Friday, March 31, 2006

Hunting The Bluebird

Just how happy are you? It's a question that's hard to answer, and most people's responses could vary from minute to minute, situation to situation. It's also one that has been weighing on my mind of late, as I try to conquer the chronic depression and stress that I've struggled with for much of my life. I imagine that most of you could empathize with the feeling that it's always something: if I was happy with my career, my living situation was a mess. If I rectified that, it was finances that troubled me. Once I got that under control, my love life was torrid. Working that out circled back to career dissatisfaction, or health problems, and so on. How does one get prepare for the future and yet live in the moment? When do we say, "I am content, I have enough"? Apparently I'm not the only one asking these questions, because just in the last few days I've been noticing riffs on the nature of happiness popping up all over. Let's take a few days ago, when I went back to read a section of the New Yorker I'd previously missed. In the book review section, John Lanchester analyzed three recently released books on the pursuit of happiness. According to Jonathan Haidt's "The Happiness Hypothesis", how happy one is may largely be based on genetics. This is because, evolutionarily speaking, it is more likely that those who are cautious and avoid threatening situations will survive. So, our ancestors who worried enough about their survival to make it passed down that tendency to worry to us. In addition,
"bad is stronger than good" is an important principle of design by evolution. "Responses to threats and unpleasantness are faster, stronger, and harder to inhibit than responses to opportunities and pleasures." This is a matter of how our brains are wired: most sense data pass through the amygdala, which helps control our fight-or-flight response, before being processed by other parts of our cerebral cortex.

Meanwhile, Darrin McMahon, a historian at Florida State University, argues in his book "Happiness: A History" that

the idea of happiness is not a human universal that applies across all times and all cultures but a concept that has demonstrably changed over the years. When your attention is fully concentrated on questions of survival, you don't have the time or the inclination even to formulate the idea of happiness. You have to begin to feel that you have some control over your circumstances before youbegin to ask yourself questions about your own state of mind.

So, already we've established that people may be more or less hard-wired to be anxious. This may be something of a comfort for those like me who have resorted to all kinds of meditations and medications to allay chronic stress, but at the same time can make the struggle seem somewhat Sisyphean. After all, how much nature can we fight with nurture?

At the same time, it's not surprising to find that the very concept of happiness has evolved over time. For early humans (and sadly, still for many today), just having a full belly could be cause for celebration. That is why so many holidays center around feasts, even when in modern times a Taco Bell or Hot Pocket is within easy reach for most North Americans at any given moment. However, as we gain more luxuries and tools, it doesn't necessarily make us happier. Why is this? Lanchester writes:

The simplest kind of unhappiness is that caused by poverty. People living in poverty become happier if they become richer-but the effect of increased wealth cuts off at a surprisingly low figure. The British economist Richard Layard, in his stimulating book "Happiness: Lessons from a New Science," puts that figure at fifteen thousand dollars, and leaves little doubt that being richer does not make people happier. Americans are about twice as rich as they were in the nineteen-seventies but report not being any happier; the Japanese are six times as rich as they were in 1950 and aren't any happier, either. Looking at the data from all over the world, it is clear that, instead of getting happier as they become better off, people get stuck on a "hedonic treadmill": their expectations rise at the same pace as their incomes, and the happiness they seek remains constantly just out of reach.

Speaking of treadmills, I was running on one yesterday morning as I mulled these issues over during my workout. Why have I been so pessimistic over time and why do I continue to do and experience this even though it clearly leads to aborting experiences that could cause me happiness, perhaps disproving my negative assumptions? Is it because I am somehow hard-wired with a given level of happiness that is almost impossible to transcend, as Haidt maintains? Or is it because my definition of happiness is always changing, i.e. the more I have the more I want, as Layard and McMahon hypothesize? As often happens, I idly checked out one of the television monitors above the exercise machines at my gym. In place of the usual morning news programs or cartoons, however, there was a religious show.

Joyce Meyer, who apparently runs a large (and no doubt highly profitable) Christian ministry, was on stage exhorting church members to let go of anger against those who had wronged them in the past and put out love instead in order to feel happy. Many folks in the audience were clearly moved as she described how she had overcome the devastation and anger resulting from childhood abuse through spreading joy in Jesus' name.

Now, while I watched all this I was skeptical, as I usually am when it comes to God Talk. After all, most televangelists also happen to have admirers galore, mansions and various other riches to keep them happy, which makes speaking for God, whatever they think that means, a rather fulfilling affair for them. But, it did bring to mind something that many religions and philosophies do emphasize as the path to happiness: to stop worrying about things and let some greater being or concept - be it Jesus, nature, fate or mere time - take over your emotional burdens. I may not believe, like Meyer purports to, that all of my negative thoughts are caused by Satan, but I've studied enough of both Buddhist practices and basic psychology to gather that a mind fully in the present and engaged tends to be content, whereas focusing on the future or past can breed tension.

And there's the crux, because our society is not geared toward that. Except in rare cases, the modern pursuit of happiness is sold to us not just as general well-being and safety, but as acquisition. How can you truly feel safe if you don't have a huge SUV and a house you own? How can you feel worthwhile when you are not protecting your loved ones with the proper insurance and investment plans? And while you're doing all that, you've got to reward yourself, don't you? After all, how can you be a respectable part of society if you don't keep up with what the Joneses own?

This is addressed again in this week's New Yorker by John Cassidy. In his article, "Relatively Deprived", Cassidy notes that, since the mid-20th century, methods for calculating the poverty level in the United States have been based on comparing a minimum required income to provide food multiplied by three, assuming that the cost of food took up one-third of the typical family's budget, on average. However,

In 1995, a panel of experts assembled by the National Academy of Science concluded that the Census Bureau measure "no longer provides an accurate picture of the differences in the extent of economic poverty among population groups or geographic areas of the country, nor an accurate picture of trends over time." The panel recommended that the poverty line be revised to reflect taxes, benefits, childcare, medical costs, and regional differences in prices. Statisticians at the Census Bureau have experimented with measures that incorporate some of these variables, but none of the changes have been officially adopted.

It comes as no surprise that no one can agree on the variables. For one thing, there's just too many of them. For another, the issue is highly political: conservatives would like the numbers cooked so that they indicate less poor folks exist, whereas liberals fear that moving away from basic, subsistence figures will result in priorities becoming confused and some poor populations missing out. But, perhaps most important of all, recognizing that poverty is dependant on multiple variables indicates that it is not so much dependant on actual goods as relative wealth. For example,

Although many poor families own appliances once associated with rich households, such as color televisions and dishwashers, they live in a society in which many families also possess DVD players, cell phones, desktop computers, broadband Internet connections, powerful game consoles, S.U.V.s, health-club memberships, and vacation homes. Without access to these goods, children from poor families may lack skills-such as how to surf the Web for help-wanted ads-that could enhance their prospects in the job market. In other words, relative deprivation may limit a person's capacity for social achievement."

Not only is it a handicap in terms of social achievement, however, but in social rank and yes, happiness. Recent studies have shown that workers' reported levels of job satisfaction had less to do with their salaries than with how their salaries compared with those of co-workers. It seems that humans, like other animals, tend to compare ourselves to others in our community and rank ourselves accordingly. This is why a simple farmer in a small Third-World village may feel more relatively wealthy and happy than a middle manager in a North American corporation. The farmer compares himself to the people around him, who are working hard just to survive, and appreciates it when he gains luxuries or has a good crop. The middle manager wants to be a high-level manager and buy new car, even though she usually doesn't worry about having enough to eat.

So, what's it all about? Clearly, how we perceive and rank our happiness is complex. One may have to factor in one's hereditary threshold of happiness alongside the goods we own, weigh our spiritual beliefs against the standards of our community, and understand both our tendency to socially rank ourselves and our historical definitions of just what happiness is. It's enough to make feeling good feel impossible. Still, it can be done. According to Haidt, "It's better to win the lottery than to break your neck, but not by as much as you'd think. . . . Within a year, lottery winners and paraplegics have both (on average) returned most of the way to their baseline levels of happiness." This is not just because the paraplegics descended from happy folk and the lottery winners had anxious ancestors and rich neighbours, but because of two basic things:

1. Everything is relative, and

2. Happiness does not bear analysis well. As what might be considered a middle-class New Yorker, if I compare myself to the poor, Third World farmer, I'm likely to feel very fortunate, but if I compare myself to a rich Manhattan stock analyst, I feel relatively poor and socially unimportant. This affects my happiness. However, clearly it is how I conduct that very comparison and analysis that undermines my personal happiness. I can - and often do - feel just as unhappy because I am angry that my life is not as straightforward as the farmer, or I'm not appreciating what I do have in comparison. I may be pissed off that how others treat me is based on my wealth compared to the banker, or feel better about myself because I've done alright without the benefits of greater wealth and see myself as morally superior than those who doggedly seek them.

To counter this, I can try to train myself to always compare oneself somewhat favourably. But this involves some sort of trick of the mind, be it through faith, learned habit or sheer force of will. One way or another, it seems, I will have to overcome my patterns of comparison, be they part of my genes or learning, to always look on the bright side. Simple, but not easy. And chances are, at some point, whether through insecurity or objective analysis I'm going to come up short next to someone else.

So, let's say I try not to compare myself to others at all. Lanchester writes:

In the end, the philosophy and the science converge on the fact that thinking about your own happiness does not make it any easier to be happy. A co-founder of positive psychology, Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi, made people carry a pager, and told them that every time it went off they should write down what they were doing and how much they were enjoying it. The idea was to avoid the memory's tendency to focus on peaks and troughs, and to capture the texture of people's lives as they were experiencing them, rather than in retrospect. The study showed that people were most content when they were experiencing what Csikzentmihalyi called "flow"-in Haidt's definition, "the state of total immersion in a task that is challenging yet closely matched to one's abilities." We are at our happiest when we are absorbed in what we are doing; the most useful way of regarding happiness is, to borrow a phrase of Clive James's, as "a by-product of absorption."
Considering this, it would seem that the ultimate key to happiness is to not compare oneself with other people or possibilities by being focused on the present. However, as comparing seems to be animal nature and how we understand who we are in the world, it is nigh on impossible to avoid. As countless seekers, mystics and philosophers have discovered, I may simply try to be engaged in life, but the moment I ask find myself asking if I am happy, I become less so. It takes another type of mind trick or training not to fall into thinking "too much". So, what are we who are generally cynical to do? Find some way to stop thinking about how we feel, or convince ourselves we feel good, somehow? Either path is difficult and requires training and faith. But then, being constantly unhappy requires the same. How else do we see all before us as displeasing or deficient?

Which do you choose?

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