Happiness is now Compulsory (April 2005)

Saturday, 02 April 2011 02:20

Saga Magazine
April 2005

Happiness Is Now Compulsory

Dorothy Rowe

The American magazine Time recently ran an issue on ‘The Science of Happiness’, or positive psychology, the study of how many of us are happy and why. The popularity of this kind of psychology in the media can be measured by the fact that Time devoted 45 pages to it. Time also commissioned a poll of 1009 American adults of whom 78 per cent assessed themselves as being happy all or most of the time. Only 16 per cent said that they were happy some of the time, and 5 per cent said that they were rarely happy. More rich people claimed to be happy than people with incomes less than $35,000 p.a., but the difference was only 88 per cent as against 68 per cent. How these results square with the steep rise in the incidence of depression over recent years Time did not explain.

I would suggest that the difference is a matter of appearances, not a matter of accurate statistics. The society we live in always contains messages about what sort of people we should be, and these messages relate not so much to morality as to the benefit certain powerful people get from us obeying the messages. At present we are being told that we can be in one of two states: we can be depressed and in need of medication: or we can be happy, and grateful for being so. No one can admit to being sad because ‘sad’ is now a pejorative word as in, ‘You’re a sad guy. Why don’t you get a life?’

Amongst those who are diagnosed as being depressed are many people who are sad, and quite rightly so because they have suffered a loss for which there is no recompense or reward, and also many anxious people whose anxiety has deep roots which tranquillisers don’t reach. By diagnosing all of these people as being depressed and prescribing them antidepressants doctors appear to be doing something helpful, and the pharmaceutical industry makes big profits. But who benefits from us being happy except ourselves? Aren’t social scientists like these positive psychologists pursuing disinterested research?

Whenever you read a report about research concerning what we do and why we do it always ask, ‘Who benefits from this?’ During the Second World War children were deemed able to be looked after by people other than their mothers while their mothers did the work of men away at the war. But, once the war ended and the men returned, women had to be forced back into the home. Suddenly social scientists were telling us about ‘latch key children’ whose mothers worked and who left the children to fend for themselves after school. These children, we were informed, would grow up to be wastrels, neurotic misfits and/or criminals. Many of you who read Saga were such children. Are you a lost generation?

American positive psychologists claim that they get little financial help from their government, which is mean of their government because every government benefits from a happy population. Happy people aren’t likely to criticise their government and try to change it. Positive psychologists tell us that we can make happiness a goal which we can achieve through savouring life’s joys, learning to forgive, investing time and energy in friends and family, taking care of our body, developing strategies for coping with stress and hardship, and practising acts of kindness. (Time illustrates the last item with a cartoon of a man holding an elderly woman by the elbow and pushing her in a direction she is clearly surprised to go.) Positive psychologists also advocate gratitude as a key to happiness. Professor Martin Segilman recommends that at the end of every day you should write down ‘three blessings’ which you have received during the day. You could write down, ‘My train was only 20 minutes late instead of the usual 40’ and feel grateful to our dear leaders.

At present these dear leaders urge us to be not alarmed but alert and healthy. They leave the message ‘Be happy’ to the media who promote happiness for their own ends. Bad news that has no happy ending, dramas and documentaries which show the reality of our situation and ask us to think don’t get big audiences and thus fail to attract advertisers or fail to be seen to earn their licence fees. So the message from the media has become ‘Successful people are happy’. If you’re not happy it shows you’re not successful. What the Time poll showed was that many Americans want to appear to be happy. Cynically, the media tell us that happiness is achievable and that success can be ours because everything will turn out all right in the end. This message from the media attracts the largest audiences and makes the people who own the media very rich.

Unfortunately, the media’s message and the simplistic advice given by many positive psychologists about how to be happy obscure the important findings from very sound research on the relationship between our attitudes and our physical health. It is now clear that anxiety, stress, and depression affect the operation of our immune system, leaving us vulnerable to noxious factors around us and potential weaknesses in our bodies. Anxious and stressed people usually get colds and flu: some depressed people go on to develop cancer or heart disease. Thinking angry or miserable thoughts doesn’t cause illness: it just reduces our physical defences against the potential causes of illness. However, being hopeful, being able to live in the present and enjoy a sight, a sound, a taste, a scent, a feeling as they occur, going with the flow of life and not raging against it, not dwelling on the past with bitterness and regret won’t cure severe illnesses and grant eternal life but together this way of living does produce something that we can never achieve as a goal but can stumble upon as a by-product of what we’re doing. That by-product is happiness.