easily out-smile Russia (167). And we're light years ahead of the three nations bringing up the rear: the Congo (176), Zimbabwe (177) and—at 178, the official anti-Disneyland—Burundi.

Does the list mean anything? Should we take it seriously? The criteria employed at Leicester were fairly complex. (If you want to know more about how the results were tabulated, follow the link in the second paragraph of this post.) But here's further testament to the list's validity: There's at least a rough correlation between the happiness map and global suicide rates. For example, Russia and other components of the former Soviet Union dominate the end of the suicide list that you don't want to be on. Japan also fares poorly in both rankings. On the other hand, some nations that place highly in happiness appear to have a suicide problem nonetheless. Scandinavia in particular has long been linked with pretty high suicide rates, and that trend continues. Such oddities, as well as the lack of suicides in nations where you'd otherwise expect to find them, may have to do with religious taboos and other cultural factors that mitigate for or against self-killing.

We'll get back to the U.S., and what these findings mean for us, next time.

(Of course, all thoughts are welcome in the interim.)

* And if you're a teenager reading thisespecially in certain parts of Brooklyn and the Bronx—no, it doesn't mean what you think it does. That's a totally different word.

33 comments:

Anonymous said...

Steve, a question here: Could it be that Scandinavia's suicide rate is high because the lack of a taboo on suicide means that more of the elderly are choosing suicide as a painless way to end their lives rather than helplessly watching as they become wards of the medical state, lose their homes and independence, and are subjected to increasing indignity, weakness and pain as their lives draw to a close? In other words, what's the age of the average Scandinavian suicide? In societies where the aged are integrated into the community and extended family, and loved and respected as valuable family members with a wealth of wisdom to contribute--as, for example, among today's Amish right here in the U.S.--I think it makes sense to hang in there 'til the end. But in societies where the elderly are viewed as embarrassing nuisances and shoved into nursing homes to live in isolation and indignity, a well-planned suicide certainly seems the more--forgive the word--viable option. Let me hasten to say that it's not the only one, however. I've been thrilled to read about the rise in elder communities--intentional communities of friends who build their homes together while planning for old age and the conveniences that will become indispensible as their own strength fades. I say, go for it! Perhaps those experiments with communal living in the Sixties will be good for something after all...

Anonymous said...

You mention irony, how's this: For a guy who says we're too focused on happiness, it's all you seem to write about lately!

Steve Salerno said...

Anon 1, you make an interesting and probably valid point, though your final exhortation to "go for it!" strikes me as perhaps a bit too enthuasiastic/macabre in this context....

Anon 2, your observation has been made before, but since it's central to what I'd planned to post next time, I think I'll leave the question pending for now.

a/good/lysstener said...

I know I should be happier than I am. If I look at my life in the overall it seems pretty good. I don't really want for anything, my parents were able to send me to a good and (generally) safe school, I have more than my share of amenities. I have my own car, nice clothes, nice friends to go out with if I want, even a "retirement fund" at age 24! I'm sure there are millions of people my age internationally who would be only too happy to switch places. The problem is that I'm still "stuck with me," and I guess I can't see my own life any differently than I see it, no matter how good it might look to someone on the outside.

Steve Salerno said...

Well that just begs the question, does it not? Why are so many of us unable to bring our objective assessment of our life into greater balance with our subjective feelings about that life?

Anonymous said...

Happiness is simple, isn't it: Being content with who you are, where you are, and what you have. I ask you, how hard is that? Do you really want to be Britney Spears or Heath Ledger (or, say, Dr. Phil or Oprah)? Surely not! Forget what the media says you *should* be and enjoy who you are! Then the "center of happiness" will be right where you are, and you can stop looking for it and simply enjoy life and living.

Cosmic Connie said...

"Why are so many of us unable to bring our objective assessment of our life into greater balance with our subjective feelings about that life?" you ask.

At the risk of sounding simplistic, maybe it's because things almost always look different from the outside than they do from the inside. It's hard to see the whole picture when you're *in* the picture. Even people who (by most folks' standards) have a fabulous life have problems that they, and they alone, have to deal with. It's just not as easy for most of us to "cherry-pick" the details of our own lives and only see the good.

I'm sure that at least some of it has to do with brain chemistry; for some, it's just easier to look at the bright side, and for others it's much more difficult.

Anonymous said...

If one is content with life, how would advertising work? Most of marketing is based on telling consumers they need more. You won't be happy until you get that car, house, clothing, toothpaste, drug, or whatever is needed. This is built into most marketing and to some level contributes to the feelings of unhappiness, especially in the U.S. The fact of the matter is, what makes one truly happy has nothing to do with consumption. Studies have shown giving and social bonds make people happy and they can never be really brought.

Steve Salerno said...

Connie, your comment reminds me of something a therapist once told me: that a person's pain is a person's pain and must be taken as a given, regardless of whether--to you or me--it might seem trivial. Some of us are generally pretty stoic and will fall apart only when faced with a genuine catastrophe, while to others of us, any form of adversity is a genuine catastrophe. The fact that it may take a fatal bridge collapse to reduce Jo to tears, while Flo falls apart at a hang-nail, doesn't mean Flo's pain is any less real than Jo's.

Still, that said, why aren't more of us able to look to places like we see on the evening news--awful, dangerous, oppressive, disease-ridden places--and do a better job of telling ourselves, "No matter what I face in my life, I'm better off than at least 75% of everybody else on earth, just by virtue of living in America"?

Carl said...

Steve, I read the thing you wrote about your father and his views and I have to agree, why are we wasting so much time on this crap? Jesus Christ if people took the time they spend crying about how unhappy they are and actually did something to make a change or at least STOPPED WHINING ABOUT IT they wouldn't be in this mess!

Anonymous said...

Amen to that, Steve! (Being lucky to live in America.) Thinking more about why we lucky Americans are unhappy, one word comes to mind: debt. I was reading on MSN the other day that more Americans are sinking into debt every day because of car payments, which now normally stretch over 5 years and are often carried over from new car to new car. We seem to have so equated happiness with bigger and better--or at least newer--that we have traded our financial independence, and thus our freedom and self-respect, for "stuff." I know I couldn't sleep at night--much less feel happy--if I was wondering where the next payment was coming from. (I think one of your regulars--perhaps Crack--might have touched on this in an earlier post, but felt it was worth bringing up again here in light of the topic.)

Steve Salerno said...

I'm not sure I'm getting these comments in timely fashion, and/or in the order in which they were sent, but I want to take a moment to address today's 2:41 p.m. Anon comment about advertising, etc. Look...the last thing I want to do here is take a sharp U-turn in the middle of my own argument and start sounding like a Joe Vitale-in-training, i.e. that money can buy you happiness. I do, however, think there's merit to a point made by regular contributor Roger O'Keeffe, I believe, a week or so back. To take the extreme position that happiness is about beautiful sunsets, and money is totally irrelevant in this equation, is, I think, a bit naive in today's world. It's hard to look at the plight of people who live, say, in Darfur, and argue that there's NO link whatsoever between money and some bare-bones version of happiness. I come back again to RevRon's oft-stated position regarding "balance." We'll talk more about this next time.

Anonymous said...

Actually, we could learn a lot from the people in Darfur and Africa about happiness. They're not talking about happiness. They are trying to survive, which says alot about how people might have too much time on their hands. BTW, have you seen the ad campaigns for helping Darfur? You can't get on a subway in NYC without seeing them. It is about where people put their priorities. People cannot live on sunsets alone, but it's a hell of lot harder to be "content" when society gets blasted with messages of needing more. This also ties in with post about debt and how far in debt the average American family is.

Anonymous said...

The role of social bonds (as one of the anon's mentioned) is no small factor when it comes to contentment. Having a good social network is important. People don't always consider this when they look at others' lives from the outside.

What if "where you are" is in an abusive relationship and "what you have" is no one to turn to? No one should expect you to be content with that.

Just because many of us have food on the table and a roof over our heads doesn't mean we should automatically be happy for those reasons alone. The psychological and emotional traumas that some of us endure should not be disregarded. Yes, there will always be others who have it worse--and who have it better--but that doesn't mean that the pain is any less real.

Steven Sashen said...

I think the reason we aren't struck down by gratitude for our situation when we see the conditions that we *aren't* living in relates to why many of us eat Mexican food (wait for it; it'll make sense in a sec).

Actually, you can substitute Thai, Indian or any other food that tastes great but then has, let's just call them, other repercussions the next day.

My food theory is that the time lag between eating and wishing we hadn't eaten is too long to register as a direct cause-and-effect event in the body. If Pavlov waited as long to bring food after ringing the bell, the dogs wouldn't have started salivating at the bell. Same thing. Sure, we UNDERSTAND the relationship, but it doesn't AFFECT us.

We've all probably experienced the opposite too... like when you get stomach flu and, even though the illness was not in any way related to the last meal you you ate, for the next few weeks (or more) you are repulsed by whatever you had at that last meal.

So, to bring it full circle, we understand that our situation is better, but we don't FEEL it. There's no immediate visceral connection. We feel neither the advantage we have, nor the suffering we see. We don't have an immediate bodily connection to the information and, therefore, it never penetrates deeply enough to lead to a change in behavior, let alone attitude.

Related to that is the idea that we only feel things on a relatively narrow pleasant-unpleasant scale... and the scale continually readjusts based on recent experiences.

This is one reason why people in what we consider dreadful circumstances (e.g. people who become paralyzed) report similar levels of happiness to those who are in usual circumstances (and those people find it impossible to believe that the others are, in fact, happy).

Steve Salerno said...

I agree entirely, anon. Real pain is real pain. My basic point is simply that there has to be something between "I won't be happy till I have everything a person could possibly want out of life" and "stop your whining and shut up and just accept your life for what it is." But generally speaking, the only way you can sell a book or a self-help program is by erring very sharply on the side of the former sentiment. That is what people have been conditioned to hear. (Witness, The Secret.) And that, to a large extent, can be their downfall.

Steve Salerno said...

SS, these points are all well taken (although I can't really say I'm taking them that well at the moment, as I was just about to go up for a late breakfast). Your comment reminds me, too, of how many people just sort of skate through life, accumulating things and using people, until they get sick somehow (often a heart attack is the culprit) and they begin to see life in a totally different way. They begin smelling the flowers, even though the flowers were right there for the smelling all along.

But you know, we are told all the time about the role that rationality is supposed to play in life; we are told about what a
"fully evolved" people we are, and that the most important thing an adult can learn to do is bring the tools of sober-minded analysis to a situation that normally is experienced in pure emotional terms. Children often respond to even minor disappointment with sobs or tantrums. Adults are not supposed to react that way. We are supposed to have learned to moderate our emotional responses with a degree of insight and perspective. To bring this back to your specific example, that is why there are many people I know, notably my mother-in-law who now lives with us, who will not eat the Mexican or Indian food. No matter how tasty and appetizing they find it, they know by now how it's bound to affect them, and the rational side of them just isn't prepared to pay that price. (Or, I suppose, a cynic could say that an even stronger emotion has, by this time, after many bouts with Montezuma's Revenge, risen up and overwhelmed the simple pleasure response to ethnic food.)

And let me make one other point. While I agree with you to a certain extent about emotions trumping reason, I would also point out that many of today's uber-narcissists were taught to be that way. They could've been trained, if you will, to be more modest in their expectations of life. But they weren't. If anything, they were enabled in their narcissism, which is why today, for them, good enough is never good enough.

I guess what troubles me about your argument is that it makes it sound as if there's no escape from this dilemma, and I don't think that's the case. If a person can be trained to live in a dreamland, a person can also be trained not to. It's probably harder, because in the latter case you're working against a person's innate desire to experience as much pleasure as s/he can. But I don't think it's impossible.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps more adults would be happier if they allowed themselves to scream, rant, and howl (in the privacy of their own homes or on a quickly deleted e-mail) to their heart's content over whatever was bothering them, get it out, and get on with their day. As long as no one else can hear (or, in the case of e-mail, see) the "childish" behavior, it's the most therapeutic indulgence I know. Fortunately, my kitchen counters are none the worse from my pounding on them when shrieking at the top of my lungs after cutting or burning myself, breaking something, etc. Accidents happen--especially if one is accident-prone--but it sure feels good to scream about it for a minute, then get back to work, rather than just stuffing it down and soldiering on. And the same holds true for many of life's traumas. Telling the boss exactly what you think of him or her, at great length (but, of course, in the shower, not in his or her office) is oh so satisfying. Screaming and shrieking over an unwelcome diagnosis rather than behaving "like an adult" allows you to express your fear and rage, and *then* you can focus on the consequences. I think there's a great deal to be said for primal (i.e., "childish") behavior, as long as no one else is subjected to it. Try it!

Anonymous said...

Steve, SS's comments remind me of the "happiness setpoint," and perhaps you'd like to address that since happiness is your topic. Scientists discovered that everyone had a "happiness setpoint"--anywhere from euphoric to miserable--and whatever their circumstances, they quickly returned to their steady state. Thus, a miserable person would quickly return to being miserable, even if he won the lottery, while a happy person would quickly resume their happy frame of mind even if they were laid off. This certainly seems to be the case from my observations! And it may explain why some people who seemingly "have everything" are still unhappy, while others with practically nothing seem totally content.

Steve Salerno said...

Anon1 (assuming you're not the same Anon in both cases): What a terrific idea!: inviting your boss to take a shower with you, and then reaming him/her out while you wash up. Eco-friendly, too!

Anonymous said...

You seem to be getting immediate gratification mixed up with contentment. In the case of your mother-in-law, she may like Mexican food, but she knows the physical complications that will affect her down the line. She realizes the "immediate" good feelings she experiences are not worth the more painful experiences later. You could use this example for teenagers who experiment with drugs. If a teenager has one bad episode with a drug that lands he or she in the hospital, they are unlikely to keep taking drugs.
Whereas if you have a teenager who gets enjoyment from drugs with no "obvious" side affects, you most likely will have an adult with dependence problem to deal with for the his or her lifespan. Which brings to mind the whole question of immediate "happiness" to long term "contentment." A lot of people do not understand the difference until it is too late to change their behaviors or just not enough time.

Anonymous said...

BTW, the most financially successful people are not usually the happiest or content. If they were, they would not have risen so high in corporations or in their chosen fields. They have to think their "happiness" is dependent on the next IPO, corporate deal, or shareholders' approval. They also generally have pretty bad health and social bonds. Read any biography of a corporate CEO and see that played out. I do not believe money buys happiness, but society has said "give it a shot."

Steve Salerno said...

You hit on a very important point that I want to underscore here, even if it means giving you credit for uncovering a possible weakness in my own comment, above.

I think that overall, we Americans suffer from a serious culture-wide confusion about the difference between such things as happiness, contentment, joy, excitement, stability, peace of mind, etc., as well as the respective worth of same. How many of us mistake excitement for happiness? Stability for peace of mind? (They're not necessarily the same.) When we talk of the pursuit of happiness, do we even speak from a common reference point? I'm not referring to the specifics of what we pursue, which are always going to differ. I'm referring to the feeling we hope to derive from what we pursue.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm, that's a very good point. "Stimulation" and "contentment" would seem to be polar opposites, yet each might constitute someone's definition of "happiness." No wonder there's so much confusion and disagreement about how to go about obtaining* happiness.

*As though it were something one could buy!

a/good/lysstener said...

I don't know about you, anon, but I personally would be a lot more content with a little more stimulation. And Steve, before you censor that remark as inappropriate I think you should stop to consider its truth. My point is, you can't set these things up as "polar opposites." We need a blend of these things to keep us "happy," whatever that is. Sex is in fact the perfect example here. If you look at sex, stimulation is certainly not the opposite of contentment! Stimulations leads to contentment. You have to go through the stimulation part to *get to* the contentment. I think happy lives need all of the emotions you described- the joy, the excitement, the security, and so on. How can you make it sound like it's either/or?

Anonymous said...

This brings to mind the "living in the now" frame of mind that litters the self-help landscape. I think this concept is one of the dumbest ideas I have ever heard. Looking back on my life, "living in the now" got me in a lot of trouble. Telling off the boss felt good at the time and was "living in the now," but it was hard to find another job. Calling that ex felt good at the time, but it was a wasted year of my life to reconcile with an inappropriate romantic partner. The list goes on of how "living in the now" is not all it's cracked up to be yet it is lauded as the way to contentment, happiness, and living with no regrets. Yet if you look at the people who "lived in the moment" you will find people with a lot of regrets. I bet Bill Clinton wishes he hadn't "lived in the now" with Monica. Sure, maybe he learned from his mistake, but I bet he wishes he hadn't made the mistake to begin with. Look at Madonna. She "lived in the now" with her sex book and states she has "no regrets," but wait until her son sees his mother's sex book. How much is his therapy going to be? I think "living in the now" is immature and overrated.

Steve Salerno said...

Anon (the most recent one), if you're still with us, could you be a bit more specific about what the "this" is, when you say "this" brings to mind the "living in the now" mantra? Are you referring to Alyssa's comment? Something someone else said? Or are you just saying that, in considering the overall topic, one thing simply led to another and that's where you ended up?

Anonymous said...

"This" is immediate gratification that the self-help industry masks as "living in the now." I hear a lot about "all we have is this moment" etc. The fact of the matter is, unless you are going to be die immediately, you have more than what you are doing right now. Even people with terminal illness do not really know how long they will live. It seems to me immediate gratification is just an excuse to be selfish and thoughtless.

Anonymous said...

Anon, "living in the now" makes sense as a lifestyle ONLY if you mean "living responsibly/appropriately in the now," not "living it up in the now." If you read Eckhard Tolle's book "A New Earth" (Tolle is the modern prophet of "living in the now," as the author of the bestseller "The Power of Now"), you'll see that what he's suggesting is letting go of negative patterns that keep us trapped in the past, not embracing an "anything goes" philosophy of "having it all right now and to hell with the consequences." As Tolle points out, we can no longer have an impact on the past, but we CAN affect the present, so let's try to do the best we can today, which is, after all, where we are. This is not entitlement, it's enlightenment.

Anonymous said...

"Anon, "living in the now" makes sense as a lifestyle ONLY if you mean "living responsibly/appropriately in the now," not "living it up in the now."

Here is the problem with this concept and that book, it is not truly humanly possible unless it entails immediate gratification and lack of thought. Living responsibly means I think about my words and actions before I speak or do them, which technically puts me in the future. The "past" cannot be changed, but it affects the "present" and the "future." As human beings we are rarely ever really in the present moment unless we are acting without thought, which contradicts what you just said. I am sure you are trying to figure out how to get home, how to make dinner, etc. How is that living in the now? You must remember your telephone number and important dates, which is reliant on the past. Only in immediate gratification is one able to live truly in the "now."

The Crack Emcee said...

Several things:

1. People trying to "live in the now" always have a wide-eyed look, that I find creepy, like this guy.

2. I don't know why, considering my current financial situation, but I always wake up on the "right side of the bed": hard-charging, ready for the day, thinking I can take on the world. I'm just "me", and, in my personal life, people pick up on that, seem to want a piece of it, or want to be near it. Some also tend to hate me for it, or start to resent it. (Sorry, but I don't need "help" like they do, it's just a fact.)

I've always chalked it up to being born with - and seriously developing - my talents at an early age (there's just a kind of "vibe" I have; a real "fire in the belly"; a real high metabolism that my ex used to say she loved curling up to, or just watch in motion) because, except for during a real crisis - like you know what - I rarely suffer from malaise, or boredom, or a lack of confidence. I find so much stuff, about life, to amuse myself with, the promises of "spirituality", or self-help, seem empty, and makes the seekers seem pathetic. I wonder what their problem is because, I'm pretty sure, they have one.

On the other hand, why they find it easier than I to make money - except when I'm leading a band - stumps me. Then my Type-A personality gets in the way, because I have to rely on someone else's (usually resentful) personality judgments to survive. I can practically hear them thinking, "Oh, he thinks he's so smart", and conniving on how to hold me back so I don't outshine them. It's a real drag because I usually just want to make things good for everybody.

For instance, I once was in this band and had built up quite a following for myself - people would scream their heads off for me - which pissed the sax player off to no end. (He was the band leader.) I'd have to keep telling him, "Dude, we're in the same band, it just means more money all around!" but he never got it, so I left. Now, after being one of the most important bands in the San Francisco Bay Area, they're nowhere - and he's stuck teaching the saxophone. Me? I'm gearing up for my next push - with my own band - and expecting the world.

3. As I've stated many times, I'm grateful to live in America. Living on the Left Coast, and the cultural mis-fire of the 60s, may piss me off, but I feel attached to the idea of Middle America, of it's normalcy, and it makes me smile. I think, if we tried to admire that as *close* to an ideal in our personal lives - really, Steve, back to your Dad's mature view of things - we'd all be better off.

Sorry for rambling, BTW.

Steven Sashen said...

Hi SS,

I guess what troubles me about your argument is that it makes it sound as if there's no escape from this dilemma

I don't think that, but I do think it's DIFFICULT, or takes some serious cognitive effort.

Another way of saying that is: I'm not suggesting there's no way to learn without an temporally relevant visceral experience, but that if we DON'T learn, that may be why.

In other words, we *can* examine facts in such a way that they do affect us... but that's not often our default mode, especially if what we're attempting to learn/discover is not a life-and-death issue (obviously we can learn things like "don't roll in poison ivy" without rolling in poison ivy).

Anonymous said...

It is non-sensical to believe that the US would fall high on a ranking of happiness. The existence of the country is hinged upon money and inhumane habits. Get a life people and start living people...instead of being overly ethnocentric.