We know very little about what it takes to be happy, and a lot of what we know is wrong. This seems to be the conclusion of some voices in the movement known as positive psychology. It’s a relatively new field set against the traditional focus of psychology, which has delved into neurosis, psychosis, and mental illness generally. Positive psychology studies normality and tries to improve it. Is happiness normal? That depends on who you ask.
Pollsters, for example, usually find that happiness is quite common; around 8 out of 10 people in the U.S. report that they are happy. This number fluctuates with the rise and fall of events. A recent Gallup finding is that Syrians and Iraqis have the highest rate of negative thoughts – not a surprise – while people in South America have the most positive thoughts, which is a surprise. Gallup also studies well-being, using various leading factors, and hardly any country exists where 30% or more of the population is “thriving,” Gallup’s highest measure of well-being. A sharp drop in well-being occurred in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya just prior to the turmoil of the Arab Spring.
Among psychotherapists, happiness is generally viewed pessimistically. Some estimates from therapists indicate that up to 50% of the population exhibit signs of mental illness, including anxiety and depression. Suicide rates among white males rose by 40% recently, which is generally attributed to the economic downturn, and it’s no secret that antidepressants and tranquilizers are a multi-billion dollar market, even though neither class of medications actually cures anxiety and depression.
Against these conflicting reports, some commentators assert that we stumble into happiness” here and there, while our dream of being constantly happy is self-delusion. People are bad at knowing what will make them happy, we are told. Things like getting married, having a baby, winning the lottery, or even having a high salary don’t bring the happiness that we assume, as a society, they will. Mothers of young children report, for example, that taking care of infants and toddlers is one of the biggest stressors in their lives, while lottery winners typically say, a few years after their windfall, that they were happier before they won.
Why are we so bad at being happy? Were we born to struggle? These are questions that have fueled centuries of philosophy and spirituality, with no reliable conclusion. Since the Sixties, the rise of the New Age amounts to a search for a higher reality that promises more happiness than organized religion does. Has the promise come true for dedicated seekers? We’ll see. In a way it’s depressing that the most famous soliloquy in Shakespeare is about suicide (“to be or not to be, that is the question”). Now that I’ve laid out the contradictions that are involved, the next few posts will explore in depth how happiness works and where the pursuit of happiness should be leading us.
(To be cont.)