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The problem with happiness?

By December 29, 20103 Comments

Somewhat ironically in the service of my own happiness project, inspired by Gretchen Rubin’s book of the same name, I’ve been looking at psychology blogs and stumbled across this one by Todd B. Kashdan, Ph.D. In this article, Kashdan cites research which shows that trying to be happier actually makes you less happy. Thanks for that vote of confidence, Dr. Kashdan.

Let me say first that I’m a sociologist, not a psychologist, and there’s a big difference there for me. One way of thinking about it is that psychologists are often interested in studying the individual tree, while sociologists are much more interested in the forest itself. Granted, that’s a sociologist’s take on the differences between the two disciplines, and I confess my bias up front. What’s more, I’m a sociologist who hangs out at the humanities end of the social science spectrum rather than the social science-y end. What does that mean? It means among other things that I’m not always so bowled over by sentences that begin with, “Studies say….” There are good studies and bad studies, and most of the time no one’s going to tell you where this particular study falls. And even the good studies are just one particular picture of what research seems to indicate at this particular moment and this particular place in time under these particular set of research conditions. So when Kashdan says that studies tell us that as people place more importance on happiness they tend to become more unhappy and depressed, I’m less than willing to accept that as the absolute truth. He goes on to describe the two studies in some detail, which you can read for yourself if you’re interested.

Kashdan also throws in some knocks against what you might call the happiness industry, noting that maybe these studies explain why no one ever buys just one happiness book; if trying to be happy actually makes you unhappy, then you inevitably find yourself in a perpetual search for happiness. Which is all interesting enough, but here’s where I really take issue with Kashdan. He goes on to pose two epitaphs on your gravestone, one which describes “a man who put every ounce of effort into being a happy person” and one which describes “a man who strived to be a good friend, a good husband, a good father, while trying to make the world a slightly better place.” Kashdan tells us he would choose the latter. Really? And all the people pursuing happiness…would not?

The problem as I see it is that these two scenarios are not mutually exclusive but actually go together. At the very end of his article, this seems to be what Kashdan is trying to say. Pursue the latter option and you will find happiness along the way. But if you are pursuing the latter option in order to achieve happiness, is that bad for some reason? One of the truths that Gretchen Rubin arrived at in her own happiness project is a truth which recurs eerily across religious and philosophical traditions around the world. Her particular version says: One of the best ways to make yourself happy is to make other people happy; one of the best ways to make other people happy is to be happy yourself. This is a concept that is deeply sociological because any sociologist worth her salt would tell you that everything, including emotions like happiness, is deeply social. Perhaps there are some people out there whose happiness does not at all involve others, but let’s face it, those folks have bigger fish to fry.

It seems to me that Kashdan and many others assume, in a mindset fairly typical for the United States, that the pursuit of happiness is a selfish endeavor. They think of happiness and in their heads they imagine it as something that exists inside someone’s head or heart, or in a little self-contained bubble that floats around us as individuals but is self-contained. I suggest we revision the way we think about happiness as not something that describes the internal state of an individual, but as a kind of energy that flows through us and around us (yeh, okay, that’s sounding a little Star Wars-ish, but go with it). We can create happiness ourselves, but we can also pass it around like cookies or laughter or sunshine. Emile Durkheim, one of the pimp daddies of sociology, called this collective effervescence, and argued that it is, in fact, where religion comes from. It’s a somewhat complicated argument, but the basic idea is that something really exciting happens when a group of people get together to sing or dance or tell stories or watch large men get paid to legally assault each other. And that something exciting is impossible for one individual on their own to create. And that something is so cool and weird and amazing that humans come up with some very strange explanations for it which eventually become religion. That’s how powerful happiness can be. And though collective effervescence is one particular example of how happiness can be social, I would argue that seeing happiness as something that is pursued by an individual for an individual is,…mmm…not seeing the forest for the trees?


  • Rachael says:

    This post was interesting to begin with, but then you went and called Durkheim a “pimp daddy.”

  • Todd says:

    You are confusing happiness with the sources of happiness. And happiness loses all meaning when it becomes a wastebasket term for everything relevant to living well such as wisdom, kindness, compassion, and purpose in life. Very common, even for sociologists.

    But I respect your skepticism.


  • Robyn says:

    Rachael, I meant only the utmost respect for Durkheim, I promise.

    Todd, thanks for responding and for taking some good natured pokes at psychology in stride. It seems that yes, happiness is a very difficult concept to pin down and there's certainly a danger to trying to get too broad with your definition. I wonder what the difference is between psychological well-being and happiness. When people say they want to be happy, what is it they really mean?

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