This post will interrogate what it means to be happy in greater depth. Even though I’ve written several posts on happiness already and have recently added some posts on emotions, which include joy and sadness, I want to look at this so called unalienable right further. I have been surprised by the number of articles that have recently appeared in the NYTimes and elsewhere about the concept of happiness. Then I did a little more digging and discovered that, like the US, many countries consider happiness a major goal for their citizens and one that government can assist in. In fact, in 2010 British Prime Minister David Cameron made a speech about his concern for sustaining his countrymen’s happiness and asked the Office of National Statistics to devise a new way of measuring wellbeing in Britain. I wouldn’t even be surprised if the writers for DM included some of the references to happiness as a result of Cameron’s speech on wellbeing. Series 5 and 6 came along after that speech and contained many scenes that related to the happiness level reached by several characters, e.g. Martin and Louisa (of course), Al, Bert, Ruth. The scene at the end of series 3 in which Martin and Louisa declare that they wouldn’t make each other happy had already taken place, but, in my mind, that may have been the set piece for starting down this path of thinking about happiness.
Before I go into all of the articles and try to put their contents into some sort of coherent form, I want to mention that I have now seen the film “Inside Out.” The film is brilliant in addressing a serious subject by using animation and humor. The central concern is what goes on inside our minds when we deal with major disruptions in life. In the film the key protagonist is an 11 year old girl named Riley whose family is moving from Minnesota to San Francisco. The fact that she is 11 plays a major role because along with the change in locations she is experiencing some emotional peaks and valleys due to puberty. For me, an important message of the film is that joy is Riley’s most prominent emotion, but joy needs to drag around sadness, literally. Joy wants sadness to suggest ideas about how to make Riley’s life go well, but not take away the joy of memories. In the end, though, this growing and developing child must lose her attachment to those memories so that she can enjoy life again in a new setting. The idea is that without sadness there can be no joy, and without family and loving support from them, there is difficulty transitioning to a new stage of life.
Since “Inside Out” is a Walt Disney production, it is especially coincidental that last weekend an article titled “The Happiness Project” appeared in the NYTimes Style Magazine, and that the article makes some similar points about happiness. The article is about how Disney, its parks and films, brings happiness to many and inspires non-Americans to love America. (I should say here that many Brits only visit America to go to Disneyland. There are several non-stop flights from London to Orlando on at least 5 airlines, and they contain 11,257 seats per week. When we were in England, we met quite a few Brits who had been to Disneyland, and nowhere else in America.) For one thing, the author of the article, Andrew O’Hagan (a British novelist), argues that “the idea of Disneyland has a fear of disaster embedded in it. Happiness, after all, is like that. We can hardly live with happiness for fear of it suddenly ending.” Later he states, “happiness is paired with a basic drive to do something that defies gladness.” These comments come in the midst of a long article about how happy visiting Disney makes people and that some people cry with happiness when they visit the park. They also are combined with a description of the joy he gets from taking his daughter there. This reconfirms that joy often is conjoined with family. It also might highlight the fact that S6 of DM and its downward trajectory could be used as a springboard for getting Martin and Louisa on a much better path to finding joy once more. The fear of losing happiness is rather prominent in their marriage.
Ultimately, the film “Inside Out” reflects what most of the research on happiness has found. People consider family a significant source of happiness. In addition, like most studies on happiness the film indicates that there is a lot of self-governance involved. As a result, the issue of control frequently comes up.
We can also see this in David Cameron’s speech on wellbeing in which he said: “We have got an instinct that people who feel in control of their own destiny feel more fulfilled. That’s why we’re giving parents real choice over schools and patients real choice over where they get treated. We have an instinct that having the purpose of a job is as important to the soul as it is to the bank balance, and it’s there in our hugely ambitious work programme to get people off welfare. Our instinct that most people have a real yearning to belong to something bigger than themselves – that is leading our plans to bring neighbourhoods together, to increase social action and to build what I call the Big Society.”
He goes on to say: “Let me give you three examples where I really do believe there is a link between what politics and government does and people’s happiness, contentedness and quality of life.
One is I do believe if you give people more control over their life, if they feel they have more of a say, they are authors of their own destiny, that actually increases people’s self-worth and wellbeing. Now that has a real effect on, for instance, education policy or health policy. We should be trying to give more power to the patient and the parent to have more choice over where they are treated, where their kids go to school and the rest of it. So that has a real-life effect.
The second one was mentioned – relationships. It is absolutely right that people’s wellbeing often depends on the quality of their relationships, so we should ask as a country, why do we spend billions and billions on the consequences of family breakdown, but so little on trying to help families stay together? £20 million on the budget of Relate, but £20 billion on the consequences of social breakdown, so again if we think about wellbeing, rather than just GDP, we might actually change that.
Another one is planning policy. People, definitely, the way your happiness, contentedness, wellbeing does partly depend on your surroundings, and your surroundings depend on planning policy and how much you are involved and have a say over your neighbourhood and what it looks like. So therefore, I would say: give people more power over the planning policy in the neighbourhood and they will be more contented.”
The ONS did follow up on Cameron’s request. and produced a report: “Reflections on the National Debate.” In total, ONS held 175 events, involving around 7,250 people. The debate generated 34,000 responses, some of which were from organisations and groups representing thousands more. The quotes on each page of this report were taken from online contributions, where permission was given to reproduce the participant’s words anonymously.
The following are the salient points, in my opinion:
The term ‘well-being’ is often taken to mean ‘happiness’. Happiness is one aspect of the well-being of individuals and can be measured by asking them about their feelings – subjective well-being. As we define it, well-being includes both subjective and objective measures. It includes feelings of happiness and other aspects of subjective well-being, such as feeling that one’s activities are worthwhile, or being satisfied with family relationships. It also includes aspects of well-being which can be measured by more objective approaches, such as life expectancy and educational achievements. These issues can also be looked at for population groups – within a local area, or region, or the UK as a whole.
The debate ran between 25 November 2010 and 15 April 2011 and was conducted both online and at events around the UK. The debate was structured around a consultation paper, which asked five main questions:
- what things in life matter to you?
- of the things that matter to you, which should be reflected in measures of national well-being?
- which of the following sets of information do you think help measure national well-being and how life in the UK is changing over time?
- which of the following ways would be best to give a picture of national well-being?
- how would you use measures of national well-being?
The main questions from the consultation questionnaire are listed below with the most common answers from a predefined list.
What things in life matter to you? What is well-being?
- good connections with friends and family
- good connections with a spouse or partner
- job satisfaction and economic security
- present and future conditions of the environment.
All the age groups highlighted the importance of family, friends, health, financial security, equality and fairness in determining well-being.
Having a general sense of well-being is important to nations and individuals. When Martin asks “Why does everyone always have to be happy?” in S6, we can now answer that asking that question truly demonstrates how out of sync he is with the world. However, we also consider his question one that reflects his personal agony and desperation in the face of hearing Louisa say that she plans to leave again. His question is plaintive and shows how pitifully sad he is with his life. Like everyone else, his sense of well-being would be likely to derive from health, good connections with his spouse, and the conditions determined by his environment. Until he performs Louisa’s AVM surgery, his health is a major concern for him, his connections to his spouse are precarious, and the conditions of his environment are problematic. The surgery is accompanied by some phobic symptoms (vomiting), but he’s able to carry on; he expresses his sincere wish to work on their marriage and be a better husband; and we can only hope that they can find a balance at home between their need for quiet and some private space while spending time with JH. S7 may be headed toward managing some of these essential elements for achieving happiness in this marriage.
In addition to Cameron’s emphasis on the importance of control for reaching a sense of well-being another article I came across also emphasizes control in regard to happiness. In “Two Ways to Be Happy” (NYTimes, June 1, 2015). the author describes studies that draw a distinction between primary control and secondary control. Primary Control is that ability to directly affect one’s circumstances; Secondary Control is the ability to affect how one responds to circumstances. These researchers assert that for most people secondary control is most important for life satisfaction; however, for those in committed relationships, primary control is more important. Their explanation for this discrepancy is that it’s possible that having a partner may help people deal with adversity the same way secondary control does. (This assumes you have a partner who is allowed to help with adversity, a definite problem with Martin and Louisa.)
Previously I wrote about Carol Ryff’s theories of happiness and eudaemonia. I also mentioned Aristotle’s theories and that many others have written their views about this emotion. However, the person most associated with psychological studies of happiness is Martin Seligman. What makes his studies more impressive is his belief that the complete practice of psychology should include an understanding of suffering and happiness, their interaction, and the use of interventions to relieve suffering and increase happiness. In an article on Positive Psychology that was published in American Psychologist (July-August 2005), he and his co-authors try to answer the question “What makes life worth living?”
Seligman, et. al. developed a guide that describes and classifies the strengths and virtues that enable human thriving. (They call it the CSV for Classified Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification.) They have determined that there are 24 strengths and 6 overarching virtues that span all cultures. The strengths include: kindness, fairness, authenticity, gratitude, open-mindedness, prudence, modesty, and self-regulation. The virtues are: wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence.
Here is a Table that explains their findings:
They contend there are 3 defined routes to happiness:
a) positive emotion and pleasure (the pleasant life)
b) engagement (the engaged life)
c) meaning (the meaningful life)
They have determined that the most satisfied people are those who orient their pursuits towards all 3 but put the greatest weight on engagement and meaning. Furthermore, they believe that happiness brings many added benefits. “Happy people are healthier, more successful, and more socially engaged.” The goal, therefore, would be to provide a means for people to reach a state of happiness because then they will build on that positive cycle they’ve been establishing.
The team devised some exercises to see if they could increase happiness and decrease depressive symptoms. They were pleased to find that some of the exercises led to a sense of happiness that lasted for 6 months (which was the maximum time period for which they checked). Those participants who continued to do the exercises benefited the most and were the happiest.
They conclude that since these exercises reduce depressive symptoms lastingly, they could be another means for treating depression, especially in talk therapy. They recognize that the individuals in their study were only mildly depressed and were motivated to become happier.
Their final judgement is that “the pursuit of happiness is [not] futile because of inevitable adaptation or an immutable hedonic set point.” In other words, they believe that despite happiness being subjective and self-reported, everyone can reach a rewarding level of happiness through consistent effort. Furthermore, pursuing happiness is a valuable goal because of all the advantages that result.
I want to close this post by saying that, like the article above, there is a book entitled The Happiness Project that was written by Gretchen Rubin and published in 2009. Much of the book is pretty simplistic, but she did a lot of reading in preparation for writing it. She read all of the big names associated with the philosophy of happiness as well as several novelists’ views on happiness. She has a blog and suggests various ways people can work on being happier. For me, there are two significant comments she makes. One is “the opposite of happiness is unhappiness, not depression,” by which she means her suggestions are not to be mistaken for treatments of severe depression.
The other is more comprehensive:
“According to current research, in the determination of a person’s level of happiness, genetics accounts for about 50 percent; life circumstances, such as age, gender, ethnicity, marital status, income, health, occupation, and religious affiliation, account for about 10-20 percent; and the remainder is a product of how a person thinks and acts…It seems obvious that some people are more naturally ebullient or melancholic than others, and that, at some time, people’s decisions about how to live their lives also affect their happiness.”
So we are back to the idea of whether people can change and we now have a lot of data that supports the conviction that we are capable of changing our level of happiness. I think we can generalize that to other aspects of our emotional lives. We are the authors of our lives to a great extent, especially if we have a strong desire to make certain changes. Why does everyone always want to be happy? Because happiness is an important emotion and being happy makes our lives worth living.
[I am very sorry that for some reason the font changed in this post and I was unable to figure out how to make the spacing function normally after I included the Table. Believe me, I tried!]
Originally posted 2015-07-28 21:46:04.