All things being equal, it is good to be happy, and it’s certainly awful to be severely depressed. But what worries me is that our pursuit of happiness is leading us to judge the great intellectual and spiritual traditions of the past according to only one measure: do they increase happiness and reduce misery? That which passes the test is plundered and that which fails is left behind. The result is that wisdom is hollowed out and replaced with a soft centre of caramelised contentment. [...]
Those keen to adopt mindfulness training as a mere means to a happier life ignore the fact that the ideas Buddhists have traditionally wanted people to be mindful of are not necessarily comfortable ones, even if they ultimately lead the way to nirvana. Being mindful of the flavour of freshly brewed coffee or the beauty of a common sparrow is one thing; fostering awareness of the emptiness at the heart of the self quite another.
Aristotle is another ancient sage who has been watered down for the dulled palates of the modern positive thinker. He is frequently quoted as saying that happiness “is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence”. But, as any first-year undergraduate knows, the word translated here as happiness – “eudaimonia” – actually means something more like “flourishing”. Eudaimonia requires that we exercise the full range of our capacities as humans – especially, but not only, our intellects. The crude adoption of Aristotle as a champion of feeling good helps happiness flourish, while flourishing flounders.
By many objective measures the lives of women in the United States have improved over the past 35 years, yet we show that measures of subjective well-being indicate that women’s happiness has declined both absolutely and relative to men. The paradox of women’s declining relative well-being is found across various datasets, measures of subjective well-being, and is pervasive across demographic groups and industrialized countries. Relative declines in female happiness have eroded a gender gap in happiness in which women in the 1970s typically reported higher subjective well-being than did men. These declines have continued and a new gender gap is emerging—one with higher subjective well-being for men.
No one wishes for hardship. But as we pick through the economic rubble, we may find that our riches have buried our treasures. Money does not buy happiness; Scripture asserts this, research confirms it. Once you reach the median level of income, roughly $50,000 a year, wealth and contentment go their separate ways, and studies find that a millionaire is no more likely to be happy than someone earning one-twentieth as much. Now a third of people polled say they are spending more time with family and friends, and nearly four times as many people say their relations with their kids have gotten better during this crisis than say they have gotten worse.
A consumer culture invites us to want more than we can ever have; a culture of thrift invites us to be grateful for whatever we can get. So we pass the time by tending our gardens and patching our safety nets and debating whether, years from now, this season will be remembered for what we lost, or all that we found.
On sites such as Amazon and iTunes, homophily is a selling point: it’s the basis for “collaborative filtering”, whereby you’re recommended books and music on the basis of what others who made the same purchase - people like you - also enjoyed.
The unspoken assumption here is that you know what you like - that satisfying your existing preferences, and maybe expanding them a little around the edges, is the path to fulfillment. But if happiness research has taught us anything, it’s that we’re terrible at predicting what will bring us pleasure. Might we end up happier by exposing ourselves more often to serendipity, or even, specifically, to the people and things we don’t think we’d like?
You don’t need technology to do that, but then again, technology needn’t be the enemy: Facebook could easily offer a list of the People You’re Least Likely To Know; imagine what that could do for cross-cultural understanding. And I love the Unsuggester, a feature of the books site LibraryThing.com: enter a book you’ve recently read, and it’ll provide a list of titles least likely to appear alongside it on other people’s bookshelves. Tell it you’re a fan of Kant’s Critique Of Pure Reason, and it’ll suggest you read Confessions Of A Shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella. And maybe you should.
Meghan is reflecting on Will Wilkinson’s reflection on a Newsweek article on how having children doesn’t make people happy. The assumption all around seems to be that this tells us something about the costs of having children. But shouldn’t we also consider the possibility that this tells us something about the costs of monitoring our own happiness? Or the costs of having defined happiness in such a way — and having organized the structure of our lives around the pursuit of happiness in such a way — that having children compromises it? It’s interesting that we’re more willing to do a cost-benefit analysis of having children than to do a cost-benefit analysis of eagerly participating in a culture of narcissism.
Here’s my thought for the day. In 1991 Rolling Stone interviewed Bob Dylan on the occasion of his 50th birthday, and at one point the interviewer asked Dylan if he was happy. This seemed to puzzle him a bit, and he was silent for a minute. Then he said, “You know,” he said, “these are yuppie words, happiness and unhappiness. It’s not happiness or unhappiness, it’s either blessed or unblessed. As the Bible says, ‘Blessed is the man who walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly.’”