Wednesday, July 14, 2010

What I Want to Talk About When I Talk About Happiness

    I went home for my and my father's birthday weekend and my mom threw us a giant party.  One of the guests was my dad's colleague, who studies happiness for a living (he's a psych guy).  And he was standing around laughing and making jokes and drinking a beer and I thought, oh, what the hell, so I asked him,  "Hey, Chuck, what advice would you give someone who wants to be happy?"
   He seemed a little astonished that I really wanted to hear about his work; I was slightly astonished that he isn't accosted regularly like a sports med doc at a pre-marathon carb fest.  The guy's an expert on happiness.  Shouldn't everyone want to talk to him?
    To get him started, I said, "Gretchen Rubin says you should make your bed every day, which I find a little inspirationally lacking."
   He said, "Well, you know, your everyday environment does have an effect on you, but the current literature suggests that happiness is actually an emergent property that occurs when seven or eight factors are present in the right relation to each other."
    That made so much sense that I put my drink down and prepared to be enlightened.    "What are they?"
    He again looked a little shocked (seriously, what are people talking about at parties these days? Sports? Psh.), but then he was kind enough to list them off for me:
    "Well, number one, and probably the most important, is growth. You have to feel like you're growing as a person and that you have long-term goals you can aim for. 
    "Two, you need to have work that you find fulfilling.
     "Three, some sort of spirituality through which you can understand your life and the things that happen to you, and possibly a supportive spiritual community. 
     "Four, younger, or less experienced people whom you can mentor and provide support for. 
     "Five, older or more experienced people whom you can look to for mentoring and support.
     "Six, a group of peers who can provide emotional resonance and who are interested in the things that interest you."

     At this point I interrupted him.  "So most of these have to do with relationships with other people."
    "Yes," he said, "they do.   It can be horribly detrimental to your mental health and happiness if you don't have some long-term, close relationships."  He talked a little bit then about his brother who had moved away fairly recently and the large but unexpected impact the move had had on his own family's happiness and feeling of being a family, and on the brother himself.  Then he said, "It's really just in our culture that we place so much emphasis on individualism and individual expression, and it's actually not very healthy."
    I felt a little weird about this, because in my family I am the one who has moved away, and it has been detrimental to my happiness, and to my family's happiness, too.  I can't be there for them for the little things, or even some of the big things, and I don't really have a place there. And it's a weird sort of problem, because I love Arizona, and being here has provided me with opportunities for personal growth and jobs I would never have had back in my small hometown, but it has also lost me my sense of place among people.  I said as much to Chuck, and he nodded sagely and said, "It's really a tough spot to be in."
     "Do you think," I asked, "that people in more family-oriented cultures are happier than we are?"
     He did not even hesitate.  "Oh, definitely.  It's not even a question."
     Isn't that strange?  Our entire culture is dedicated to making people as self-sufficient as possible, to giving them full individual expression and attention, and what that actually does is prevent us from being truly happy.
     So why do we do it?

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