Sunday, March 23, 2008

The Tyranny of Happiness

I’ve recently seen a spate of articles on happiness. It seems that a few new books on the subject have been on the radars at Newsweek, New York Times Review of Books, and the Washington Post. Most specifically, a new book titled Against Happiness is getting noticed. The cover is perfectly designed: a yellow cover whose title is in the shape of a frowning mouth. It reinforces the book’s ideas—perfect.

From what I’ve read, psychologists are retrieving meaning and purpose in melancholy. I don’t need to prove to you that we are a people bound and determined to be happy, with our self-help books, our bigger and better whatevers, and the advertising that keeps telling us bliss exists. In a country where the pursuit of happiness is as basic a right as living, the concept that being thoughtfully sad is necessary seems quite foreign. Melancholy? Leave that to Russia.

Even while the contrarian in me revels in the idea that maybe constant happiness isn’t so great, something more fundamental to the argument is being made here: Sadness is beneficial, and whatever’s beneficial will make you happy. Whether or not sadness will in fact make you happier, the belief is that embracing sadness can lead us back around to happiness. The story is the same tired refrain. Our pursuit of happiness simply becomes more nuanced, more subtle. We don’t come at happiness head on, but flank it by embracing its opposite. We humans are so clever.

Upon reflection, this approach really isn’t new though. We’ve always sought to flank happiness by pursuing something else. Our real aim is happiness, but we know we can’t just take it by the horns (or its soft, huggable middle). So we flank happiness by getting lost in good books, faraway places, success, lovers, dreams, or ___________. And if we’re not careful, those things, those people become weapons we use in our back-end assault on happiness.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the desire to be happy. There are needs embedded in us that drive us to search for it. Nearly every desire in man is a good one that has only been perverted and recalibrated on the wrong objects. It’s as though we set out exploring the seas using the stars as our guide, but we’ve fixed on the wrong star. We’re doomed to wander instead of discover. In this country where life, happiness, and freedom are rights fundamental to existence, we come to believe, as we live, that we are made to be happy.

But are we? Are we made to be happy? I don’t have the answer, only the question. If we are, then why are we so perpetually in search of it. If we are, then what are we missing that will consummate it. Perhaps believing that we are is like believing the world is flat (the Christopher Columbus version, not the Thomas Friedman version). This belief that happiness is our ultimate goal could be holding us back from a fuller understanding of who we are and of what the world is like. The world could be much bigger and grander than flat happiness could let us imagine. O, the glorious possibilities as we spin the globe and consider them.

4.12.8 Update: "Married, religious people are more likely than secular singles to be happy"? "It helps to be religious, sexually active and a college graduate with a short commute to work."

27 comments:

John Lynch said...

I really like this post.

I read a book called "Lincoln's Melancholy" last year... I had no idea how depression affected him in such empowering and also dabilitating ways!

John Lynch said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
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