Too much pursuit of happiness?



“I believe the ultimate aim of all human beings is to obtain happiness and a sense of fulfillment.” The Dalai Lama

“The effort to try and feel happy is often precisely the thing that makes us miserable.” Oliver Burkeman

Seemingly endowed with endless effervescent glee, Drew Barrymore has expressed an attitude about happiness and positive feelings that no doubt many of us can relate to: “You have to fight unhappiness… As much light as I have inside me, there’s just as much darkness, I’m afraid. There’s a polarity, and I still have demons to work out.” [imdb.com bio]

In an interview, she commented about actively striving to feel it: “It feels as if I’m willing myself to be happy.” From post: Drew Barrymore and Gretchen Rubin on authentic happiness as a choice.

Oliver Burkeman is author of “The Antidote” and argues that “it is our constant efforts to eliminate the negative — insecurity, uncertainty, failure, or sadness — that is what causes us to feel so insecure, anxious, uncertain, or unhappy.”

In his review of the book, Hector Tobar notes “Instead of thinking about success so much, Burkeman writes, consider the nirvana one reaches in failure.

“In failure our ambitions are stripped away, and we see who we really are. We learn that failing miserably at something usually isn’t the disaster we imagine it to be.”

Tobar quotes J.K. Rowling about ‘hitting bottom’ as a divorced single mom: “I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realized, and I was still alive.” Tobar notes, “Failure, Rowling says, gave her ‘an inner security’ that remains as valuable to her as any success.”

From Oliver Burkeman’s ‘The Antidote’ rethinks positive thinking, by Hector Tobar, Los Angeles Times December 1, 2012.

The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, by Oliver Burkeman.

In her Commencement Address at Harvard University, J.K. Rowling reminded us that achievement and satisfaction in life are not singular events or a linear progression, and failure can have deep value: “So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential.”

From post Failure and personal growth and achievement.

Mood challenges

Our mental and spiritual health may be indicated by positive feelings, and those of us with proclivities toward mood disorders (depression, anxiety) or other dysfunctions can benefit from dealing with the emotional pain and negative feelings of those challenges, in order to more fully realize our talents.

The mythology of the crazy or unhappy artist is just that – mythology.

But can we pursue happiness too much, as though other experiences are less valid, even pathological?

Musician Alanis Morissette points out, “We’re taught to be ashamed of confusion, anger, fear and sadness, and to me they’re of equal value as happiness, excitement and inspiration.” [From my article Don’t Worry, Be Happy. Mostly.]

In his book review of The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt, James Flint notes that “psychologists have only recently begun to realise “there are really two information processing systems at work in the mind at all times: controlled processes and automatic processes.”

Flint says the book concludes that happy people “are the ones in whom the interaction [between the two systems] is smooth, in whom the gears mesh, in whom the different levels add up to a more or less coherent whole” and unhappiness results from there being major differences about how to do things.

But maybe that sort of conflict is to our benefit. In terms of personal development or life satisfaction, are we really better off obsessing about being nothing but happy?

David Ewing Duncan, in his essay Down With Happiness [Wired magazine 04.24.07] writes that Thomas Jefferson “famously proclaimed a universal right to the pursuit of happiness. The key word there is pursuit. Jefferson thought that people ought to be free to chase after happiness; whether they attained it was their own business.”

As Duncan notes, feeling good comes in a myriad of forms: “free-floating rapture, blissed-out contentment, ecstatic partying… as a species, we generally keep these experiences in check. After all, the ways to induce them – alcohol, drugs, OK Go concerts – have historically come at a high cost.”

[See, for example, my article Gifted, Talented, Addicted.]

He points out that in the 18th century, “the technology to get happy despite circumstance or personality did not exist. Now, though, it’s on its way – and that’s not as delightful as it sounds…

“Precise brain scanning is creating a vast trove of information about what happens psychologically, physiologically, and chemically when we are happy or sad (or stressed, angry, loving, homicidal, spiritual, or altruistic).”

Selling positive emotion technology

Based on these advances in understanding the physiology of experience, there are likely to be increasingly targeted medications and other means to induce or suppress specific emotions.

And marketing to go along with it: some of the antidepressant TV ads offer sophisticated enticements to “feel better so you can get on with your life.”

Duncan quotes Oxford University pharmacologist Susan Greenfield, author of Tomorrow’s People: How 21st-Century Technology Is Changing the Way We Think and Feel, “There is an industry of sorts that is trying to seduce you. They want you to lose yourself, to want more of their product, whether it’s virtual reality or a pill… Happy people are not ambitious. They do not build civilizations.”

Duncan comments, “I’m certainly not against technology. But should we use it to cure insecurity? Normal anxiety? We risk medicalizing the human condition.”

David Ewing Duncan is the author of Masterminds: Genius DNA and the Quest to Rewrite Life.

Aldous Huxley

The idea of a “bliss-out” substance is a key element in Aldous Huxley’s dystopian novel Brave New World (1932) [the image is from the York Notes edition of the book.]

He called it Soma – a name also for beverages used for centuries in the Indo-Iranian, Vedic and greater Persian cultures.

Two quotes from the book:

“By this time the soma had begun to work. Eyes shone, cheeks were flushed, the inner light of universal benevolence broke out on every face in happy, friendly smiles.”

“I don’t understand anything,” she said with decision, determined to preserve her incomprehension intact. “Nothing. Least of all,” she continued in another tone “why you don’t take soma when you have these dreadful ideas of yours. You’d forget all about them. And instead of feeling miserable, you’d be jolly.”

According to Wikipedia, “Soma is the popular dream-inducing drug which is employed by the government as a method of control through pleasure and immediate availability. It is ordinary among the culture of the novel for everyone to use it for whatever various practices: sex, relaxation, concentration, confidence. It is seemingly a single-chemical combination of many of today’s drugs’ effects, giving its patients the full hedonistic spectrum.”

On her Brainstorm Services site about Brave New World, Stacy Tartar Esch comments: “World Controller Mustapha Mond argues in favor of a ‘stable’ society of ‘happy’ citizens. No more striving, no more suffering. No disease. No pain. But there are sacrifices: namely emotion, individuality, freedom, love, family, religion, art, and the intellectual pursuits of science, philosophy, and history.”

According to David Pearce of the Aldous Huxley : Brave New World site, “As perfect pleasure-drugs go, soma underwhelms. It’s not really a utopian wonderdrug at all… more akin to a hangoverless tranquilliser or an opiate – or a psychic anaesthetising SSRI like Prozac – than a truly life-transforming elixir.

Designer drugs

“Third-millennium neuropharmacology, by contrast, will deliver a vastly richer product-range of designer-drugs to order.”

He thinks Huxley “does an effective hatchet-job on the very sort of ‘unnatural’ hedonic engineering that most of us so urgently need.

“One practical consequence has been to heighten our already exaggerated fears of state-sanctioned mood-drugs. Hence millions of screwed-up minds, improvable even today by clinically-tested mood-boosters and anti-anxiety agents, just suffer in silence instead.

“In part this is because people worry they might become zombified addicts; and in part because they are unwilling to cast themselves as humble supplicants of the medical profession by taking state-rationed ‘antidepressants’. Either way, the human cost in fruitless ill-being is immense.”

Not that I agree it is due primarily to Huxley or to one book, but Pearce does raise the important issue about a pervasive aversion in society against getting valuable or needed mental health help, including mood treatment.

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Dalai Lama quote from the book: Mindscience – an East West Dialogue.

> See followup post Too much pursuit of happiness? (part 2)

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Originally posted 2012-12-01 15:35:11.

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