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Archive for the ‘Paradox of Women's Declining Happiness’ Category

Anne Lamott and I are friends.  Okay, not personally, but I follow her on Facebook.  (We did have a moment a decade ago when I shook her hand after she gave a talk up in Berkeley. But anyway.)  When her latest post popped up in my news feed this morning, a bunch of bells went off. Abso-effing-lutely, I thought.  I’ll have what she’s having. In her funny and inimitable way, she wrote about doing a “once-in-lifetime writerly thing”:

one of those high octane events where you just KNOW you will feel completely better about yourself for the rest of your life in every way, because it means you will have truly arrived…And I got VERY lost. It has taken me four days, two Kissing dogs, church, three hikes, two huggy girlfriends, and two visiting brothers for me to get found.

Her point was that feeling whole, being happy, is an inside-out kind of deal, rather than vice versa:

My entire life I have believed that there was something I could achieve, own, lease or date that would make me feel permanently whole, and I’m pretty sure that this side of eternity, this will be my default mode. If only THIS would happen, or if only that would fall into place, or if I just met the right person, or got the right review, or got to live in a house with a fill-in-the-blank… But the horrible truth of life is that this whole less, being friends with your own heart, is ALWAYS going to be an inside job.

No kidding.  It’s something we’ve written about a lot – on our blog, in Undecided, which, if you have in your to-read pile, just flip straight to the last two chapters.  What Lamott wrote and what we found in our research on the science of happiness is this:  That Next Best Thing? It might make you giddy for a while.  But the elusive thing we call happiness?  Probably not for the long haul.  As we wrote once before: 

We’ve bought into the idea that Happy is measurable, and especially for women it breaks down like this: Great career, with a fat paycheck and smug title. Exotic vacations (cue Facebook).  Adorable family that shows well in the Christmas card photo.  And, of course, scores well, too.  Sexy as all get out (and thin to boot).  A closet full of killer boots. (Okay, my own personal preference. Note: I do not measure up.) Yoga class and book club.  And granite in the kitchen.

But here’s the spoiler:  Quantitative research by UC-Riverside psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of the How of Happiness, found that happiness is about 10 percent due to changed circumstances, like, for example, the blue pearl granite on my counter-tops.  The rest? Your genes, your life and how you deal with it.  In other words, all you, baby.

 

There’s a theory called the hedonic treadmill, and what it means is that we adapt to new situations, whether winning the lottery or getting fired from a job. Our happiness quotient might spike – or plummet –at first, but then we revert. And as Dan Ariely—author of The Upside of Irrationality and a professor of behavioral economics at Duke University—found is that the one-shot rush you get from, say, buying a new car or getting a raise is fleeting and, in fact, not nearly as lasting as the sense of well-being you get from meaningful experiences, whether large or small.  Taking a vacation, say, or spending time doing the stuff you love or with the people you love – the memories of which can stick with you, change you, and teach you something significant about your Self.  That’s the stuff, research shows, of which happy is made.

 

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I am as aspirational and as ambitious as the next woman.  Maybe more so.  I would also be the last to assert that we should blow off our dreams, to quit our quest to break through the glass ceiling at work, to rise above that nasty 77 cents on the dollar, or to stop fighting for true gender equity.  But what I think is this.  Maybe what we need to do is separate the outside from the inside. 

 

Granted, being a woman of (ahem) a certain age, this may be all the product of hindsight, one of the few benefits of growing older.  But what I have come to realize, and what Lamott reminded me today, is that the inner sense of well-being, the kind you can sink into like a comfy pillow after a long hard day, has more to do with who you are – than what you do or what you have.  The fatter paycheck, the once in a lifetime writerly thing, that bigger better kitchen may be all that – and, in fact, probably are.  But happiness itself, the kind that lasts?  Something else entirely.

 

And often, that something else arises completely unannounced, triggered by a random memory that reminds you what it takes to throw that smile on your face., that puts you in touch with who you are and what you value.  As it turns out, I had one of those moments just this morning when, listening to music while out on a run, up popped Bruce belting out “Pink Cadillac.” Which triggered all kinds of memories.  Every single one of them delicious.  (I’ll share.  Just ask.)

 

And when I took a moment to reflect, I had an aha moment, not unlike Lamott’s.  It reminded me what, within my own private universe, my own sense of happiness is all about.  And that smile?  Still there.

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The last time our family got together — finding all of us in the same zipcode at the same time is a rare and wondrous feat — we hunkered down in a suite at the Holiday Inn Express (Backstory not important). With no bar or restaurant in sight, our family of foodies trekked to the closest place of business, a gas station mini mart, and bought tortilla chips, bean dip and salsa, and wine, which we drank out of styrofoam coffee cups.

I think we were happy.

I got to thinking about all this happiness business the other day via a piece in the New York Times that suggests that our all-American pursuit of happiness leads to nothing but angst.  The writer, Ruth Whippman, a Brit who recently relocated to California, contrasts British grim to American happy and says she’ll take grim any day.  She starts her piece with a quote from Eric Hoffer — “The search for happiness is one of the chief sources of unhappiness” — then sails right in:

Happiness in America has become the overachiever’s ultimate trophy. A vicious trump card, it outranks professional achievement and social success, family, friendship and even love. Its invocation can deftly minimize others’ achievements (“Well, I suppose she has the perfect job and a gorgeous husband, but is she really happy?”) and take the shine off our own.

Point taken.  We have tied ourselves up in knots of late by using happiness as the barometer of who we are, what we are, and what we’re doing.  And we find that, no matter what, the scale is such that we don’t measure up.  How could we?  I can’t even define happiness.  Can you?

Nonetheless, this endless quest for what we consider our birthright lands us smack in the land of “yeah, but…” A good job that pays the rent?  And maybe even engaging for some of the day? Yeah, but…  If I put in a few more hours, if I got that raise, if I had a better title, if i didn’t have to grade those papers … Then, I’d be happy.

Family and friends?  We had a blast the last time we got together, but if only we could do it more often.  And, you know, the last time the wine was kinda sub-par….

Great kids?  Well, yeah…  He/she plays well with others, and indeed rocks the playground, but, sigh, we’d all be happier if he/she could get into that Chinese immersion program, get on the select soccer team, score off the charts in math, or get into that pricey school that everyone is talking about.

You get the drift.  We’ve bought into the idea that Happy is measurable, and especially for women it breaks down like this: Great career, with a fat paycheck and smug title. Exotic vacations (cue Facebook).  Adorable family that shows well in the Christmas card photo.  And, of course, scores well, too.  Sexy as all get out (and thin to boot).  A closet full of killer boots. (Okay, my own personal preference. Note: I do not measure up.) Yoga class and book club.  And granite in the kitchen.

Is it all about the shoulds? The quest for perfect?  For most of us, the package is unachievable.  But even if we could lay claim to the whole checklist, there’s always this: the next big thing.   Call it the “If-then” fallacy that keeps us living in the future, and blame it on what Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert describes in Stumbing on Happiness as our uncanny ability to blow it when it comes to predicting what will make us happy.  There’s something else at play here, too:  the American culture itself.   As we wrote in Undecided:

What gets us into trouble is a culture that is both acquisitional and aspirational, leaving us in a constant drool for the Next. Big. Thing. But once we get it, guess what? We’re happy for five minutes, and then we’re off on the chase. We’re back to square one, lusting again over that greener grass. And here’s an irony: Once we’ve jumped the fence, we sometimes wonder if what we had in the first place might have been what we really wanted after all.

Consumer culture doesn’t help. We’re constantly fed the message that we will be happy, sexy, thin, loved—pick one—if we buy the new and improved face cream, wheat bread, plastic wrap. Do we ever see the message that we have enough? Sure, we’re smart enough to know that ads in glossy magazines do not promise happiness, but the subtext spills over: This thing will make you happy. Get the externals in order. Happiness to follow.

But anyway, back to Whitman, whose column sparked this riff.  From her across-the-pond perspective, she has us down:

Since moving to the States just shy of a year ago, I have had more conversations about my own happiness than in the whole rest of my life. The subject comes up in the park pushing swings alongside a mother I met moments before, with the man behind the fish counter in the supermarket, with my gym instructor and with our baby sitter, who arrives to put our son to bed armed with pamphlets about a nudist happiness retreat in Northern California. While the British way can be drainingly negative, The American approach to happiness can spur a debilitating anxiety. The initial sense of promise and hope is seductive, but it soon gives way to a nagging slow-burn feeling of inadequacy. Am I happy? Happy enough? As happy as everyone else? Could I be doing more about it? Even basic contentment feels like failure when pitched against capital-H Happiness. The goal is so elusive and hard to define, it’s impossible to pinpoint when it’s even been achieved — a recipe for neurosis.

Bingo.  In our lifelong chase after the impossible ideal we can’t even define, we’ve blinded ourselves to what happiness may be all about after all: a certain contentment with what is.  An ability to savor  the moment. We might even get there if we could ratchet down our expectations.

Which leads us back to the Holiday Inn Express, where our party of five ended up talking and laughing well into the night.  And even though the wine was sub-par, I think we were happy.  Maybe even with a capital-H.

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This just in: Men are as miserable as women. At least that’s what we learn from a new study by Arizona State professor Chris M. Herbst, who suggests that men’s happiness has taken as big a dive as women’s over the past several years.

We think that’s good news.

Back in 2009, Penn economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers published ground-breaking research that sent the interwebs atwitter. Titled “The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness” the study found that while, 35 years ago or so, women reported being happier than men, today women–regardless of marital or employment status or whether or not they have kids–report being unhappier than men.

At which point, the pundits swarmed: Was the women’s movement — responsible for ushering women out of the kitchen and into the workplace — to blame for this happiness gap? Were women themselves at fault for not taking proper care of themselves? There must be something wrong with you if you’re not happy, the media howled. Blame yourself! Blame feminism! Blame your choices! Whatever you do, don’t assume it’s the rational response to life itself or to a workplace that has not changed to accommodate the new reality: though women represent close to half of the workforce, the workplace still operates like a set from “Mad Men”as if the ideal employee is one with Betty Draper at home to take care of business.

Back to Herbst’s study: Not content to let women own their own funk, he used a different measure of well-being — happiness is notoriously hard to measure, if not define — to find that men’s life satisfaction had not only declined as much as women’s over the past two decades, but had gone south even more rapidly than women’s in recent years:

Men and women have also experienced comparable slippages in self-confidence, growing regrets about the past, and declines in virtually every measure of self-reported health. In a further departure from [Stevenson and Wolfers] results, I find that although the downward trend in life satisfaction became less severe for men and women over time, the slowdown occurred more aggressively among women. As a result, men’s life satisfaction began to fall more precipitously than that for women beginning in the late-1980s.

He suggests the reason may be a combination of several factors based on the erosion in social and civic engagement — coupled with economic insecurity.

Maybe so, but we think there’s something else at play. Because we’re optimists, we tend to think that all of this declining happiness business may be a sign of something positive: gender roles are shifting, and we — men and women alike — are working through the growing pains. As men begin to share more of the second shift in our dual-career families, are they also sharing more of the angst? And will that lead to positive change?

A new study out of the Families and Work Institute seems to suggest yes. According to “The New Male Mystique,” released last month, as gender roles have begun to shift—men’s stress over work-and-family conflict has increased. Last year, we interviewed Ellen Galinsky, President of the Institute and an author of the report, for our book and she told us that preliminary data on increasing stress levels among men suggested that the idea of work–life fit might move out of the pink ghetto and start being framed as change that benefits all of us.

Some might snipe that it’s time already that men feel the conflict too. But Galinsky believes that, as the generation of men who are (or who expect to be) more involved at home climb the ranks, they’re likely to be more amenable to family-friendly policies. She said her studies find that when supervisors—regardless of age or gender—have responsibilities for kids or elders, they are seen as more supportive of work–life policies, because, said Galinsky, “when you go through it yourself, typically you feel different about it.

What’s more, she told us, when men as well as women leave work to pick up kids—or if dad does the drop-off at the onsite daycare center— the stigma, and that maternal wall, starts to go away. “In an ideal world,” Galinsky said, “work would work for you and your employer, and there are some policies that would help you do that, but where the rubber hits the road is how your supervisor and coworkers treat you. You can work at a company that has fantastic policies, or live in a country that has fantastic policies, and you can still have a horrible situation. There has to be a culture where people value personal and family time.”

All of which goes to the heart of what’s often left out of studies of satisfaction and well-being: what has been dubbed a personal issue is really a political one. Maybe instead of kvetching about who’s happier than whom, what we ought to be talking about is changes in workplace structures and public policy.

And wouldn’t that just make all of us just a little bit more, you know, happy?

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Let’s just agree for one last time that all this happiness business in the wake of the “Paradox of Women’s Declining Happiness” study has a very unhappy subtext: Blame the victim.

The victim being us.

You’re not happy? The horror! There must be something wrong with you. Blame yourself! Blame feminism! Blame your choices! Whatever you do, don’t assume it’s the rational response to life itself.

It’s all enough to make you, well, you know…

So let’s just admit once and for all, shall we, that this emperor has forgotten his pants. It’s nonsense. Every bit of it. And much of the silliness derives from the way happiness has come to be defined in all the media blowback. It’s either perfection, as in the universe is all in its place, which is somewhat akin to what one of our sources dubs “Pottery Barn Psychosis”.

Or alternately, happiness equals braindead. As in when life happens, you deal with it by slapping a smile on your face (Or an apron around your waist. Be patient — I’ll get there later) and telling yourself that everything is just peachy.

Ugh and then again, ugh.

In either case, you’re most likely miserable. So are we all. Because either kind of happiness is one impossible measure. Yet, measure up (or buck up) is what we are told to do. Which means that not only are we not, um, happy, but we don’t get cracking on fixing the stuff that might need fixing.

Which was why Rebecca Traster’s piece in Salon aptly entitled “Screw Happiness” made me, you guessed it, happy. She not only makes the point that so-called happiness is not the human condition, but more importantly: embracing the unhappiness that is often part of daily life is what propels us forward. Done.

She starts off the essay by wondering why the waiter at a New Orleans restaurant asked her and her fiance if everything was perfect — and wonders about the expectation that it should be. She goes on to note that women especially bear the brunt of the smiley face — America’s obsession with perfection and happiness:

When it comes to social science and economics, women lately seem especially prone to having the contentment thermometer thrust at them, and their temperature always seems to register at dissatisfied.” A study by University of Pennsylvania economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, as well as one by Princeton economist Alan Krueger, have shown a decline in female happiness in the years since the second wave, a trend that has been cheerily used as proof of exactly how unhappy increased social, sexual, professional and economic liberation has made American women. Even those who dare make claim to general life satisfaction are told not to get too comfortable; as Marcus Buckingham, the author of “Find Your Strongest Life: What the Happiest and Most Successful Women Do Differently” gloomily warned any aberrantly chipper chicks in a piece last year, “as women get older they get sadder.”

But really, how could they not, given the aggressive messages about happiness and how they must achieve it, and unhappiness and how they must avoid it that are foisted on them from every direction, making them feel like failures if they are not warbling and grinning their way through life?

Love it. Later, Traister tackles perfection’s alter-ego: all the scolds that tell women that whatever they choose, they would be happier if they had chosen something else (sound familiar?). Find a mate! Stay single! Have kids! No, don’t! Focus on your career! But not too much! Traister, about to marry the man she loves, is caught in all the mixed messages and calls them out for what they are:

The irony is that all the behaviors that provoke the head shaking — seeking love, concentrating on career and economic independence, having children, not having children, continuing to work after motherhood — are the very things we choose to do in pursuit of satisfaction for ourselves, not to mention to support ourselves. Stop doing those spoiled things that bring you fulfillment or you’ll never find fulfillment!

You know what I think? It’s all bullshit. Not just the trend stories and the self-help stuff, but the laser focus on happiness itself. I say this as someone who has grown steadily happier as I’ve aged, but I think I would have said it even more emphatically earlier in my life: I’m just not sure that “happiness” is supposed to be the stable human condition, and I think it’s punishing that we’re constantly being pushed to achieve it.

Some of the avenues open in the 21st century bring women joy, some bring its opposite; often they just mean more hours worked, fewer hours slept, new sets of fears and anxieties alongside new opportunities for accomplishment, pleasure and pride — in other words, the range of feeling and experience that comprise a typical day, a week, a year, a life. It is this daily, varied reality that makes me wish we could stop using happiness, or perfection, as the yardstick by which we evaluate our lives, and that we could stop gravely shaking our heads at every instance that a woman fails to measure up.

Which leads us, strangely, to aprons. According to the LA Times, expensive ones are the latest must-haves among SoCal “apronistas.” Their term, not mine. In the story, Cynthia Wadell, founder of Heavenly Hostess, which sells upscale aprons, says that this symbol of 1950’s womanhood is “now an empowering icon for the abundance of choices in a woman’s life.”

I’m not so sure. I can’t help thinking that the apron strings are all tied up to this happiness stuff. We’re constantly being told that it’s our choices that make us unhappy. Which makes me wonder. If we buy that stuff — which, for the record, I do not — is this cultish return to June Cleaver’s favorite accessory a reactionary wish to go back to the time when we had none?

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Yesterday was International Women’s Day, and I spent it wondering how to write about it–without sounding like I’d been body-snatched by Debbie Downer.

(Why? Well, I’m not especially interested in beating a dead horse, but by now you know the score: we’re paid less and underrepresented. Child care and health care are dismal. Our ranking in the World Economic Forum’s international gender equality ratings is an appalling 31st. And, not to put too fine a point on it, but did you hear a single peep about it being International Women’s Day? Did you know that in China, Russia, Vietnam, and Bulgaria, IWD is a HOLIDAY? I wouldn’t have minded sleeping in. After all, sleep is a feminist issue!)

I think more than the inequities that still exist, though, what bothers me is the denial. The feeling that: We don’t need a Women’s Day in the United States! The women’s movement? Been there, done that! Equality? We’re so there. Because, obviously, we’re not. Consider this, from a HuffPo piece written by Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, co-founder and executive director of Momsrising.org:

A friend called me today, sharing her delight that her 10 year-old daughter came down to breakfast and wished her a “Happy International Women’s Day!” We wondered how her daughter knew about this important day without her mom telling her, and shared some happy thoughts about our strong, growing, young daughters.

Then the conversation turned: We simultaneously realized that both of our daughters think of International Women’s Day as something we celebrate for women in other countries, not our own.

We wondered, why?

My friend thinks it’s because: “There’s a real disconnect between our desire as parents to tell our girls that they can do anything they want to do in life, and the reality of the challenges that they will later face as women in our own nation.”

This disconnect isn’t unique to my friend and her daughter, it’s a disconnect that we see with policy makers, news reporters, and business leaders as they fail to recognize inequality that women still face in the United States.

The problem is that without recognition, we can’t get to solutions. And solutions are indeed needed.

They are indeed–and, as we’ve mentioned oh, once or twice before, it seems to me that the way in which we frame the issues for which solutions are needed is precisely why there aren’t any. We make them personal (find your own work-life balance much? make time for sleep? follow this man’s three steps to happiness?), and in doing so, we lighten the load, trivialize the deeper issues, and take the burdens off the institutions and put them squarely onto our own backs.

Oh, it was a sad sight. Eating toast (toast! the world’s perfect food!) on the morn of the 100th International Women’s Day, Debbie Downer was threatening to have me for breakfast. (Even despite the fact that, the night before, Kathryn Bigelow had just scored the Oscar’s top two honors–becoming the first female to be named Best Director. The only one… In 82 years… Ack! Do you see how Debbie does it?) But then, a ray of sunlight, in the form of a tweet from Hollee Temple. She thought I’d like the guest post on her blog. And guess what? I did!

First, the intro:

Today we welcome Lisa Tannenbaum to our blog to discuss how she remodeled her job to fit her notions of motherhood — and managed to get promoted with her job-sharing partner. Inspiring!

And inspiring it is. For several reasons. Here’s a taste:

Both Sandy (Tannenbaum’s job-sharing other half) and I have young children; we wanted to maintain our careers with Deloitte, a company to which we are very loyal and from which we have felt that loyalty returned. Deloitte is consistently recognized as a fantastic work environment for women, initiating many creative and innovative work/life balance programs, many of which have become the industry standard… Since we began this endeavor [in 2004], we have become an internal role model for how people can be successful, and even continue to progress, in their careers with such an arrangement.

Did you say “progress”?

There were certainly skeptics… questions about whether our arrangement worked efficiently on all levels. At one point, we actually believed that this job-share may have been a roadblock in our ability to advance. Rather than abandoning the concept, we coordinated our resumes together, posted for jobs together, and even interviewed together. It took a very strong and proven performance history, respected advocates, and finally, as with any workplace innovation, a leap of faith from leaders at Deloitte, but, alas, the answer was ultimately that we could move up the hierarchy–together!

We were promoted in our job-share arrangement to a managerial position. Six months into this new role, things are going very well as we continue to prove ourselves capable of efficiency, imagination, leadership, and teamwork on a daily basis. Trailblazing this arrangement together to a new group of leaders, learning the unique skill set of job-share management, and creating a path for the next generation of career-oriented mothers in the organization is wildly exciting and fulfilling–both as an employee of Deloitte AND as a mom.

Consider Debbie down for the count! And consider this my wish for you, on this very special Day After International Women’s Day: may you find personal success, and the internal strength and the external support you need to make the life you want to live possible. And may your success help to pave the way for the ladies that’ll come after you.

And may your optimism render your own personal Debbie Downer toast.

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Just when we thought it couldn’t get any weirder, there’s this: on-the-job happiness coaching.

Kid you not. According to the Wall Street Journal, corralling employees in a conference room and showing them how to make happy is apparently the new black:

Happiness coaching is seeping into the workplace. A growing number of employers, including UBS, American Express, KPMG and the law firm Goodwin Procter, have hired trainers who draw on psychological research, ancient religious traditions or both to inspire workers to take a more positive attitude—or at least a neutral one. Happiness-at-work coaching is the theme of a crop of new business books and a growing number of MBA-school courses.

For the love. Have we taken this happiness business too far? Critics think so. Me, too. But back to the WSJ:

Critics say that pushing positive thinking is just a way for companies to improve morale while they continue to burden employees with the threat of layoffs and an ever-increasing workload. Barbara Ehrenreich’s recent book, “Bright-sided,” blames “positive thinking” for enabling people to avoid confronting a wide range of serious problems in the economy and workplace.

Well, sure. If you’re busy bright-siding yourself, maybe you won’t notice that you’re overworked, you deserve a raise, the guy in the next room just got laid off, and today’s list of things-to-do-when-you-get home is longer than your right arm. There’s that seventy-seven cents on the dollar thing, too, and those structural changes that never quite happened that would allow for gender equity at work — and at home.

Don’t get me wrong: there’s nothing wrong with positive thinking. I tend to like it, actually. And it’s a sure thing that running around the office complimenting each other and counting your blessings is definitely a way to improve morale — not to mention your company’s bottom line. But it’s also likely to keep you from making any changes to the status quo. Or maybe even wanting to.

Kinda makes me think of “Up In the Air”, where George Clooney’s character attempts to convince the newly-laid-off that their pink slips represent marvelous opportunity. I’m also reminded of a visit to the corporate campus of this wildly successful and notoriously hip young company for lunch one day. The cafeteria boasted at least seven stations where you could order anything from all-American burgers to grilled fish to Pad Thai to salads to make-your own sandwiches. (In my case, a BLT with an unlimited supply of perfectly cooked applewood-smoked bacon.) We sat outside at an umbrella table, within shouting distance of the lap pool and the sand volleyball court. Lunch was gratis for anyone with a badge. As was breakfast. And snacks. Inside, employees could do their laundry, get their hair cut, see the dentist, and play with their dogs. Out in front? Valet parking.

All of which clearly led to good moral and high productivity. And, since employees could do everything at the office but sleep — and lots of them did that, too — insanely long hours at work. Quite the trick, when you think about it.

Which brings us back to the happiness coaches. Another kind of Kool-Aid? They trainers suggest workers do a number of concrete on-the-job tasks to up their happiness quotient:

Write e-mails to your co-workers every day thanking them for something they have done. Meditate daily to clear your mind. Do something for somebody without expecting anything in return. Write in a journal about things you are thankful for; look for traits you admire in people and compliment them. Focus on the process of your work, which you can control, rather than outcomes, which you can’t. And don’t immediately label events good or bad, but remain open to potentially positive outcomes of even the most seemingly negative events.

Not exactly rocket science. But good ideas nonetheless. And I’d be all over it. Sigh.  If only I had the time.

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Frankly, all this hype about happy is making me sad. It’s not enough we have folks like Marcus Buckingham telling us how to be happy — and making us feel guilty because we are not. Or the incessant volleys about the paradox of women’s declining happiness. But, frankly, despite the wealth of books, blogs, life coaching and, yep, even college courses about how to become happy little campers, we can’t even define the term.

That’s a problem, writes Carlin Flora in this month’s Psychology Today. He not only provides some research-backed insight into what so-called happiness is truly all about (hint: it doesn’t have much to do with shopping, as this post on some new research suggests. Or smiley faces, for that matter.) He also points out that — finally — there’s some counterpoint to what he dubs the “happiness frenzy.” And hooray for that.

I mean, really, hasn’t all the recent talk about slapping on a smile made you just a little bit grumpy?

While all this happiness business began as the serious study of positive psychology, the science has lately been reduced to the equivalent of a mylar balloon emblazoned with a happy face. Not good, Florin writes:

It wasn’t enough that an array of academic strands came together, sparking a slew of insights into the sunny side of life. Self-appointed experts jumped on the happiness bandwagon. A shallow sea of yellow smiley faces, self-help gurus, and purveyors of kitchen-table wisdom have strip-mined the science, extracted a lot of fool’s gold, and stormed the marketplace with guarantees to annihilate your worry, stress, anguish, dejection, and even ennui. Once and for all! All it takes is a little gratitude. Or maybe a lot.

What we’ve lost in all this focus on the sunny side of life is the ability — no, even the permission — to embrace the melancholy, which in turn pathologizes sadness, which is often the true, honest and normal reaction to life as we know it. More from Carlin:

There are those who see in the happiness brigade a glib and even dispiriting Pollyanna gloss. So it’s not surprising that the happiness movement has unleashed a counterforce, led by a troika of academics. Jerome Wakefield of New York University and Allan Horwitz of Rutgers have penned The Loss of Sadness: How Psychiatry Transformed Normal Sorrow into Depressive Disorder, and Wake Forest University’s Eric Wilson has written a defense of melancholy in Against Happiness. They observe that our preoccupation with happiness has come at the cost of sadness, an important feeling that we’ve tried to banish from our emotional repertoire.

Horwitz laments that young people who are naturally weepy after breakups are often urged to medicate themselves instead of working through their sadness. Wilson fumes that our obsession with happiness amounts to a “craven disregard” for the melancholic perspective that has given rise to our greatest works of art. “The happy man,” he writes, “is a hollow man.”

Maybe yes, maybe no. But, as Flora continues, happiness isn’t about smiling or pretending or desperately seeking sunshine. It’s more along the lines of, well, facing reality. And that includes a certain amount of discomfort. Even angst:

…It’s not about eliminating bad moods, or trading your Tolstoy-inspired nuance and ambivalence toward people and situations for cheery pronouncements devoid of critical judgment. While the veritable experts lie in different camps and sometimes challenge one another, over the past decade they’ve together assembled big chunks of the happiness puzzle.

What is happiness? The most useful definition—and it’s one agreed upon by neuroscientists, psychiatrists, behavioral economists, positive psychologists, and Buddhist monks—is more like satisfied or content than “happy” in its strict bursting-with-glee sense. It has depth and deliberation to it. It encompasses living a meaningful life, utilizing your gifts and your time, living with thought and purpose.

It’s maximized when you also feel part of a community. And when you confront annoyances and crises with grace. It involves a willingness to learn and stretch and grow, which sometimes involves discomfort. It requires acting on life, not merely taking it in. It’s not joy, a temporary exhilaration, or even pleasure, that sensual rush—though a steady supply of those feelings course through those who seize each day.

Flora ends the piece with a round-up of various theories on happiness. I think my favorite is this:

Happiness is not your reward for escaping pain. It demands that you confront negative feelings head-on, without letting them overwhelm you. Russ Harris, a medical doctor-cum-counselor and author of The Happiness Trap, calls popular conceptions of happiness dangerous because they set people up for a “struggle against reality.” They don’t acknowledge that real life is full of disappointments, loss, and inconveniences. “If you’re going to live a rich and meaningful life,” Harris says, “you’re going to feel a full range of emotions.”

Happy-ness redefined? Permission to be anything less? To choose, as Shannon wrote last week, interesting over happy and call it a day? Wow. It’s enough to make me, well, you know….

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