Ob­sta­cles in quest for con­tent­ment

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Jane McCredie

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

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