Over the weekend I noticed an essay on Vox titled America is obsessed with happiness–and it’s making us miserable. Obviously, given all that I have written about happiness here, including my own efforts to do a happiness project, the title jumped out at me. Even without reading the essay, that title gave me a prick of discomfort (and a slightly larger dose of self-doubt). Curious about what the author, Ruth Whippman, had to say, I read on.
In the article, Whippman mentions the myriad ways Americans pursue happiness (yoga, meditation, gratitude journals, mindfulness, reading Gretchen Rubin, and more) and the numerous conversations she’s had with Americans about their attempts to be happier. She’s especially annoyed with the whole notion of mindfulness in everyday life. (It’s worth noting here that Whippman hails from Great Britain, a notably cynical place, a place where candour and a genuine nature are not exactly held in high regard).
The Byproduct of a Life Well Lived
The line that jumped out at me, and that has been running through my mind the last few days, was this:
Oddly, even adjusting for emotional openness, my new happiness-seeking American acquaintances seem no happier, and often more anxious, than my cynical, joy-slacking British ones. My instinct is that this is because happiness should be serendipitous, the byproduct of a life well lived, and chasing it in a vacuum just doesn’t really work.
It is exactly this–that “happiness should be serendipitous, the byproduct of a life well lived“–that struck me. In my mind, a life well lived is exactly what a happiness project is about. Happiness isn’t (necessarily) about drinking champagne every day and surfing and laughing riotously and the constant pursuit of excitement, thrills, and having more. Happiness is about focusing attention on where you find meaning in life and consciously cultivating more of it. And I don’t think that’s something worth criticizing people for.
In Happier at Home and her other writings, Rubin identifies her “Eight Splendid Truths” of happiness, the first of which is: “To be happy, I need to think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth.” I am most interested in the ideas of feeling right and being in an atmosphere of growth. About these Rubin writes:
“Feeling right” is about virtue (doing my duty, living up to my own standards) and also about living the life that’s right for me (in occupation, location, family situation, and so on). Sometimes, choosing to “feel right” means accepting some “feeling bad.” Happiness doesn’t always make me feel happy; I dislike every step of dealing with yearly flu shots for my family, yet this chore also makes me happy.
Research supports this observation [that we are happy when we are growing]: It’s not goal attainment, but the process of striving after goals—that is, growth–that brings happiness.
Learning Swedish gives me a happiness boost, even if I’m nowhere near mastery of it. Practicing piano (as an adult) brings me immense happiness, even though I’m absolutely crap on it. I love the very act of learning these things, of growing my skills, of working on something difficult, even if I’m not having “fun” in the moments of going through verb tables or playing a section of a sonata for the sixteenth time, trying to get my hands to coordinate their efforts. Neither of these things make me miserable (except when I attempt to order, in Swedish, gluten-free bread with my soup, and instead am delivered a regular wheat-and-cheese sandwich, which I don’t realize until I’ve taken several bites).
So What Makes Us Miserable?
Now, if I had my guess about it, Americans are in fact quite miserable when we equate “happiness” with having more, more than our neighbors or friends or more than we had at this time last year. Or when we engage in competitive happiness, trying to be happier than our friends (or frenemies), or have more perfect (“advanced”) children, a cleaner house, nicer clothes, etc.
I find it incredibly hard to believe that when we take time to identify the things that genuinely give us the most meaning and joy in life, and then begin to cultivate those things in our lives, we become miserable and anxious. I find it easy to believe that when we think there is a particular notion of happiness that we ought to be striving for–whether that notion genuinely rings true for us or not–and we aren’t living up to that notion, we become anxious.
I’d love to know what you think about this. What brings you the most meaning in life, and do you consciously pursue it or hope that it just appears in your life? Do you have enough happiness–or meaning–in your everyday life without having to cultivate it? Do you think seeking happiness makes us miserable? Have you been scoffing at my whole happiness project shtick?
Top photo by Halldora Olafs; second and fourth photos by me; third photo by James.