By Gerald A. Daquila, Ph.D. (Candidate)
The Chicago School of Professional Psychology
Carl Gustav Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist, and founder of analytic Psychology, once said: “The word ‘happiness’ would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness.” Joshua Wolf Shenk’s article, “What makes us happy?” is an important literary piece that speaks to our generation, and therefore, must be included in a Psychology curriculum. “Man is a goal-setting animal,” says Aristotle. “His life only has meaning if he is reaching out and striving for his goals.” Outside of survival, man’s search for happiness has been a primary pre-occupation for centuries (Maslow, 1971).
Shenk’s work, based on a longitudinal research by George Eman Vaillant, a psychiatrist from Harvard University, provides us with an unusual vantage point from where to look for answers. The experience of the sample population—268 white, middle-class, Harvard-educated males—while may not necessarily be a representative of the general population, contains insights that have broader application to humanity. The essay has corroborating parallels in the works by Anna Freud (1936), Alain de Botton (2010), Martin Seligman (2002), Nathaniel Branden (1969), Gail Sheehy (1976), Daniel Gilbert (2006), Daniel Goleman (1998), and David D. Burns (1980).
Shenk’s main thesis, referencing the work of the 74-year old research’s main curator, George E. Vaillant, is that we live life through episodes of pain and happiness (Shenk, 2009). In between these episodes, we develop coping habits, or ‘defense mechanisms’ (Vaillant, 1977) that enable us to navigate the vicissitudes of life. According to Shenk, Vaillant’s four adaptive mechanisms, which can be ranked from worst to best, are: (1) “psychotic” adaptations, (2) “immature” adaptations, (3) “neurotic” defenses, and (4) “mature” adaptations. Shenk goes on further and identifies Vaillant’s seven secrets to happiness: (1) employing mature adaptations or defense mechanisms, (2) education, or continuous learning, (3) stable marriage, (4) not smoking, (5) not abusing alcohol, (6) some exercise, and finally, (7) healthy weight.
The results of this research are certainly not unique. The popularity of happiness as a subject (categorized as a Science in Positive Psychology), as evidenced by its weaving into the pop culture, is as old as human history. Martin Seligman, director of Positive Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, and credited as the ‘father’ of the movement, postulates that happiness can be learned or unlearned (Seligman, 2002). Having a positive outlook in life is a choice, not a destiny. This observation is supported by David D. Burns’ own theory that our thoughts create our emotions, not the other way around. We can choose to be happy. The secret lies in our choice—to be mindful of our thoughts. Negative thinking is the by-product of our tendency to dwell on what can possibly go wrong. Left on its own devices, this thinking pattern spirals into a vicious circle feeding our negative emotions (Burns, 1980).
The popular media has joined the bandwagon. For instance, BBC came out with a series of programs that explored the subject in 2006, The Happiness Formula (BBC, 2006). BBC wanted to study the relationship between GNP—gross national product, a country’s measure of wealth—and relative happiness or feelings of ‘well-being’. What the researchers found was a bit of a mystery: There was no correlation between material plenty and happiness. This dichotomy gave rise to the idea that, perhaps, our measure for well-being is wrong. The results are consistent with the sobering fact that the rich countries in the OECD also have one of the highest suicide rates in the world. In stark contrast to Bhutan, a landlocked state in South Asia, one of the ‘poorest’ in GNP terms, but ranked highest in relative happiness (Revkin, 2005).
This fascination on positive psychology has bred other genres. Alain de Botton’s series on the subject titled, “Epicurus on Happiness,” presents a similar finding (de Botton, 2010). According to de Botton, a Swiss philosopher based in the UK, happiness, as described by the Epicurean tradition, consists of having (1) friends, (2) freedom, and (3) an examined life. “They teach happiness at Harvard,” headlined another article by author, Matt Mabe in August 20, 2008’s issue of Bloomberg-Businessweek magazine. In the case of Harvard, the Positive Psychology (or science of happiness), has supplanted Economics as the most popular undergraduate course (Mabe, 2008). What’s the reason behind positive psychology’s popularity? We offer three postulates, as follows:
The Great Recession and the ‘American Dream’. The full account of the Great Recession that we just went through may not be fully known, or its full impact on our collective psyche fully understood. The concept of the ‘American Dream’ may have suffered a serious blow. There is possibility that, subconsciously, we have begun to question the value system that we’ve been fed since birth. We collectively think that our happiness can be equated to the size of the house we live in, or the car we drive, or to schools our kids go to. This message is programmed into our national psyche that we don’t even realize that it exists. The economic recession was a turning point. It punctured not only the housing bubble, but also, the mirage that we’ve been holding on for so long. F. S. Michaels, in his book “Monoculture” (Michaels, 2011), poignantly summarizes this phenomenon:
“The governing pattern a culture obeys is a master story—one narrative in society that takes over the others, shrinking diversity and forming a monoculture. When you’re inside a master story at a particular time in history, you tend to accept its definition of reality. You unconsciously believe and act on certain things, and disbelieve and fail to act on other things. That’s the power of the monoculture; it’s able to direct us without us knowing too much about it.”
The materialist paradigm that’s been foiled in front of us has been shattered, perhaps, irreparably with the collapse of the housing market. That nugget sent a jolt into our collective consciousness, which is creating a yearning for life’s meaning beyond our material possessions.
Quest for Sustainability. The concept of the ‘American Dream,’ which was rooted in the Declaration of Independence—“life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement” (Adams, 1931)—will undergo a reframing based on our collective recollection of this epoch. As with other epochs in the past—the Great Depression, the Two World Wars—this global shock will be recalled with both sadness and regret. Only time can tell what the final chapter of this discourse will be, but what’s clear is that collectively, we’ve come to realize that we cannot continue exploiting the common pasture on which we rely on for our sustenance without risking the consequences of over-consumption—as poignantly illustrated in the “Tragedy of the Commons” (Hardin, 1968). The sustainability of the concept, at its materialist core, if carried to its teleological end, will implode on itself. Including this essay in the Psychology curriculum, therefore, offers an alternative paradigm to which we can view the outside world.
Vacuous leadership. The recent spate of corporate failures—from Enron, to WorldCom, Lehman Brothers, and Tyco—has shattered our implicit belief on authority figures. That we can trust our leaders to do what’s right (Milgram, 1974), and that they have our best interests at heart, has stumbled upon a conundrum. The implicit social contract—to maximize happiness, or reduce pain for the most number—the utilitarian ethical view between leader and follower, as propounded by John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham, has been breached (Mill & Bentham, 2004). This breach of trust, sadly, is not only isolated to for-profit organizations. Erstwhile paragons of virtue, leaders from government, religious, including non-profit organizations have shown a similar propensity for abuse of power—e.g., former President Bill Clinton’s Affair with Monica Lewinsky, the Roman Catholic Church’s handling of child abuse allegations against some of its priests, Jim Bakker and Tammy Bakker of the PTL organization, Jimmy Swaggart, etc.
Given this carnage, we can’t help but ask: To what degree do our leaders have our interest at heart, really? Can we trust them to do what is right? Leaders, in the past, have assumed the role of ‘sense-makers’ for the masses. Followers relied on their leaders to articulate a vision of the future. Masses ascribed to, and followed their lead, but, with trust gone, regaining the implicit social contract between leader and led will take a long time to heal. Meanwhile, we are at a loss—for direction, for responsible leadership. This deep-seated unease drove us to dig inside, to be more introspective. Psychology, in our search for deeper meaning, provided some soft answers.
Finally, Shenk’s work, as an introduction to Psychology, offers useful hints on where to look for answers. While certainly not exhaustive, at its best, this essay provides a research-based framework. Vaillant’s conclusions, where Shenk has based his own thesis, can be empirically proven. At its worst, the essay will pique our interest. We need the time to pause, to reflect on the debris left by the carnage. With our own lives juxtaposed with the 268 men in the research group, we can say to ourselves with humility: How much different or similar our lives are from theirs? The fact that we’re able to read, and critique this literary piece means that in many respects, we are in at least comparable position as the majority of the men—not better off, or worse off, but about the same. That thought, can be a source of comfort, in uncertain times like ours. If we follow the arguments in parallel studies, we then come to a humbling realization that our happiness is not dependent on any outside circumstance. As Viktor Frankl has intimated in his poignant work, happiness is within us to give away (Frankl, 1969). This insight is consistent with Nathaniel Branden’s thesis that there’s no more important conception that a man can have than his conception of himself (Branden, 1969).
For a piece in Psychology, this essay is quite philosophical, and provides us with a glint that understanding human nature, and his incessant search for happiness, is a multifaceted enigma requiring different angles. Regardless of our starting point of view, we agree that the search for happiness is as elusive as ever. Happiness is as private an affair that only we can define. The perspectives we covered above are only approximations of reality. By articulating these approximations, we hope that we have come closer to answering the question: What is happiness?
Branden, Nathaniel (1969). The Psychology of Self-Esteem.
BBC, British Broadcasting Corporation (2006). The Happiness Formula. Retrieved from their website: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/programmes/happiness_formula/default.stm.
Burns, David D. (1980). Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy.
De Botton, Alain (2010). Epicurus on Happiness: A Guide to Happiness (from The Consolations of Philosophy).
Frankl, Viktor (1969). The Will to Meaning: Foundations and Applications of Logotherapy.
Hardin, Garrett (1968). Tragedy of the commons, Journal of Science.
James, William (1890). The Principles of Psychology.
Mabe, Matt (2008). They teach happiness at Harvard. Bloomberg-Businessweek, August 20, 2008.
Maslow, Abraham (1971). The Farther Reaches of Human Nature.
Michaels, F. S. (2011). Monoculture: How One Story is Changing Everything.
Mill, John Stuart, & Bentham, Jeremy (2004). Utilitarianism and Other Essays, Alan Ryan (Ed.). London: Penguin Books.
Milgram, Stanley (1974). On Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View.
Revkin, Andrew C. (2005). A new measure of well-being from a happy little kingdom. New York Times, October 4, 2005.
Shenk, Joshua Wolf (2009). What makes us happy? The Atlantic Online, June 2009.
Seligman, Martin (2002). Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment.
Sheehy, Gail (1976). Passages: Predictable Cries of Adult Life.
Vaillant, George Eman (1977). Adaptation to Life, Boston, MA: Little, Brown.