Against Happiness

Are you tired of all the stories about happiness?  The books, the science, the lists of the happiest places and people on earth? Do you have the sneaking suspicion that it’s all a lot of superficial nonsense?  This month, in The Rotarian, I wrote a piece celebrating a long-neglected, much-maligned state:  unhappiness.  Since I filed that piece a few months ago, other stories have appeared along the same lines.

The Wall Street Journal, for example, reported on research at the UW- Madison into the difference between eudaimonic well-being (greater life purpose) and hedonic well-being (pleasure or positive feelings). The results are pretty stark:  In one survey of people with an average age of 80, those who had greater eudaimonic well-being were  less likely to have mobility problems, half as likely to develop Alzheimer’s, and 57% less likely to die over a five year-year period.  Other researchers found the happiest countries, and the happiest U.S. states, also have the highest suicide rates.  Coincidence?  I suspect not.

I am not against happiness per say. Sometimes I even enjoy it.  What I am against is the fetishizing of happiness, and the expectation that we should be happy all the time.  I resent what Joan Didion quotes anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer as calling, “the ethical duty to enjoy oneself,” which arose during the 20th century.  In my experience, a more accurate view seems to be that life is a series of ups and downs, an undulation between happiness and unhappiness.  Sometimes the reasons for these feelings are clear.  Other times they aren’t until years later.  But without accepting this, we risk doing all kinds of unwise things during the down times, as well as missing a chance to take what they have to offer.  One theory claims that depression is not caused by a distorted view of reality, but by a too accurate one. Others think depression serves the evolutionary purpose of making us focus on a problem that needs to be addressed. Yet the fact that life is not always fun does not mean it’s not worth living. And the fact that it can be very hard, does not mean that it can’t also be very be good.  In fact, I think it means precisely the opposite:  There’s more to life than just being happy.

The essay is here:  The Pursuit of Unhappiness

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