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Happy? How do you know? And does it really matter? Add to ...

"It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question."

- John Stuart Mill

It is a balmy night in mid-June and I am sitting in a windowless condo event room watching a seminar entitled Your Road Map to Happiness.

At the front are Todd Keeley and his twin sister, Michelle, a pair of certified Toronto life coaches. They are standing beside a flip chart with a list of unpleasant words written on it: Overwhelmed. Anxiety. Uncertainty. Worry.

The terms describe the way we - the people who have opted to come to this workshop instead of, I don't know, sitting on a sunny patio with a chilled glass of white burgundy - have just professed to feeling. Or perhaps I should say, they describe the way we have just professed to feeling in this moment.

Todd and Michelle are very big on "the moment." They are also very big on a bunch of other concepts you may have come across. These include (but are not limited to) personal empowerment, not engaging your inner critic, coming from a place of gratitude, relishing the journey and, most fervently, the law of attraction - an unproven rule of self-help physics that proposes positive thoughts produce positive events.

The whole thing puts me in bad mood. Lately, I've come to hate happiness. Or at least the shrink-wrapped version of it that's being shilled at this workshop. If I often feel annoyed with the state of the world, there is a reason: The state of the world is often annoying. But maybe you've been too busy channelling positive energy to notice.

Freud certainly wasn't. The father of modern psychology thought that humans weren't meant to feel consistently happy, since "all the regulations of the universe run counter to it." And yet somewhere along the line we forgot Freud and embraced Tony Robbins instead.

Luckily, a growing number of scientists and cultural critics are losing patience with the ethic of positivity that is oozing into hospitals, universities and the bestseller aisles of major bookstores with the insidious adherence of melted taffy.

"The problem with the culture of incessant happiness is that it's one of the things that drives social dissatisfaction," says sociologist Micki McGee, the author of Self-help, Inc.: Makeover Culture in American Life. "You're asked to take yourself as a constant self-improvement, and frankly this never ending quest is exhausting."

There is a backlash afoot - and it's a cranky one. Call it the case against happiness.

SMILEY'S PEOPLE

Formerly territory reserved for self-help gurus and meditation guides, the study of what makes upbeat people stay that way has become a flourishing academic discipline since the turn of the millennium. The field now has its own publication, the Journal of Happiness Studies, hosts international conferences and commands millions of dollars in research funds.

And this is no fringe group: Martin Seligman, director of the Positive Psychology Center at University of Pennsylvania, is also the former president of the American Psychological Association. The most popular course at Harvard University today is Professor Tal Ben-Shahar's positive psychology primer, drawing several hundred students each semester.

According to these psychologists, the key to combatting the ever-burgeoning epidemic of depression in our society is (to steal a line from Monty Python) to always look on the bright side of life.

As Mr. Seligman puts it on his Authentic Happiness website, positive psychology "focuses on the empirical study of such things as positive emotions, strengths-based character, and healthy institutions." He also describes his evangelical mission to train a whole new legion of positive psychologists who will "make the world a happier place, parallel to the way clinical psychologists have made the world a less unhappy place."

But not everyone is happy about the influx of happy money - bankrolled in large part by the John Templeton Foundation, an organization that has also donated more than $11-million to the study of "unlimited love," "forgiveness" and "gratitude" - into the world of ideas.

Among those joining the backlash is writer Barbara Ehrenreich, whose revelation about the perils of positive thinking came as she entered into one of the more miserable chapters of her life.

"As I was being treated for breast cancer I was assaulted by the message that my illness was going to be a great experience," she said in a phone interview from her home in New Rochelle, N.Y. "Be cheerful, I was told. And it made me sick. It was infantilizing. Here was the most serious disease of my life, and I was being encouraged to buy a teddy bear."

In a recent Harpers article, she angrily lambasted the culture of positivity as a sinister, victim-blaming cult that "seems to reduce our tolerance of other people's suffering." And she is now writing a book on the "cult of cheerfulness."

Ms. Ehrenreich has no problem with happiness per se. What irritates her is the notion that point of view is all that matters when it comes to changing the world around us - as if switching from the proverbial glass half empty to one that is half full, we could actually change the world.

While positive psychology points to rising levels of depression as a legitimate problem in our society (Prof. Ben-Shahar warns of a great "emotional bankruptcy"), its solutions are inward-looking and facile. Imagine, for a moment, where we'd be if Martin Luther King Jr. had decided to purge his negative emotions by keeping a gratitude journal?

Although there is certainly good to be had from a philosophy that encourages people toward gratitude, altruism and love, the science can be difficult to separate from the snake oil. In the same way that sensible nutritional science can be warped into fad diets, there is a growing overlap between the positive psychology movement and self-help hype, between legit research and cheap, quick fixes.

In his recently published book Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfilment, Prof. Ben-Shahar describes the advent of positive psychology as a "revolution" that will "bridge the gap between the ivory tower and Main Street."

But if this sounds refreshingly egalitarian, the book's conclusions are not exactly groundbreaking. Suggestions for improving personal happiness include meditation, keeping a journal and appointing close friends and relatives to your "happiness board."

Meanwhile, Prof. Seligman is busy cementing his status as an intellectual turned self-help guru. On the website www.reflectivehappiness.com, a $9.95 monthly subscription buys you access to "happiness building exercises" and a Q&A with the doc himself.

Bracketing the question of whether tenured scientists ought to be selling self-help to the masses for personal profit is a larger problem: If positive psychology is so good, why isn't it working?

According to recent numbers from Ipsos Reid, one in six North Americans have been clinically diagnosed with depression at some point in their lives. That's 1.8 million people in Canada alone. Mental illness also costs an estimated $300-billion in North America each year. This despite the growing popularity of yoga, life coaching and motivational seminars.

Much like the diet industry, the quest for happiness creates its own need. In fact, sociologist Micki McGee says our relentless personality correction results in "the belaboured self" - a self that is in a constant state of restless renovation and self-improvement.

The more crap that life throws at us, the more optimistic we are expected to become - an internal paradox that will quickly leave the average person (and particularly the pessimists among us) feeling exhausted, demoralized and even more depressed than when we started out.

Self-help doesn't work, in Prof. McGee's view, because the void it seeks to fill is actually economic, not personal. "We all want to feel that we have control over our lives," she explains, "but at the end of the day there's no way to insulate yourself from the vagaries of globalized capitalism."

THE POWER OF PESSIMISM

Given the inexorable external factors - skyrocketing inflation, the melting polar ice cap, the international holy war - is it really possible (or even advisable) for us to give up our stone-age commitment to anxiety and pessimism?

True, being a pessimist these days, even a generally optimistic one, is not easy. My boyfriend wonders why I fret so much. My friends often urge me to look on the bright side. My colleagues tell me to relax.

From the sound of it, you might actually think I'm a great candidate for positive psychology.

But you'd be wrong. According to the Authentic Happiness quiz on Martin Seligman's website, my score is 3.67 out of 5 - which means I'm as happy or happier than 82 per cent of Web users who have filled out the questionnaire.

This could be explained by another quiz I take on the site for Julie Norem's book The Positive Power of Negative Thinking that determines personality types. It puts me squarely into the category of defensive pessimist, which is defined as "a person who thinks through worst-case scenarios and uses anxiety to motivate and carry out effective actions."

Optimists and pessimists, it turns out, are not necessarily as contradictory as they might seem. In fact, contrary to the mantra of "happy thoughts," there is a strong argument that playing out nightmare scenarios can actually make some of us more secure - ironically, happier - in the long run.

Barbara Held, a professor of psychology and social studies at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Me., is the author of the 2001 book Stop Smiling, Start Kvetching, a treatise on the importance of honest complaint in a culture of sanitized optimism. In it, she critiques what she calls the "tyranny of the positive attitude in America," insisting that blind optimism, while helpful for some, is not simply a one-size-fits-all coping strategy.

"If you try to force people to manage themselves in a way that conflicts with their normal coping style, then you can actually do more damage than good."

She cites a study by a University of Texas psychologist, who found that depressed people who vented their pain in journals healed much more quickly than those who steamrolled it over with a mantra of pep.

"When people put their pain into words it's not merely venting, it's healing," says Prof. Held, who has treated hundreds of patients in private practice. "It helps you to reconstrue and reformulate. It can also lead to new ways of solving a problem."

Prof. Held, who sees herself as a defensive pessimist, says that, for her, channelling positive energy in times of crisis just makes everything worse. "It's just not in my nature," she says. "I'm a high-anxiety New York Jewish person. I'm a worrier. The way I cope is by thinking of all the worst things that can happen. Then, once I've mapped it all out, I come up with my plan to avert disaster."

But as Barbara Ehrenreich found out, sometimes disaster cannot be averted no matter what your natural thought pattern. Despite what you may have heard about the "power of hope," cancer doesn't actually care if you're an optimist or a pessimist.

James Coyne, a scientist at University of Pennsylvania who studies patient adaptation to chronic illness and treatment, recently disproved claims that an upbeat attitude slowed the progression of the disease. He believes the clinical insistence on a hopeful attitude and "the will to live" in cancer wards can often make sick patients feel worse. "People start to see it in terms of blame and if the cancer spreads it's somehow their fault."

Even worse, by insisting that the sick, poor and downright miserable among us must simply buck up to get better, Prof. Coyne (who works out of the same university where the positive psychology movement is headquartered) echoes Ms. Ehrenreich's notion that we absolve ourselves of all need to be tolerant and patient.

"The expectation that people think positive and adopt a fighting spirit becomes a strategy of the people around them not to have to manage the burden of stress," he says.

ARE YOU HAPPY?

What exactly is happiness? Is your blue my red? Are such topics worthy of in-depth empirical study or best left to undergrads gathered round the bong pipe?

Critics of positive psychology argue that the field is resistant to scientific thinking. Self-reported data on people measuring their own moods is always dubious. And international studies are difficult since the concept of "happiness" as we know it does not even exist in certain languages.

"Interpreting data can be a great problem," Ruut Veenhoven, the editor of the Journal of Happiness Studies, told the New Scientist in 2003. At that time, Mr. Veenhoven had recorded 15 separate academic definitions in English alone.

Today, positive psychologists will tell you that happiness is not about mood (which can change from moment to moment), but a more prolonged psychological state.

They prefer the term "subjective well-being," which refers to a person's overall cognitive and emotional perception.

When you get down to it, however, isn't our notion of a happy life little more than a flimsy historical construct anyway? As New School philosopher Jennifer Michael Hecht writes in her recent book The Happiness Myth, the reward for all our cognitive behaviour therapy and vigilant impulse control is an illusion, one that shifts like sand in the winds of time.

"We think of our version of a happy life as more like physics than like pop songs," she writes. "We expect the people of the next century to agree with our basic tenets - for instance, that broccoli is good for a happy life and that opium is bad - but they will not. Our rules for living are more like the history of pop songs. They make weird sense only to the people of each given time period. They aren't true."

Even if it was made up of fixed, measurable ingredients, there is a strong argument to suggest that this thing called happiness may not be the holy grail of human experience we once thought it was.

According to the New Scientist, countries that report the highest levels of happiness - such as the United States - also tend to have the highest levels of suicide and depression.

And researchers at the University of Toronto recently found that while happy people are more creative, they have difficulty focusing on simple tasks and ignoring distractions.

Perhaps our obsession with cheer is rooted in a sense of entitlement. Only a half-century ago, the question "Are you happy?" would have seemed ridiculously self-indulgent.

As Steve Salerno, the author of Sham: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless, told me in an interview, "I once asked my father if he was happy, and you know what he said? 'A man doesn't have time to ask himself that question.' "

How times have changed. In the past, Ms. Hecht explains, people thought it was quite normal "to feel bad a lot of the time, and to break out and celebrate occasionally." Now, we expect, and are expected to be, happy all the time - a state of being as arbitrary and wrong-headed as many of the ways we go about attempting to create it.

Which brings us back to Freud's idea that maybe we were never meant to be perfectly happy in the first place.

As he writes in Civilization and Its Discontents, happiness is "from its nature only possible as an episodic phenomenon. When any situation that is desired by the pleasure principle is prolonged, it only produces a feeling of mild contentment. We are so made that we can derive intense enjoyment only from a contrast and very little from a state of things."

In other words, happiness, as a state of being, is fleeting at best. As humans, a restless contentment is probably the best we can hope for. A benign acceptance of life as it is, rather than an optimistic yearning for endless bliss.

"If we define happiness correctly, it has ups and downs built into it," Ms. Hecht says. "Just as we can't talk about a flat roller coaster, who would want a life of constant orgasm?"

Leah McLaren is a feature writer and columnist with The Globe and Mail.

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