*I had some issues posting this earlier. I’m sorry if you already saw this on your page. After I posted it, I couldn’t view the post, so I deleted it and tried again. Hopefully it won’t happen again.*
“Yet the ineffectiveness of modern strategies for happiness is really just a small part of the problem. There are good reasons to believe that the whole notion of ‘seeking happiness’ is flawed to begin with. For one thing, who says happiness is a valid goal in the first place?
… philosophers have certainly not been unanimous in endorsing it, either. And any evolutionary psychologist will tell you that evolution has little interest in your being happy, beyond trying to make sure that you’re not so listless or miserable that you lose the will to reproduce.”
This is a question I’ve been asking anyone who will listen to me. I’ve been getting into this positive psychology thing over the last few months when I noticed a trend in people I met. I noticed that the people who talk the most about being happy seem to be the least happy people I know (and found this was also typical in bloggers). It’s a very nuanced question, as most are when dealing with humans. What happiness means exactly is fluid. And even the most unhappy people you know are happy some of the time.
Here’s a quick overview of a few of the studies I’ve been looking into.
“… happiness involves paradoxes”
I see the pursuit of happiness as irrelevant. As a goal, it’s an elusive, shapeless one. Happiness comes and goes, and I’m not certain any philosophy, but pure delusion, will prevent that. But mostly, when I think about it, how does happiness help me do what I want to do in any way? Of course if I’m listless and completely miserable I won’t do much work, but that’s not how feelings work. If I’m not happy it doesn’t mean I’m lying supine in bed 23 hours a day. I know that frustration and failure motivate me, and anecdotally many other people. I enjoy learning something new but it’s the disappointment in not knowing that makes me look for the answers and gives me a sense of meaning.
(Conjecture break: Feeling happy serves an evolutionary function. It’s a reward. The pleasure centers in our brain give us shots of chemical reward when we do something that helps us survive and reproduce. Sex feels good. A filling meal feels good. But hunger drives us to obtain those things, not feeling good. I don’t go rummaging around in the pantry because I can’t wait to feel contented after a sandwich. I get up and look because I’m hungry.)
“The startling conclusion at which they had all arrived, in different ways, was this: that the effort to try to feel happy is often precisely the thing that makes us miserable. And that it is our constant effort to eliminate the negative – insecurity, uncertainty, failure, or sadness – that is what causes us to feel so insecure, anxious, uncertain, or unhappy.”
This finding is related to ironic processing theory. We end up thinking about what we try to ignore. Pursuing happiness results, frequently, in the achieving of the exact opposite because it becomes all we focus on. We attempt to ignore the bad possibilities, but that just makes us think about them all the more and feel bad for thinking about them because it means we failed to be positive. The search for meaning in our life is lost and replaced by a search for happiness, disconnected from anything concrete. Happiness cannot be the goal.
(All the quotes above are from The Antidote by Oliver Burkeman)
More issues I have with positive thinking is the lack of substantial evidence beyond anecdotes, usually told by someone selling a product. A lot of studies simply don’t back up the claims.
Affirmations. Those nice little phrases you say to yourself to feel better about aspect of yourself that you don’t like. Or simply to motivate yourself. Some people think they work, some think they’re harmless. The evidence shows they may actually make things worse for people with low self esteem. In the article Positive Self-Statements, the participants who repeated a positive self-statement felt worse about themselves. A possible explanation for this involves essentially lying to ourselves. We have low self esteem but tell ourselves we are good or happy or smart or etc and there’s a conflict. It’s called the self comparison theory. Our feelings about ourselves should be consistent (at least at any one time). If part of me feels terrible and another part is saying I feel good, these both can’t be true simultaneously. I may be thinking “I hate myself” while saying “I love myself” and that’s simply not going to go smoothly.
The last issue I’ll write about here is the conflict between being aware and being happy. This is an idea I’ve written about before but a new paper has revealed some extraordinary data. The paper, Some Key Differences between a Happy Life and a Meaningful Life, appears to demonstrate that very often meaning and happiness are in conflict. Not all the time, but it’s worth noting.
Many of the things I personally value relate to meaningfulness but not happiness.
“Higher levels of worry, stress, and anxiety were linked to higher meaningfulness but lower happiness. Concerns with personal identity and expressing the self contributed to meaning but not to happiness.”
Some results in the paper make it appear that challenging yourself – your ideas, comfort, or contentment – disturbs happiness. Finding things that give your life meaning doesn’t necessarily lead to happiness and makes it hard to pursue both. Perhaps because we tend to value things that are difficult. Things like long term relationships, that will have ups and downs and require work to maintain. More often than not, they fail. But most people will agree that long term relationships are more meaningful than easy flings. A one night stand may give you a brief moment of happiness (though sometimes we end up full of regret), but does it provide your life with any meaning? Probably not (although if it does, that’s great. Enjoy it).
And lastly, I’ve often heard that feeling good makes people want to help more and I never could see that. It would seem to me that being deeply hurt by suffering in some way, motivates action. This study suggests that happiness is somewhat selfish.
” Happiness was linked to being a taker rather than a giver, whereas meaningfulness went with being a giver rather than a taker”
“If anything, pure happiness is linked to not helping others in need.”
Apologies for being disorganized. My notes were all over the place. I tried to order it so it made sense, but I was primarily concerned with getting all the thoughts down in some form. Thanks for putting up with it.