Obstacles in quest for contentment
In 1992, British psychologist Richard P. Bentall called for a new condition to be included in the psychiatrists’ bible, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The disease in question reflected a “lack of contact with reality”, he wrote in the Journal of Medical Ethics. “[It is] statistically abnormal, consists of a discrete cluster of symptoms, is associated with a range of cognitive abnormalities, and probably reflects the abnormal functioning of the central nervous system.”
The condition Bentall was describing was happiness. That elusive state has long obsessed humans, though views on how it might best be achieved have changed over time.
For the ancient Greeks, contemplation and restraint were key. “When I say that pleasure is the goal of living I do not mean the pleasures of libertines or the pleasures inherent in positive enjoyment,” Epicurus wrote in his Letter to Menoeceus. It’s hard to imagine the philosopher posting images of his steamed vegetables on Instagram.
Happiness has become the alpha commodity of our times. Trawl through the bestseller lists and you’ll find dozens, hundreds, of books promising to deliver its secrets for the cost of a paperback. It’s a relief to come across two books that take a more critical approach to the subject. In The Happy Brain, Welsh neuroscientist Dean Burnett is at pains to point out that he has not written a “how to” book about happiness. He began his research by looking at what others said made us happy: But all I found was an avalanche of management fads and techniques, cod philosophy, self-help manuals, life coaches and gurus, all of varying degrees of dubiousness, and all insisting that they definitely knew the secret to happiness, no matter who you are.
Particularly galling to Burnett was that many of the so-called secrets drew on “validsounding-but-unspecific” neuroscience terminology to bolster their claims: terms such as dopamine, oxytocin, or emotion centres of the brain.
Burnett applies his analytical mind to each of these, in a survey encompassing the role of various parts of the brain and the chemicals that traverse it as well as the life circumstances that play a role in our happiness.
What he finds is sometimes surprising. The so-called love hormone, oxytocin, can have paradoxical effects, for example. Oxytocin is released at higher-than-usual levels during sex, childbirth and breastfeeding and is considered to play a role in pair bonding and parental love. But it has a downside: … increasing your social bonds with an individual or a group can increase your hostility to anyone outside that bond. One study found that men dosed with oxytocin were much quicker to ascribe negative traits to anyone not from their culture or ethnic background. Or, to put it another way, oxytocin makes you racist.
“If racism is integral to happiness, then I’m not sure humans deserve it,” Burnett concludes. Similar qualifiers apply to other biological factors. Various chemicals are certainly involved, but they are not, Burnett writes, the cause. And attempts to locate happiness in a particular region of the brain have likewise delivered confusing and contradictory results.
So, what of life factors then? Here Burnett finds more concrete evidence: home, work and relationships can all be shown to promote happiness, though also its opposite. There is no secret to lasting happiness, he concludes. Happiness isn’t stored in the brain like gold bullion in a treasure chest, just waiting for someone with the right key to turn up and spend it. The human brain never has been, and never will be, as simple, straightforward and consistent as that.
And in even worse news for the authors of the self-help books: “Essentially, the pursuit of happiness is often self-defeating.”
In The Happiness Fantasy, Swedish academic Carl Cederstrom surveys the history of happiness from Epicurus on, visiting Sigmund Freud, Wilheim Reich and the newage ideas of the 1960s along the way. His particular focus is the happiness fantasy he argues has dominated the wealthy countries of the West for almost a century. It is a fantasy of self-actualisation, according to which there is only one way to become happy, and that is by reaching your full potential as a human being … It is to pursue happiness in the form of pleasure, whereby the most rudimentary daily activities become moments of potential joy. And it is to submit yourself to the market, working hard to develop your brand and gain a competitive edge.
An associate professor in Stockholm University’s business school, Cederstrom has previously turned his acerbic gaze on other modern phenomena including the self-optimisation movement and the “cult of wellness”.
In this book he examines a subject treated more briefly by Burnett: the role of work, specifically the ways in which corporations have co-opted the idea of happiness to promote greater workforce productivity.
The 60s ideas of individual freedom and self-actualisation have now been “repackaged as corporate slogans”, he argues. The modern corporation doesn’t just expect employees to turn up and do their jobs, Cederstrom writes. They are required to be happy about it. At a place like [online shoe retailer] Zappos, happiness is not a fortunate sideeffect of the work the company does, but the essence of its philosophy. Happiness is what it delivers to its customers in the form of a shoe box. And it is what it delivers to the employees, once they have invested themselves emotionally in the company … They should not be there because they have to, but because they really want to — because they “love it”.
It’s not hard to see how the kind of compulsory happiness Cederstrom describes could become oppressive. Having a whinge around the water cooler is, after all, a time-honoured ritual in many workplaces.
He argues that we need to replace the “personal pursuit” happiness fantasies that have dominated since at least the 60s with a new version: one that acknowledges our fundamental dependency on others and seeks to create “a more compassionate, equal and truthful world”. “Does this sound naive?” he writes. “Of course it does. But who cares?” medicine. writes about science and