“Happier?”: Collective Quest Studied and Questioned

At the same time that our collective preoccupation with happiness has grown, though, our actual happiness has declined — research shows that Americans are noticeably unhappier than we were just a few decades ago. Cody Delistraty, The Cut, addressing Daniel Horowitz’s book Happier?

In Happier?: The History of a Cultural Movement That Aspired to Transform America (2017) historian/author Daniel Horowitz draws on various areas of knowledge to examine our country’s evolving preoccupation with seeking “subjective well-being” à la the positive psychology movement that “has vigorously fostered its development” (Psychology Today).

A significant conclusion of Horowitz, per Cody Delistraty, The Cut:

Horowitz takes a linear historical approach to the academic question of happiness, tracing the rise of ‘positive psychology’ over time — a rise, he notes, that parallels the growth of both inequality in the U.S. and the cultural emphasis on individuality. Happiness studies, he argues, seem to be a way of convincing people they’re happy — or could be happy — even as they’re being dealt increasingly bad hands in terms of things like income inequality, educational affordability, and access to health care.

Such things as meditation, yoga, and “the conflation of success and merit” are symbolic of Americans’ attempts to reach a state of perceived life satisfaction. Maybe these work for some, but as Delistraty remarks, “When the less-privileged person fails to achieve the happiness they desire, they’re told to blame themselves first and foremost, rather than the circumstances that have helped shape their life.”

Delistraty elaborates further on evolving concepts regarding life fulfillment:

…(A) significant shift has occurred: Positive psychology has begun to move away from defining happiness simply as a positive emotion, [Horowitz] writes, and toward the idea of eudaimonia, or the Aristotelian definition of happiness: well-being that comes from living a moral life.
Living a good, fulfilled, satisfying life is not the same as being happy. In fact, the quest for happiness, so deeply inscribed in the American psyche, can often do more harm than good, especially if your personal happiness comes at the expense of another’s. To make morality, rather than happiness, your central goal is to ultimately achieve a greater form of satisfaction.

As Horowitz recently told Jill Suttie, Greater Good:

I think it’s clear that hedonic pleasures—like back rubs or eating chocolate—don’t offer much in the long run. Though important to people for the moment, they are not important for them in the long term or in their more global sense of well-being. The movement away from—or in addition to—hedonic happiness, and toward a focus on meaning and purposefulness, is to be fully welcomed and embraced, because that shift helps scientists and people like me understand the importance of a much broader range of experience.

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