Mar 07

“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.

Apr 01

MidLife Crisis: No Need For That!

I had a choice. I could stumble along at the edge of a midlife crisis, or I could reimagine my life. Barbara Bradley Hagerty

New book Life Reimagined: The Science, Art, and Opportunity of Midlife, by former NPR correspondent Barbara Bradley Hagerty, came about because she’d suspected she was entering a “midlife crisis“— and she wanted to know how to navigate such an imposing hurdle.

Hagerty interviewed “an astonishing number of middle-aged men and women and the psychologists, sociologists, physicians, geneticists, and neuroscientists who study them,” and what she learned was positive and hopeful, notes Kirkus Reviews: “The experience of middle age, she has discovered, ‘is more mountaintop than valley,’ characterized not by depression but by optimism and renewal, happiness and growth.”

The themes she addresses include—but aren’t limited to—work, sense of purpose, love, and friendship. As conveyed to Metro writer Emily Laurence, the following points are five of Hagerty’s most significant:

1. The vast majority of people don’t have a midlife crisis. “…Hagerty says that not only are your career and relationships more likely to be more stable than in your 20s and 30s, but you are more resilient and able to handle a crisis better.”

2. Your state of happiness actually rises. “…(T)there is a U-shape to happiness over the course of a lifetime. Research shows that happiness is high in the 20s and 30s, and then dips in the 40s and 50s. But in your late 50s, it starts to rise again, reaching the same levels as before.”

3. You absolutely are getting smarter. “While it’s true that fluid intelligence — being able to tackle problems you’ve never seen before — starts to decline in your late 20s, scientists have found that there is another type of intelligence, crystalized intelligence, that only increases. ‘This is everything you absorb,’ Hagerty explains. ‘It’s wisdom. It’s vocabulary. It’s general learning and knowledge.'”

4. You can turn back the clock on memory loss. “…(W)e are constantly creating new brain cells, and you can preserve them through learning new things…Exercising also plays a huge role.”

5. You have control to ward off Alzheimer’s. “’The number one predictor of escaping the symptoms of Alzheimer’s is purpose in life, having a reason to get out of bed in the morning,’ Hagerty says.”

According to Paula Novash, Washington Independent Review of Books, the following themes are identified by Hagerty as particularly important:

  1. Engage with verve: It takes work and focus, “…(b)ut if focusing on the important over the urgent demands intention and energy, it also ‘dramatically ups the odds that your life will be rich to your final breath’.”
  2. Choose purpose over happiness: “…Pursuing long-term objectives like raising great kids or training for a marathon may not result in a jolt of joy in every moment. But working toward these goals gives you the feeling that what you’re doing matters in a big way” (Novash).
  3. Your thinking is your experience: “’I am not arguing that whistling a happy tune will make you healthy, wealthy and wise,’ Hagerty says, but ‘your approach to triumphs and defeats, joy and pain and losses, the stuff no one escapes…will absolutely color how much you enjoy the trip’.”

Selected Reviews

George E. Vaillant, MD: “Life Reimagined is arguably the best book on middle life ever written. Not only is it in beautiful prose, but it’s also thoroughly researched. In order to feel understood and to anticipate the future, everybody from 30 to 70 should read this book. It is a joy.”

Marc Freedman, author,The Big Shift, and CEO, Encore.org.: “This book is destined to become the bible for boomers seeking to make the most of the bonus decades opening up in midlife and beyond, as well as for those younger generations on their heels.”

Gwen Ifill, co-anchor PBS NewsHour: “With humor, heart and hard-headed reporting, Barbara Bradley Hagerty manages to strike every nerve possessed by anyone entering midlife. The good news is that you end up smiling.”

Mar 09

“The Happiness Track”: Managing Your Energy

…(T)ime is not the commodity we should be tracking and managing, Seppälä argues. Instead, we need to manage our energy. Kira M. Newman, Greater Good, about The Happiness Track

Newman above refers to Emma Seppälä, science director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University and author of The Happiness Track: How to Apply the Science of Happiness to Accelerate Your Success (2016). An elaboration on the quote:

In Seppälä‘s formulation, we drain ourselves of energy anytime we experience intense negative emotions or thoughts, or struggle against our urges and desires. If we allow ourselves a walk during lunchtime but are consumed by worries about our afternoon workload, we’ve drained energy rather than gained it—yet the same amount of time has elapsed. If we have to peel ourselves out of bed morning after morning running a sleep deficit, it takes a toll on our vitality, even though we have more waking hours to get things done.

Seppälä talks to Mary Brophy Marcus, CBS News, about an unfortunate trend in our culture: “We have accepted overextension as a way of life. We’re so addicted to an adrenaline-fueled lifestyle.” Ultimately, she adds, stress levels go up by day and then come down at night with the aid of “medicines and drink. Then the next day, we get up and what do people do when they’re tired, they drink more caffeine. We are whipping our nervous systems back and forth.”

In The Happiness Track the author names six qualities that “will contribute to both our productivity and our happiness. In effect, they’re also ways to boost energy without making big changes to our schedules” (Greater Good):

1. Full presence. “…(S)top multitasking and break free from our technological distractions, and incorporate the practices of meditation and savoring into our routine.”

2. Resilience. “…(W)e don’t give our bodies time to calm down and activate our natural resources for repair and healing. As a result, we exist in a constant state of tension that strains our body and mind. To fight the frazzle, we have to relearn the basics of taking care of ourselves: adequate sleep, healthy food, exercise, and deep breathing.”

3. Calm. “Seppälä debunks the myth that energy and calm are opposing forces. Instead, she believes calm and energy are key to productive work and a happy life…”

4. Rest.Creativity…requires rest and free time for new ideas to bubble up, interlace, and recombine…”

5. Self-compassion. “…Self-compassion inspires us to learn from failures and try again, while self-criticism might lead to giving up or denying our failures…”

6. Compassion. “…’Givers’ are liked, appreciated, and influential, as long as they set boundaries and don’t get taken advantage of. In a compassionate culture, employees are both happier and more productive. Not to mention that solid relationships at work can buffer against any stress and anxiety we experience there.”

Seppälä in person:

Selected Reviews

Daniel H. Pink, author of Drive and A Whole New Mind: “Your ideas about success are probably all wrong—and you need The Happiness Track, Dr. Emma Seppälä’s investigation into the counterintuitive factors that create career and life success. The best news of all? All these skills are well within your grasp.”

Scott Barry Kaufman, Ph.D.: “The Happiness Track provides us with a highly-readable, science-backed solution to obtaining sustainable success, the sort of success we are all really striving for, that leaves us fulfilled, happy, and healthy.”

Rick Hanson, Ph.D., author of Hardwiring Happiness: “A fast-paced, practical book with profound implications. Remarkably, happiness feels good because it is good for our health, relationships, and work…”

May 03

Psychobabble and Self-Help: A Book By Psychologist Stephen Briers

A recent book by British psychologist Stephen Briers, called Psychobabble: Exploding the Myths of the Self-Help Generation (2012), takes on the industry of self-help books.

In an interview with Lucy Walton, Female First, Briers explains:

For me the term ‘psychobabble’ is just a cheeky way of referring to what happens when ideas from psychology are hijacked and carelessly injected into the wider culture without due care and attention to what they mean or respect for the limits of our current understanding. In my experience self-help books can be amongst the worst offenders. They may adopt the language, jargon and buzz words of scientific psychology – but often there’s precious little that’s scientific about them. We dress up opinion, superstition and wishful thinking as if they stem from an established understanding of what human nature is all about.

It’s not that he’s opposed to self-help books. He just wants us to be more thoughtful and aware of what we’re being asked to swallow. Moreover, he doesn’t want us to fall for the oft-perpetrated self-help lie that life doesn’t have to be a struggle.

Briers lists the top five myths of self-help books on New Humanist. They’re listed below with descriptions excerpted from his essay:

1. The root of all your problems is low self-esteem.

All the evidence suggests that your self-esteem rating does not predict the quality of your relationships or how long they will last…The science suggests that, if our self-esteem is riding high, we may feel great, but we may also be slightly delusional.

2. You can control your life.

Life can be frightening, unpredictable and unfathomable at times…As the great mythologist Joseph Campbell shrewdly observed in The Power of Myth, ‘We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the life that is waiting for us.’

3. You can never be too assertive.

Most books on assertiveness are ultimately manuals on how to gain the upper hand. They have a place but let’s not fool ourselves: passive aggression is aggression nonetheless.

4. You should let your feelings out.

…(T)here is emerging evidence that letting it all out isn’t always necessarily the best strategy. After the tragic destruction of the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001, University of Buffalo researchers found that witnesses who ignored a request to record their feelings actually fared better psychologically and physically than those who agreed to write their emotions down. And while we are routinely taught that ‘letting your anger out’ is good for us, reviewing 40 years of evidence led Professor Jeffrey Lohr, a leading clinical psychologist from the University of Arkansas, to conclude that the expression of anger actually intensifies feelings of aggression.

5. We must all strive to be happy.

Modern psychology agrees with the ancients that feelings of pleasure and contentment are the felicitous byproducts of a life well lived, rather than prizes to be grabbed directly. The 19th-century author Nathaniel Hawthorne gave us a poetic but fairly neat summary of the situation: ‘Happiness is as a butterfly which, when pursued, is always beyond our grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.’

Why or how do psychobabble and self-help books grab our collective attention? Through fear, Briers tells Walton at Female First: “Fear of not being good enough. Fear of being out of control. Fear of being unhappy…”

If, in fact, you’re currently afraid you’re not “leaning in” enough or you’re not “vulnerable” enough or you can’t crack Dr. Phil’s “life code” or feel the “power of now,” you’re part of a large group of today’s book buyers. And that’s okay (and you’re okay). Just don’t be fooled into thinking a book is necessarily going to change your life in a significant way, Briers may tell you. “The secret” is that it rarely does.