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June 23, 2004

Happiness, Overrated?

Against Happiness [Jim Holt, The Way We Live Now, NYT Magazine, 6/20/04] Is happiness all it's cracked up to be? The essay comments on findings reported in the May issue of Psychological Science: in laymen's terms, that "Sad people are nice. Angry people are nasty. And, oddly enough, happy people tend to be nasty, too." A hypothesis proposes that happy people's happy attitudes "[reduce] the motivation for analytical thought." Which may explain why I sometimes trod on people's feelings and not realize it until they tell me. IF they tell me.

Another passage that I found interesting:

There is one bit of the world that happy people do see in an irrationally rosy light: themselves. As the British psychologist Richard P. Bentall has observed, ''There is consistent evidence that happy people overestimate their control over environmental events (often to the point of perceiving completely random events as subject to their will), give unrealistically positive evaluations of their own achievements, believe that others share their unrealistic opinions about themselves and show a general lack of evenhandedness when comparing themselves to others.'' Indeed, Bentall has proposed that happiness be classified as a psychiatric disorder.

I'm still reading The Liar's Club by Mary Karr, my book club selection from last month. In her memoir Karr explains how people in her hometown acknowledged other people's problems:

This kind of bold-faced ugliness was common to us. The theory behind it held that not mentioning a painful episode in the meanest terms was a way of pretending that the misery of it didn't exist. Ignoring such misery, then, was equal to lying about it. Such a lie was viewed as more cruel, even, than the sad truth, because it somehow shunned or excluded the person in pain...from everybody else.

The "cruel to be kind" approach, however, doesn't work for everybody. Especially if they are inclined to think that you are just being cruel.

Yours, &c., LC | 12:04 PM | Sundries , Writing & Language | Comments (6)


"Indeed, Bentall has proposed that happiness be classified as a psychiatric disorder."

Now I've heard it all! That's just being provocative. This argument is its own reductio ad absurdum--if we start labelling the whole range of human behavior as disorders, there's no such thing as a mentally healthy person. Life itself is a psychiatric disorder.

Then again, I didn't actually read the article.

Posted by: LTR at June 23, 2004 02:04 PM

I knew I should've continued a bit further to say that the essayist thought Bentall was taking the idea a bit too far. It is a provocative one, though, the kind of thing you might say in passing at a dinner party.

At any rate, maybe some of us are secretly happy being unhappy, because our neuroses make us (so we think) more interesting. I mean, look at all those Woody Allen movies!

Maybe it isn't so much happiness that's so desirable, but contentedness. Satisfaction. Peace of mind. But maybe that's the thing about life, the struggle to achieve that state of being. And maybe what's important is realizing what is worth the discontent, the struggle, and what isn't. In the meantime, we fumble, try to learn from mistakes and hope that others see us for what we're trying to be, which is good people.

Afternoon tea makes me way too sentimental.

Posted by: Lady Crumpet at June 23, 2004 02:31 PM

The article author is the one being provocative. Understand that Bentall is talking about a discrete, observable state (actually a collection of observable traits) which psychologists refer to as "happiness" rather than all the possible conditions that an individual might describe as being happy. Recognizing certain patterns of behavior or judgment associated with an observable state could very well be the basis for a diagnosis.

Also, psychologists have long considered the possibility that mental "health" is a misleading concept. Freud, for all his eccentricity, wasn't making a really startling claim in Civilization and its Discontents when he suggested that the civilizing process of socialization carried with it the development of a variety of neuroses. That a certain degree of neurosis may be a manageable, even beneficial, condition doesn't mean that in some other degree or combination the same neurosis might be crippling disorders.

Posted by: Scott at June 23, 2004 04:10 PM

Good points, Scott.

Posted by: LTR at June 23, 2004 04:44 PM

For me, I think the pursuit of happiness is way more interesting than the actual state of happiness. It's almost like, being happy is fleeting -- but becoming happy feels like I'm really accomplishing something. I'm not quite sure how this logic really works in my brain, but it seems that it's the process of becoming happy that makes me happy not the actual happiness? I'm not sure that sentence really parses correctly, but hey, if it means that I'm not evil...

There's a book that doesn't quite parallel this article but is still kind of interesting called "Against Love: A Polemic" by Laura Kipnis. I read it earlier this year.

Posted by: carol o at June 24, 2004 10:34 AM

That makes a lot of sense, actually. We probably spend more time in the pursuit than in the achievement. Not that this is a revelation, but how you conduct yourself in the pursuit matters just as much as when you do reach that final state. Perhaps more so, because it's not always certain that you'll meet your intended goal.

So to play on a couple of expressions: "It's the journey, not the destination, stupid!"

Posted by: Lady Crumpet at June 24, 2004 10:57 AM