THE KIND­NESS PROJECT: hap­pi­ness is mak­ing us mis­er­able

The Australian Women's Weekly - - Contents -

It hap­pened in the tuna aisle at the su­per­mar­ket. Jour­nal­ist Jill Stark, 42, was feel­ing mis­er­able, un­mo­ti­vated and be­set by a name­less sense of “what’s the point”. As some­one who’d long bat­tled anx­i­ety, she knew it was im­por­tant to set small goals for her­self ev­ery day. “Even on the very worst day, the least I could do for my­self was put food in my body,” she says. So on this par­tic­u­larly black af­ter­noon, she peeled her­self off the couch, dragged her­self to the su­per­mar­ket and con­tem­plated her din­ner op­tions. She wanted some­thing sim­ple, some­thing com­fort­ing. A pasta bake, she thought – hot, carb-rich and nour­ish­ing.

“I found the tuna aisle, and that’s where things fell apart,” Jill writes in her new book Happy Never Af­ter. The lights were harsh. The op­tions seem­ingly end­less. She was con­fronted by dozens of va­ri­eties of tuna. Tuna in oil. Tuna in brine. In spring water. With le­mon. With chipo­tle. Roasted cap­sicum avour. Korean bar­beque. Anx­i­ety gripped her. She just wanted a nor­mal can of tuna.

“I dropped my empty basket on the oor and ran from the store, silently weep­ing over an abun­dance of canned sh,” she re­called.

A can of tuna wouldn’t nor­mally re­duce Jill to a quiv­er­ing mess. She was a top jour­nal­ist whose rst book had be­come a best­seller. But she was go­ing through an un­prece­dented pe­riod of con­fu­sion and mis­ery. For her whole work­ing life, she had been striv­ing to­wards the goal of be­com­ing a re­spected writer, and when her suc­cess didn’t bring the hap­pi­ness she craved, she plum­meted into a pan­icked down­ward spi­ral. She felt bro­ken, dis­traught and con­fused. She had ev­ery­thing she was told she should want, so why was she so supremely mis­er­able? It’s a ques­tion she’s not alone in ask­ing.

Hap­pi­ness is big busi­ness. From yoga re­treats to grat­i­tude jour­nals and ev­ery­thing in be­tween, it seems there is lit­tle we won’t try in pur­suit of joy. In the US alone, self-im­prove­ment books,

sem­i­nars and ser­vices net about $10 bil­lion a year – earn­ings roughly the same as Hol­ly­wood’s, ac­cord­ing to Time Mag­a­zine. Ev­ery­one is look­ing for a way to off-set the stress of mod­ern life, yet the prob­lem seems to be grow­ing.

A sur­vey by women’s health or­gan­i­sa­tion Jean Hailes found al­most half of Aus­tralian women (46.1 per cent) have been di­ag­nosed with de­pres­sion or anx­i­ety. Aus­tralia lays claim to the du­bi­ous ti­tle of be­ing the world’s sec­ond high­est pre­scriber of an­tide­pres­sants, a class of drugs whose con­sump­tion rate dou­bled in OECD coun­tries be­tween 2000 and 2015. Com­pa­nies like Google em­ploy “chief hap­pi­ness of cers” and in 2014 the World Eco­nomic Fo­rum, which usu­ally fo­cuses its at­ten­tion on ter­ror threats and post-GFC eco­nomic re­cov­ery, ded­i­cated 25 ses­sions to men­tal and phys­i­cal “well­ness”.

How­ever, as Jill found, the xa­tion on hap­pi­ness can leave us feel­ing pro­foundly un­happy. In so­ci­eties like Aus­tralia, where we’re taught we’re mas­ters of our own des­tiny, this only serves to make us chase hap­pi­ness more. And that, says Mel­bourne Univer­sity aca­demic Brock Bas­tian, is pre­cisely the prob­lem. “Pos­i­tiv­ity has be­come the new crack of the up­wardly mo­bile,” Dr Bas­tian says. “Sold on this idea, we see hap­pi­ness as a nat­u­ral state, the ex­pected equi­lib­rium. Yet, the harder we try to reach this plateau of hap­pi­ness and erad­i­cate all suf­fer­ing, the more in­ad­e­quate we may be led to feel.”

So­cial me­dia doesn’t help, giv­ing us an edited high­lights reel of oth­ers’ lives, which we mea­sure our­selves against. If com­par­i­son is the thief of joy, we are in the midst of a crime wave. Evan­gel­i­cal self-help gu­rus who tell us we’re re­spon­si­ble for our own hap­pi­ness make us feel worse by lead­ing us to be­lieve we have some­how failed if we’re not con­tent.

Ex­ac­er­bat­ing this prob­lem, some­what para­dox­i­cally, is the vast im­prove­ment in the stan­dard of liv­ing. “We be­come numb to sim­ple crea­ture com­forts, strip­ping them of their abil­ity to de­liver any plea­sure,” Dr Bas­tian writes in his book The Other Side of Hap­pi­ness. Our com­fort­able ex­is­tences have nar­rowed the “emo­tional band­width” of life, he says.

Ac­cord­ing to Jill, “hap­pi­ness set point” the­ory sheds more light on this. The the­ory goes that our out­look adapts af­ter life-chang­ing events but our level of hap­pi­ness usu­ally re­turns to our in­di­vid­ual hap­pi­ness set point, which is de­ter­mined by a com­bi­na­tion of ge­net­ics and con­di­tion­ing. “The con­cept came from a 1978 study which found lot­tery win­ners were not signi cantly hap­pier than those in a con­trol group, while con­versely, peo­ple with spinal­cord in­juries were much hap­pier than might have been ex­pected,” she says. In her odyssey back to good men­tal health, Jill cast off tra­di­tional Western goals of ca­reer-part­ner-wealth and searched for other path­ways to con­tent­ment and mean­ing.

The happy trap

The start­ing point, ac­cord­ing to Dr Bas­tian, is to ac­cept it’s neither pos­si­ble nor de­sir­able to be in a state of per­pet­ual bliss. He re­cently con­ducted a study which ex­am­ined how our ex­pec­ta­tions of hap­pi­ness and suc­cess can in­hibit out abil­ity to achieve it. He sep­a­rated psy­chol­ogy stu­dents into three groups, and gave each a se­ries of puz­zles to solve. The rst two groups were given the same set of puz­zles – about half of which were un­solv­able. Group A worked on their task in a room dec­o­rated with mo­ti­va­tional posters and notes and books that em­pha­sised hap­pi­ness.

The in­struc­tor was di­rected to speak in an upbeat tone and make ref­er­ence to the im­por­tance of hap­pi­ness. The sec­ond group com­pleted the puz­zles in a neu­tral room with a neu­tral in­struc­tor. The third group was in a room dec­o­rated like group A’s, with mo­ti­va­tional posters and a pos­i­tive in­struc­tor, but their set of puz­zles were all solv­able. Af­ter­wards, the stu­dents talked about their feel­ings. Group A tended to dwell on their fail­ures, whereas Group B and Group C, who didn’t ex­pe­ri­ence a gap be­tween their ex­pec­ta­tions and their out­comes, were markedly more upbeat.

Con­di­tion­ing peo­ple to achieve suc­cess and hap­pi­ness changes how peo­ple re­spond to their neg­a­tive emo­tions and ex­pe­ri­ences, caus­ing them to feel worse about their fail­ure, Dr Bas­tian con­cluded. His­tor­i­cally, ad­ver­sity is im­por­tant.

“That’s where we grow, in places of dis­com­fort,” Dr Bas­tian says. “We have this idea that if we could just pro­vide our chil­dren and our so­ci­ety with more com­fort, maybe we’d be happy and that isn’t true.”

Of course, be­ing too un­com­fort­able isn’t good ei­ther. He is not sug­gest­ing that the home­less, or chron­i­cally ill are to be en­vied, sim­ply that there is value to be found in a lit­tle hard­ship. “You can’t feel chal­lenged by some­thing that is com­fort­able,” he says.

It’s an idea that is gain­ing recog­ni­tion. In the UK, ed­u­ca­tors are start­ing to in­tro­duce “con­trolled risk” into play­grounds to in­crease re­silience and a sense of won­der­ment and ad­ven­ture in chil­dren. The Princess Diana Play­ground in Lon­don’s Kens­ing­ton Gar­dens is one place that has adopted this phi­los­o­phy. A sign out­side the play­ground in­forms users risk is “in­ten­tion­ally pro­vided” so chil­dren can de­velop “an ap­pre­ci­a­tion of risk in a con­trolled en­vi­ron­ment”.

Play­time is not only richer and more en­joy­able, but also more bene cial to chil­dren de­vel­op­men­tally when it con­tains el­e­ments of risk. Signi cant re­search is now be­ing amassed on the bene ts of play for adults. Jill ex­plored this in her book. Af­ter at­tend­ing a No Lights No Ly­cra dance party, she found her­self “rid­ing high on eu­pho­ria … I’d been bliss­fully lost in a state of play,” she said.

“The harder we try to reach this plateau of hap­pi­ness, the more in­ad­e­quate we feel.”

In her book Joy­ful, In­grid Fetell Lee ex­plores the im­por­tance of play, and why play­ful­ness is cru­cial to achiev­ing eet­ing mo­ments of daily joy, as well as long-term good men­tal health. A twirl on the dance oor or a romp with the kids will make you hap­pier than buy­ing that hand­bag you’ve had your eye on.

“Play is one of our great­est means of ac­cess­ing de­light,” In­grid writes.

She cites the work of Stu­art Brown, the founder of the Unites States’ Na­tional In­sti­tute for Play, who stud­ied con­victed mur­der­ers in the Texas prison sys­tem and found nearly all of them had “de cient or de­viant play his­to­ries”.

“Play pro­motes ex­i­ble think­ing and prob­lem solv­ing, which in­creases our re­silience and helps us adapt to change,” In­grid writes. “When we play, our aware­ness of time di­min­ishes and our self-con­scious­ness fades. Play can put us in a pow­er­ful ow state, which al­lows us to let go of ev­ery­day wor­ries and be ab­sorbed in the joy of the mo­ment.”

Hap­pi­ness Inc.

Money can’t buy hap­pi­ness but the old adage hasn’t stopped peo­ple try­ing. The mind­ful­ness colour­ing book craze of 2015 showed just how many peo­ple were search­ing for a quick and con­ve­nient way to rid them­selves of stress and neg­a­tiv­ity. So vo­ra­cious was the de­mand that Faber-Castell pen­cil sales in­creased by 600 per cent. The com­pany had to put on ex­tra shifts at its Bavar­ian fac­tory.

Many of us lust af­ter beau­ti­ful shoes or pres­tige cars, con­vinced that we’ll be con­tent once we have them in our pos­ses­sion. Of course, noth­ing we buy can de­liver last­ing hap­pi­ness. The ad­ver­tis­ing in­dus­try’s prom­ise that our dis­con­tent can be cured at the check-out, and the way this mes­sage sat­u­rates the me­dia, is part of the prob­lem, Jill says.

“The ad­ver­tis­ing in­dus­try’s en­tire busi­ness model is based on this idea that you are not enough: if you just buy this pres­tige car, if you just lose these ve ki­los, then you might be enough,” she says.

It’s an empty prom­ise. A Stockholm Univer­sity study of more than 3000 lot­tery win­ners found that, aside from a brief ini­tial spike, the win­ners were no hap­pier af­ter they won the lot­tery than be­fore. This is in part ow­ing to the hap­pi­ness set point, but is also borne out by the signi cant re­search that says money does not make us hap­pier.

A study con­ducted by Prince­ton Univer­sity found wealth does not im­prove hap­pi­ness. “Low in­come ex­ac­er­bates the emo­tional pain as­so­ci­ated with such mis­for­tunes as di­vorce, ill health and be­ing alone,” the study found, but money stops en­hanc­ing hap­pi­ness once in­di­vid­u­als earn an an­nual in­come of US$75,000 (about $105,000). Be­yond this, money has no ef­fect on daily mood. The av­er­age Aus­tralian in­come is just shy of $86,000 per an­num.

UK au­thor Mar­i­anne Power spent a year ru­mi­nat­ing on hap­pi­ness and con­cluded that the key was liv­ing a mod­er­ate life like her mother. A free­lance writer liv­ing in Lon­don, Mar­i­anne had ticked all the boxes on mod­ern so­ci­ety’s hap­pi­ness check-list: a glam­orous job, nice clothes, a com­fort­able home. Yet, some­thing was miss­ing. She em­barked upon a year-long jour­ney of self-help, hell­bent on project man­ag­ing her mis­ery. Each month she fol­lowed the rules of a dif­fer­ent self-help book. Through­out the ex­per­i­ment, she was at odds with her mother, a stoic woman brought up on an Ir­ish farm in a fam­ily of seven chil­dren.

Mar­i­anne’s con­clu­sion was that her mother had far more con­tent­ment in her life as a re­sult of sim­ply “get­ting on with things”, and rel­ish­ing small plea­sures like a cup of tea. “When I

told Mum I wanted to be hap­pier, she told me hap­pi­ness wasn’t real. I told her she was mis­er­able. The ridicu­lous thing is Mum is a much hap­pier per­son than me be­cause she doesn’t chase hap­pi­ness,” Mar­i­anne wrote. One of the big­gest lessons Mar­i­anne learnt from her mother was that she didn’t wor­ship at the al­tar of ma­te­rial goods.

“There’s so much crap that we don’t need and ev­ery­thing is in huge let­ters and ev­ery­thing is try­ing to get our at­ten­tion,” Jill says. Fol­low­ing her tuna aisle break­down, a psy­chol­o­gist told Jill the most com­mon place his pa­tients had panic at­tacks was in the su­per­mar­ket food hall.

“Su­per­mar­kets are sim­i­lar to other parts of our lives,” Jill says. “We’re look­ing for some­thing to ll the gap, and we have all this choice but we’re anx­ious that the thing we choose might not be the per­fect thing … It’s a sen­sory over­load. It feels like you’re be­ing bom­barded with choices and the re­search shows that the more you’re bom­barded with choices, the more dif cult it is to ac­tu­ally choose some­thing.”

You’ve got to have friends

The hap­pi­ness gap is a mod­ern prob­lem. The fran­tic, 24-hours news cy­cle, con­stant mes­sag­ing from ad­ver­tis­ers and so­cial me­dia that we’re in­ad­e­quate, and the in­creas­ing preva­lence of smart phones are all work­ing against us. Neu­ral com­plex­ity spe­cial­ist Fiona Kerr says smart­phones ul­ti­mately make us more iso­lated and un­happy.

“You just look at ev­ery­one and they’re look­ing at their screens,” she says. “If I was to beam down I would think that’s our power source.”

The prob­lem with phones, Dr Kerr says, is that we’re more in­ter­ac­tive than ever be­fore, but not more con­nected. When we reach out to our fam­ily or friends via our de­vices, we have a dif­fer­ent neu­ro­log­i­cal re­sponse than if we sit down with them and share a cof­fee or a nice meal.

“Part of your brain lights up when you look at some­one di­rectly – when you have eye con­tact,” Dr Kerr says. “We have phys­i­cal syn­chro­ni­sa­tion of speci c parts of our so­cial net­works in our brain. We have en­dor­phins that in­ter­act. We have this whole cas­cade of chem­i­cals that only oc­cur when we are phys­i­cally to­gether in the same prox­im­ity and those things can­not hap­pen over a screen.”

Sub­sti­tut­ing text mes­sages or face­time chats for a mean­ing­ful in-per­son catch-up re­duces the bene t of the in­ter­ac­tion, but tricks us into think­ing that we have ser­viced this deep, mam­malian need. Los­ing a sense of be­ing part of a group is very dam­ag­ing to hu­mans. “To feel con­nect­ed­ness is crit­i­cal to hu­man well­be­ing,” Dr Kerr says.

One of the most strik­ing ex­per­i­ments Jill ex­am­ined dur­ing her road to re­cov­ery un­der­scores the im­por­tance of com­mu­nity. The 1970s Cana­dian ex­per­i­ment, Rat Park, took the con­ven­tional wis­dom that chem­i­cal hooks are the rea­son for ad­dic­tion, and turned it on its head. For much of the 20th Cen­tury, our un­der­stand­ing of ad­dic­tion came from a study in which caged rats were given two water bot­tles – one con­tain­ing clean, fresh water, and the other con­tain­ing water laced with heroin or co­caine. The rats would go back to the drugged water again and again un­til they over­dosed and died. In Rat Park, the rats were placed in cages with the same two water bot­tles – one drugged, one clean – but in­stead of be­ing in tiny, bare cages, they were kept in cages with coloured balls, wheels, food and, cru­cially, play­mates. In this sce­nario, none of the rats be­came ad­dicted to the drugged water.

“The over­whelm­ing rea­son for ad­dic­tion is the pain and iso­la­tion the in­di­vid­ual feels,” drug re­form ad­vo­cate Jo­hann Hari told Jill. “The op­po­site of ad­dic­tion is not so­bri­ety, it’s hu­man con­nec­tion.”

Like most peo­ple, Jill’s jour­ney out of un­hap­pi­ness is more com­pli­cated than danc­ing in the dark and en­joy­ing life’s sim­ple plea­sures. She will con­tinue to cam­paign for bet­ter men­tal health fund­ing and isn’t sug­gest­ing that peo­ple with crip­pling anx­i­ety or de­pres­sion should sim­ply try harder. But she is grate­ful for her break­down be­cause she is now “liv­ing her life in a bet­ter way”.

That bet­ter way in­volves small changes like mak­ing time for play, tak­ing breaks from so­cial me­dia, crit­i­cally assess­ing ad­ver­tis­ing mes­sages and not ex­pect­ing any per­son or achieve­ment to “com­plete” her.

Dr Bas­tian would add to this the im­por­tance of ac­cept­ing pain and dis­com­fort as nat­u­ral parts of the hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence that ul­ti­mately en­rich our lives. He shares a story of a Chilean hike that el­e­gantly il­lus­trates this point. It was a sev­en­day hike up for­bid­ding moun­tains, dur­ing which he weath­ered snow storms and re­cur­ring al­ti­tude sick­ness. On the fth day, he came across a lit­tle hut that sold beer, not far from a camp­ing site by a hot spring.

“I’ll never for­get the ab­so­lute plea­sure of sit­ting in those hot springs, rest­ing our weary feet and drink­ing that beer,” Dr Bas­tian re­calls. In fact, the beer was warm and the hot spring stank of sul­phur. “What made this so plea­sur­able was not the qual­ity of the hot spring or the beer, it was the ve days of hik­ing, the cold, the snow and the sick­ness that came be­fore it,” he says.

“To feel con­nect­ed­ness is crit­i­cal to hu­man well­be­ing.”

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