Are You Obsessed With Happiness?

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I’m sure you buy into the idea that longing for happiness isn’t a good thing. You realize that the more you want happiness, the more it eludes you. Besides, this isn’t an issue for you: you meditate, do yoga, and recycle. You’ve transcended this petty desire, so let’s move on to something worthy of your attention. I thought I had kicked the happiness trap too, but I realized this wasn’t as easy as I thought.

First, let me say a little about the new ways we are understanding the downfalls of longing for happiness. Iris Mauss, a professor at UC Berkeley, has done many studies on longing for happiness. Her studies assess how much people long for happiness using a measure she created. The measure asks questions like “Feeling happy is extremely important to me” and “If I don’t feel happy, maybe there is something wrong with me.” People who score high on this measure tend to report higher levels of depression, loneliness, and other negative emotions.

The really cool part about her research is that she found a way to conduct experiments. Think back to high school biology and you’ll remember that an experiment requires that one group of subjects, maybe plants in this case, get something (let’s say a fertilizer) that the other group does not. Now let’s see what happens to the group that got the fertilizer. Are they growing bigger? Hell, yes. Then we can infer that the fertilizer did something.

Fortunately, Mauss isn’t dumping fertilizer on her subjects. She dumping longing for happiness. How do you do that? She had some participants read a short paper extolling the benefits of happiness while others read the same short paper with the word happiness replaced by “making accurate judgments.” Here’s a sample from the paper:

“People who report higher than normal levels of happiness experience benefits in their social relationships, professional success, and overall health and well-being. That is, happiness not only feels good, it also carries important benefits: the happier people can make themselves feel from moment to moment, the more likely they are to be successful, healthy, and popular. (…). In fact, recent research shows that people who are able to achieve the greatest amount of happiness (…) can experience long-term beneficial outcomes. (…).”

The people who read the happiness paper reported less happiness and more disappointment after experiencing a positive event. Other studies found that longing for happiness leads to loneliness and other negative emotions. This is just after reading a short paper for a few minutes. This is the part of her research that freaked me out. But when I interviewed her about her research for an article in Spirituality and Health, it didn’t seem that noteworthy. Does this paper sound like almost every self-help article you ever read?

I was Barnes and Nobel recently and found this section in a book on happiness:

“One of the factors fueling the Happiness Revolution has been the startling research in the past decade revealing the many benefits of happiness, benefits extending far beyond merely “feeling good.” In fact, cultivating greater happiness can be seen as “one-stop shopping” for those seeking greater success in  every major domain of life.”

The writer goes on to pronounce the importance of happiness in marriage, parenting, work, health, and other areas. This is almost a carbon copy of how Mauss made participants crave happiness in her studies. Where did this quote come from? It is an excerpt from the introduction to the Art of Happiness written Howard Cutler, M.D., a book he cowrote with the Dali Lama

I’m sure the effect of reading about happiness are temporary but think about the endless stream of happiness bullshit that we’re fed every day. Oprah touting how she lost 30 lbs in 3 weeks, Tony Robbins screaming on stage while people walk across hot coals, the perky models on the cover of women’s magazines smiling as if they didn’t have a care in the world, pictures of happiness drunk celebrities on the red carpet with oodles of adoring fans applauding in the background.

It’s easy to see that most self-help gurus are peddling instant happiness, but the happiness trap is subtler than that and deeply woven into our cultural identity. Take the idea that we want to make a difference in the world or do something very important. Are we really channeling the altruism and selflessness of Mother Teresa or the narcissism of Donald Trump? Suppose you could cure all forms of cancer but you had to be anonymous vs. you could cure half of the cancers but your name would be associated with the discovery. What would you choose? Come on. Be honest?

Longing for happiness has also infected the mindfulness movement. How many books or articles have you read on mindfulness only to realize that these books are ultimately claiming that you really can be truly happy if you just live your life mindfully. How many articles have you read that oversell mindfulness as panacea for all of life’s problems. Have bad kids? Be mindful. Want to love your job? Be mindful. Want to save your marriage? Be mindful. Now, I love the idea of mindfulness but when it’s contorted into another quick fix for life’s most intractable problems, it’s no different than the self-help articles extolling happiness.

Our longing for happiness has taken the form of longing for material things. Happiness is a flat stomach and absence of crow’s feet around the eyes. It is the verdant lawn free of dandelions; it is a perfectly organized and clean house, granite counter tops, bamboo floors, vacations in Maui, a large saving account. These are our happiness substitutes.

I should admit that I’m just as guilty as anyone. I actually have bamboo floors in my house. Yes, it made me happy for a few weeks and now they’re just floors. So what do you? Here are three surefire ways to kick the happiness trap and start a truly happy life. Just kidding. There aren’t any quick fixes. Only slow and persistent insights into how deeply we’re tangled in the web of happiness. Instead of cramming a few bullet points about happiness, I’ll cover this in future articles.

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