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Some Dark Thoughts on Happiness

There are about eight seconds of silence. “No, we’ve never really talked about it. Huh. That’s a good idea. There’s no reason not to . . . ”

Well, there’s no reason to do it, either, I say, if it’s not something you feel particularly guilty about . . .

“Happy Now?” by Chip Kidd.  

“Well, my first wife and I made this agreement that we would not bad-mouth each other, which she violated from day one, but I never did. And a real conversation with my kids about it would involve some bad-mouthing of her.”

Why would a conversation about your regrets as a father involve bad-mouthing your ex-wife?

“I don’t have regrets,” he says. “I would choose to do the same thing. That was the time of my life in which I needed to do my work, the foundation, and I would do it again. And it just happened they were victims of that. No, it’d be a conversation much more about what the marriage and the child-rearing was like and how we felt about each other.”

Even if you don’t have regrets, you can feel bad, I say.

“Yes. I feel bad. But I would do it the same way. I was married to my work, and I should have been married to my work.”

A launcher of ships.

Philip Brickman, the man who did the famous lottery study, was also a launcher of ships—or at least a launcher of careers, a mentor to many. In his work, he focused a lot on happiness and what it took to achieve it. He was creative, collegial, a nurturer; his obituary mentions that one of his favorite topics of discussion was what constituted “the perfect day.” On May 13, 1982, when he was 38 years old, he climbed to the roof of the tallest building in Ann Arbor and jumped. His colleagues were stunned. There’s an untold distance between knowing happiness and knowing about it. And sometimes, to our blinking incomprehension, that distance can only be measured in the space between this life and the next.

“There’s no credible evidence that dispositional optimism is changeable,” says Julie Norem, a Wellesley professor and author of The Positive Power of Negative Thinking. Norem is one of the more outspoken critics of the positive-psychology movement. “And the research shows that it’s dispositional optimism that makes your life better,” she continues. “So if it’s not clear you can change this kind of disposition, it’s not especially useful to tell people about it.”

Norem is a researcher. One of her most interesting studies involved giving anagrams to solve to both optimists and pessimists, first listening to Mozart, then listening to a dirge. The pessimists did better when they were listening to the dirge. “I’ve come to think of them as the French,” she says. She has also given them a name: “defensive pessimists.”

Another very vivid critic of the positive-psychology movement is Barbara Held, author of Stop Smiling, Start Kvetching.She’s more of a culture critic. She detects a certain high-handed moralism in Seligman’s work—a presumption that happiness is itself virtuous. “Can Seligman’s claim that virtuous action produces well-being be tested scientifically?” she asked during a 2003 positive-psychology conference, at which both she and Norem were asked to speak. Unlike Harvey Ball, who forgot to trademark the yellow smiley face, Held trademarked the yellow smiley face with a slash running through it. She made Seligman wear a T-shirt with it throughout her talk.

Until extremely recently, happiness wasn’t even a value, much less an inalienable right. Instead, it was something one got to experience only in death, after leading a virtuous, and often self-denying, life. As McMahon points out in Happiness: A History, the words for happiness in both ancient Greek—eudaimonia—and every Indo-European language include, at the root, a cognate for “luck.” In English, it’s happ, or chance—as in happenstance, haphazard, perhaps. The implication is that being happy means being lucky. And luck is not something we can entirely will.

“Happiness is fine as a side effect,” says Adam Phillips, the British psychoanalyst and lay philosopher whose latest work, Going Sane, examines functionality and well-being, but from a much more literary and ruminative perspective. “It’s something you may or may not acquire, in terms of luck. But I think it’s a cruel demand. It may even be a covert form of sadism. Everyone feels themselves prone to feelings and desires and thoughts that disturb them. And we’re being persuaded that by acts of choice, we can dispense with these thoughts. It’s a version of fundamentalism.”

Unlike Seligman, Phillips declares happiness “the most conformist of moral aims.” “For me,” he continues, “there’s a simple test here. Read a really good book on positive psychology, and read a great European novel. And the difference is evident in one thing—the complexity and subtlety of the moral and emotional life of the characters in the European novel are incomparable. Read a positive-psychology book, and what would a happy person look like? He’d look like a Moonie. He’d be empty of idiosyncrasy and the difficult passions.