Monday, December 22, 2014


Are you happy?


For the last 20 years or so, social science researchers have studied human happiness by going around and asking many people whether they are happy. One thing they discovered was that most people draw a sharp line between the happiness of their life over all, and their current condition. Someone may be confined to a hospital bed in acute pain after a serious accident and complain about that while saying at the same time that their life, all and all, is a happy one. Someone else may be having pleasant experiences, lazing around on the beach without worries about money, in the company of good friends, but nevertheless feel profoundly sad and discouraged about life as a whole.
Happiness as a whole is different from happiness in the moment the social scientists conclude. They are confident that their results are reliable. They trust the information gleaned from their questionnaires.
But the project is misguided for two reasons.
What the questionnaires tell them is not about human happiness but about the pressures we feel in our society to do well, to succeed, to be happy. From the day we were born we are told that in the United States everybody can make their life better; everyone can make something of him or herself. The clear implication is that, barring extraordinary misfortunes, if your life does not turn out well it is because you didn't work hard enough or made bad choices. If you are unhappy you have, most likely, only yourself to blame.
In a world that raises these expectations you would not expect people to admit that their life is a disappointment to them. They may admit to current, temporary problems while insisting that they are nevertheless a happy person.
Asking people whether they are happy does not tell you much about what their life is like and more about what they feel they ought to think about it.
But asking people about their happiness is misguided for another reason. Once you receive answers to your questionnaires you are no wiser than you were before. What is someone telling you who says he is happy? He might be saying that his life is exciting. There is great promise of good work, of interesting collaborations. He is deeply embedded in his family life and marvels at his children growing up. But of course he might be telling you something very different. He might think that his life is not too bad, that it might have turned out a lot worse than it did, even though it is a bit of a disappointment. Someone else might say she is happy because she thinks that all the many troubles she is enduring now are simply the price she is paying for happiness in the afterlife, sitting near the throne of God and rejoicing with the choirs of angels.
Someone who tells you he is happy is not giving you a lot of information. He may simply not want to talk to about his life, or may be too indolent to think about it. The many questions thoughtful persons raise about their life are very different.
This person may think their life is monotonous; they are bored. They then need to try to explore what else they could do that would make their life more interesting, more varied, less predictable. They need to think about how much structure they need, how regular their days have to unfold. They need to ask themselves what seems to keep them imprisoned in their present condition, why they have not already spiced up their life.
Another may think that the days are too crowded, that they have no time to sit quietly and catch their breath. Which of the things they do are important, which of them are important to them? Which ones can be dropped? Can they get some help to unload some tasks?
There is a good deal of sadness in human life. One does not meet one's expectations in one's career. This splendid future one was anticipating does not materialize. A beloved partner dies. One becomes old and infirm.
It takes considerable wisdom and good friends to find one's way through all of that. But it is not as good a life if one does not try to face those specific difficulties.
One must attend to the specifics of each day to make one's life good. Talk about happiness is so general and indistinct that it obscures what it takes to live as good a life as one is able to and as good a life as one's circumstances allow one. It is a distraction to keep us from thinking.