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Mindful : June 2015
Happy. What a tricky word. Does it mean being free of all cares? Do we suddenly let go of all our baggage? The new science of happiness helps us find deeper meanings. During long road trips when I was a kid, instead of switching on the radio my father sang, sometimes accompanied my mother. My brother had left home, so it was just me in the back, behind a blanket strung from door to door, pretending I was on a pirate ship headed for China, doing my best to blot out my father’s off-key warbling. Bernie was not a happy man, but his repertoire had a single theme: Happy Days Are Here Again, Smile (though your heart is breaking) a nd Put On A Happy Face topped his hit parade. My mother wasn’t any happier than my father, but it was as if she had drunk the same cultural Kool-Aid as he. They both had got the message that happiness is the only worthy emotion. The rest— anger, disappointment, fear, sorrow— were signs of a weak character. Shame- ful. I got the message, too. Like so ma ny Westerners, especially Americans, we believed we were supposed to be happy all the time—as far as I can tell, the num- ber one, surefire predictor of misery. “ We have this default assumption that happiness is a calculus of pleasure and pain, and if you get rid of pain and multiply pleasures then you’ll be happy, but it doesn’t work that way,” says Da rrin McMahon, a history professor at Da rt- mouth College and author of Happiness: A History. What ’s more, he explains, “The idea of happiness as our natural state is a peculiarly modern condition that puts a tremendous onus on people. We blame ourselves and feel guilty and deficient when we’re not happy.” As it turns out, the notion that we should be able to manifest our own individual happiness is a relatively recent concept in human history, starting in the late 17th century and continuing to develop during the 18th (see under: Thomas Jefferson and John Locke). Before then, suffering was considered the norm a nd happiness was thought to be a mat ter of luck. In fact, hap is both the Old Norse and Old English root of happi- ness—and it mea ns luck or cha nce. “The belief in our own happiness has been a progressive and liberating notion, yet it has a shadow side,” McMahon tells me. To me it seems as if our whole cul- ture has been living in this shadow zone for some time: Don’t worry, be happy. Or, as with my parents, pretend to be happy, even when you’re not. So what are we really talking about when we talk about happiness? Clearly, given the recent explosion of bestsellers, smartphone apps, websites, workshops, TED talks, online courses, magazine articles, and a slew of research programs dedicated to helping people become happier, it’s no idle question. Yet, I wonder: Are we desperately seeking happiness more than ever before because we’re more miserable than ever before, despite the obvious perks and advantages of contemporar y life? Or are there important lessons to be gleaned from the thriving happiness zeitgeist that ca n actually ma ke us, well, happier, in a real and authentic sort of way? Both explanations, it would seem, are true. “Most of us have signed on for a cultura l approach that has to do with possessions and status a nd achievements as markers of happiness,” says Emili- ana Simon-Thomas, science director of the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, which offers a free 10-week online course called The Science of Happiness. “ But having bought into that vision and aspired to it on a fundamental level, we’re lonelier than ever,” she explains, noting that an estimated one out of every three people has no one in their life they can really talk to. “ We’re more disconnected from our communities and less able to coop- erate and we’re a nxious about potential failure. All of these factors make happi- ness much harder to evaluate.” Still, perhaps the tsunami of interest in happiness reflects a cultural awakening and swing away from the unsatisfying → Are we desperately seeking happiness because we’re more miserable than ever before, despite the many perks of modern life? Barbara Graham is an essayist, journalist, and playwright. She is author/editor of Eye of My Hear t: 27 Writers Reveal the Hidden Pleasures and Perils of Being a Grandmother. She wrote High Anxiety, a feature in the December 2014 issue of Mindful. June 2015 mindful 43