Sunday, September 11, 2016

Happiness: The Formula is Flawed

The word 'science,' in my imagination, is a shining cube, all edges. And I think of it that way, in spite of having been a good science student, because I find the language of science to be completely impenetrable. At times I think this must be because language has failed science - it has simply not been able to keep up with the pace of scientific enquiry. Other times, I think this must be because scientists (at least some of them) look at the world so differently than civilians that they fail words - the things they say sound plastic, tinny, hollow - even though they are right.

And what makes me say this? An article (and here I am to be faulted for failing to remember where it was posted, and who it was by) about some of the pitfalls of positive thinking, with a lead researcher quoted as saying that life is about a range of emotions, and that all of them - including the negative ones - have a purpose and role to play in our emotional well-being. In a similar vein, another researcher is quoted by the Scientific American as saying that "It is impossible to avoid negative emotions altogether because to live is to experience setbacks and conflicts."

There's something not quite right about the language of these statements. There's nothing wrong with them - they're perfectly accurate - yet their assigning of value and utility to what are the most fundamental aspects of human existence, their cooly composed validation of what is, essentially, the truth of human experience, is disturbing. These statements are so very reductionistic, boiling the emotional, ethical mess of living down to a handy equation:

Some happiness + some (not-happiness) = life.

But I suppose the problem isn't so much with science, although there's a long and pedigreed history of scientists refusing to acknowledge or investigate the intangible and non-quantifiable. That's changing rapidly, as it should. The problem is with a culture and a mindset that allows for happiness to be spoken of as if it were a consumer good, available for purchase at a nearby store, easily assembled, D-I-Y style, once you've taken your kit back home.

Happiness is not the sum of constituent parts such as yoga, pop psychology, work-life balance, polyamory, athleisure, acai/chia infused waters, the right Instagram feed and openness to experience. It will not suddenly manifest, fully-formed, when your lifestyle is finally aligned with what the gurus of the day preach. I think of it as an undercurrent that runs through our lives. We define it for ourselves and earn it through an authentic and hard-won distillation of our experiences and their meanings.

Many - most of us - fail to be happy. One of the reasons for this is that we mistake the lifestyle for the living. The other is that we're barking up the wrong tree, because happiness is overrated.

Positive psychology and philosophy have taught us so much about well-being. But they've dangerously skewed the conversation towards feeling good. And what has this emphasis on feeling good cost us? We routinely and unthinkingly stigmatize sadness and sorrow, forcing the unhappy to hide in plain sight. We traffic in weekend retreats and self-help books that confuse happiness with convenience. There's a preoccupation with being happy as opposed to what it takes to become happy. And is becoming happy the same thing, or even as valuable a thing, as becoming better?

Everything doesn't happen for a reason, and terrible, horrific things happen to good people. Adversities are not perceptual problems. They can break us and embitter us, with good reason. But some challenges help us grow, if we have the opportunity and the courage (the two are not one and the same) to let them. That's the stuff of life, isn't it? To take what we have and get - and where choice is possible - to make something of it?

It's so much more interesting to wrestle with these questions than to receive them as verifiable fact from the scientific study of the day. So much more wholesome to embody them than to encounter them on Pinterest, reduced to bursts of inspiration as fleeting as the kick from that mid-afternoon coffee. 

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