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Posts Tagged ‘happiness’

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 other day, a good friend who is Swedish emailed me a link  to post by Ann Charlott Altstadt, a Swedish writer who suggests that when life gets us down, we’d sometimes be better off ditching the trip to the yoga studio or the psychologist and seeing a sociologist instead.

Funny, my friend said, but true.

Being as how my knowledge of Swedish is, well, limited to the Muppets’ Swedish Chef, I google-translated the piece and, given a few glitches, I think I caught the drift:  When you find yourself in some deep weeds, it’s not always you that needs fixing.  Rather than placating yourselves with feel-good measures, you ought to look toward the structures that are causing all the grief in the first place.

In other words: Ain’t me, babe.  It’s you.

If you can get past the cyber-translation, which is more than a little wacky in places, here’s a taste of what Altstadt had to say:

 … it was so liberating when psychologist and author Jenny Jäger Feldt … questioned the trendiest and most fashionable solution to all our social problems-mindfulness. For example, if 90 percent in a workplace feel stressed, it probably is not a personal problem, and how can it be? …. Can the solution be to stand and smell for 10 minutes on the fish stick pack you just opened for dinner?

If you read women’s magazine, you get an intravenous overdose of the millions of images on the hyper-aesthetic women sitting with eyes closed in yoga position. Women take care of themselves, treat themselves and enjoy in their home spa. The woman in perfect balance in the sofa corner with folklore blanket sipping a giant cup of soothing herbal tea is a genre of its own class with religious myths of the Middle Ages.

Hit the like button.  As my Swedish friend points out, so much of the rhetoric these days is about us taking responsibility for how we react and feel.  But what if our negative reactions are normal and warranted?

Indeed.  We’re led to believe that if we’re not happy, if we’re less than content, there’s something wrong with us.  But what if those negative feelings alert us to a structure in need of a fix?  When we’re unhappy/stressed/worried/angry/sad — pick one — it may well be the absolute proper response to a situation where, if we were calm and peaceful, THAT would be a sign of crazy. When we are stretched too thin, when we’re struggling with the second shift, when we’re overworked and underpaid, when we’re striving for that elusive thing called perfect, when we’re relentlessly undecided, maybe it’s not us that needs help — it’s the system.

The structures themselves.  Cue the sociologist.

And yet, we’re led to believe that if we would  just, you know, dig the moment with a steaming cup of herbal tea, all would be right with the world.

All of which reminds me of a crazy notion we wrote about a couple years ago: on-the-job happiness coaching:

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.

The coaching stuff seems silly, at least to me, but we see vestiges of this happiness-building stuff all the time:  workplace massage chairs.  Free sessions with a work-life coach.  Oatmeal-raisin cookies (my personal favorite) in the front office.  All of which might feel great at the time, but is it all a way to placate us, to keep us smiling so that we won’t notice that we’re overworked, that we deserve a raise, that your buddy in the next cube just got laid off, that the list of things-to-do-when-you-get home is longer than your right arm, that we’re still making only seventy-seven cents to the guy‘s buck?  To keep us from questioning why we need the massage chairs in the first place?

To keep us thinking that if it’s happy and serene that we want, all we need do is stop and smell the chamomile?

Or, as Altstadt writes, the fish stick pack.  Anyway, she writes that she’s tried mindfulness and that all it does is stress her out.  Instead of sitting around thinking about reality, what she’d rather do is change it.

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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, ladies: Balancing a job and a family is hard! And, a recent study out of the University of Washington shows, the less difficult you expect it to be, the more likely you are to be depressed  when the rubber meets the road–when your expectations smack up against reality.

Color us unshocked.

The trouble, the study suggests, has as much to do with our own expectations as it does with a workplace that’s still designed as though every employee had the benefit of a full-time wife at home, someone to take care of the kids… and all of the day-to-day business that keeps a life running smoothly. Not insignificant: American women are attempting to do it all in a country with rather dismal structural support for working mothers, in terms of time off after childbirth or subsidized day care. And as real–and important–as those issues are, there’s more to it that that.

Women today are raised being told they can have it all, though rarely are they let in on the way this charming slogan translates to the real world–as if through an evil game of telephone–that, more than likely, they’ll have to do it all, that what they’ll really have “all” of is the work. We’re raised to believe that feminism is old news, the fight has been fought, the battle won–even while we’re presented with an ideal so impossible it would be laughable, if it weren’t so oppressive: while the Enjoli woman of yore was intimidating enough with her bacon and her pan, today the ideal has even more balls in the air: in addition to raising her children perfectly (and feeding them only organic bacon) and making the most of her potential at the office, she’s untouched by the hands of time, doing work that’s deeply satisfying and meaningful for the world at large, finding personal and spiritual fulfillment and capable of a perfect downward-facing dog.

All of which is not to say that women are better off staying at home; to the contrary, in fact. Stay-at-home moms were more likely to be depressed than working moms. So how to handle it? The researchers of the study suggest that the best way to deal is to “Be gentle with yourself and accept that balancing work and family feels hard because it is hard, rather than feeling guilty or unsuccessful if you can’t devote as much time as you would like to your job and to your family.”

And we’d agree. As Ramini Durvasula, PhD–a clinical psychologist, professor of psychology and director of the psychology clinic and clinical-training program at Cal State Los Angeles–told us when we spoke to her for our book, “What I want to communicate to young women is, ‘You can try many of these things, but there are going to be challenges. If you think you’re going to be able to screw your husband, raise your kids, clean your house and go to work, you’re mistaken. You’re going to have a messy house, an unscrewed husband, kids you’re not always with, and a job you can’t always do.”

Or, from a write-up on the study in U.S. News & World Report, “working moms may be happier when they delegate and let a few things slide — in other words, let someone with more time run the bake sale, make sure your husband is doing his share of the laundry folding and limit your work hours when you can.”

And we’d add to that: every choice entails a trade-off. If you’re reading this article right now, you are by definition not frying up organic bacon in a pan, or baking a batch of gluten-free cupcakes for the kids’ school fundraiser, right? To hear that we can’t do it all is, at first blush, an ugly message, but it’s also freeing in its simplicity: you can’t be in two places at once. So perhaps in addition to doing what we can to change the structural roadblocks, we should be doing what we can to address those expectations, revamp that slogan, and cut ourselves some slack.

A tough message, but according to this study, it seems that your happiness might be riding on accepting it.

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Last week I came across a fascinating piece at Salon.com… which, arguably, is made are all the more fascinating for its utter familiarity. The piece, by Rebecca Traister, is called “The new single womanhood: Young, urban and not necessarily looking for a man, a crop of memoirists are sketching out a brave new female world,” and, while it’s ostensibly a sort of genre-as-a-whole reading review, it feels like more of a mirror. Check it out:

Embedded in Crosley’s quirky yarns about travel, work and friendship is a fresh accounting of the mixture of exhilaration and ennui that marks many modern young women’s lives. In this, Crosley is a valuable contributor to what is becoming a new subset of the memoir genre; hers is the latest in a string of entries from professional young women anxious to reflect on the adventure of coming into their own on their own. Unlike the tales of trauma and addiction that studded the first wave of publishing’s autobiographical boom, Crosley and her compatriots are staking out stylistically understated but historically explosive territory by describing experiences that may not be especially unusual, but are unprecedented, because the kind of woman to whom they are happening is herself unprecedented. This crop of books is laying out what it feels like to be a young, professional, economically and sexually independent woman, unencumbered by children or excessive domestic responsibility, who earns, plays and worries her own way through her 20s and 30s, a stage of life that until very recently would have been unimaginable or scandalously radical, but which we now–miraculously–find somewhat ho-hum.

…The decade since [Meghan] Daum’s freshman entry has seen scads of books built along the same calm lines: telling what it’s like to be among the first generations of American women not expected to marry or reproduce in their early 20s, for whom advanced education and employment have not been politically freighted departures, but rather part of a charted path, and for whom romantic solitude is regarded as neither pitiable or revolutionary.

The literary records of this newly carved out period of female life approach it from different angles and vary in quality. But they serve as magnifying glasses for women eager to examine not only their navels but also the opportunities and anxieties presented to them as they embark on a road that sharply diverges from the one traveled by most of their mothers, and certainly by their grandmothers.

Sound familiar? The extended adolescence, the untraveled roads, the elusiveness of happiness, the lives lived featuring each and every one of us as the mistress of our own universe… and then, of course–wait for it dear reader–the choices.

As Helena Andrews has said about her memoir, and the women whose stories resonate with her own: “We got the undergrad degree, we’ve got the master’s degree, most of us, the great job, the closet we’ve always coveted, and we think that happiness should come immediately after that. And that’s not always the case… We know what we can do, which is anything. But we need to figure out what we want to do.”

That, too, is new. And that, too, is unremarkable, even in its newness, because that’s where history has landed us, and the one thing we all have in common is the time in which we’re living. And while we obviously don’t want to go backward, there are growing pains to be expected in the going forward. The freedom to do whatever we want without answering to anyone is both exhilarating and a little bit scary. We are in charge, we can do anything we want… and our work is to figure out exactly what that is.

It’s a tough job, but everybody’s gotta do it.


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Here’s a little good news for anyone who’s getting older (yeah, Peter Pan, that includes you): a recent Gallup poll has found that as people get older, they get happier.

You read that right. And I know, such a finding runs counter to the results of countless other studies and anecdotal asides. Not to mention the stereotypes of lonely spinsters, desperate housewives, cosmetically-enhanced cougars, and grumpy old men who have nothing better to do than lament the passing of the “good old days” and talk about the state of their prostate.

Researchers are equally baffled, according to a piece in the New York Times:

‘It could be that there are environmental changes,’ said Arthur A. Stone, the lead author of a new study based on the survey, ‘or it could be psychological changes about the way we view the world, or it could even be biological–for example brain chemistry or endocrine changes.’

The survey involved more than 340,000 people nationwide, ages 18-85, and basically found that people are pretty happy around age 18, but then get less and less so, until about the age of 50, at which point,

there is a sharp reversal.

And then, as everything else begins to sag, happiness starts to climb. Really. Equally surprising is the finding that happiness levels had very little correlation to any of the life biggies you’d think might affect our emotional state: the results held regardless of sex, relationship status, employment status, and whether or not the respondent had children.

‘Those are four reasonable candidates,’ Dr. Stone said, ‘but they don’t make much difference.’

So what is going on, then? Well, our pal Barry Schwartz, he of The Paradox of Choice, has a theory. Talking to him recently for the book, Schwartz posited that what’s happening here has a lot to do with expectations, choices, and the freedom that comes when we’re able to let go of the notion that, because there are so many options out there, there must be one that’s Perfect-with-a-Capital-P… and that it’s our job to find it. Here’s some of what Schwartz had to say:

I think the fact is that you need to learn from experience that good enough is almost always good enough. It seems like settling, as you put it. Why would anyone settle?… And this is something that’s been coming up in the last few weeks, starting at age 50, people get happier. And I think a significant reason why is what you learn from experience is exactly that good enough is good enough, and once you learn that, you stop torturing yourself looking for the best and life gets a lot simpler. And I think it’s very difficult to convince a twenty year-old that that’s the way to go through life.

Difficult if not flat-out impossible. But I guess there’s a silver lining to this self-induced suffering, this lesson that only experience can teach us: We may never find perfection, but we will surely get older.

Not the best news, I realize, but certainly, it’s good enough.


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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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As Americans, we put quite a bit of stock in happiness. Our founding fathers even name its pursuit as an inalienable right–up there with life and liberty. And I challenge you to find a person who’d answer the question “Do you want to be happy?” with an “Eh, I could take it or leave it.”

But a recent post by Penelope Trunk on her Brazen Careerist blog suggests that, not only is happiness not so admirable a pursuit–in fact, she uses the word “vacuous”–but that, in choosing to chase a life defined by happiness, we are necessarily opting out of an interesting one. Why’s that? Choices. In her post “Do you overemphasize happiness?” she writes:

I think choosing a life that is interesting to us and choosing a life that makes us feel happy are probably very different choices.

For one thing, people who are happy do not look for a lot of choices, according to Barry Schwartz, in his book, The Paradox of Choice. People who want to have an interesting life are always looking for more choices and better choices, and they make decisions for their life based on maximizing choices.

She then riffs on her different experiences living in New York City and Madison, Wisconsin, where she currently resides, letting the judgments fly. (New York offers choices and opportunities, the promise of access to the best of everything. Madison offers cheese, football, and PETA-inflaming bioscience departments.) She explains her need to go there thus:

The fact that I feel compelled to have a tirade about Wisconsin in the middle of this post is interetsting to me. People who value choices over happiness never argue about it. They are proud of it. People who value happiness over having a life full of interesting opportunities get indignant over being accused that they made that choice…

What this illustrates, though, is how different the world of lots of choices is. People will pay a ton of money to have a lot of choices, which is what they perceive as an interesting life. (See the average rent per square foot in NYC) but people will not pay a ton of money for a life with relatively few choices. (See the average rent per square foot in Madison.) This makes me think that people put a higher premium on choices, because choices make life more interesting.

That they do. After all, a life of PB&J for lunch every day is a reliable snooze. No sushi? No ceviche? No curry? No thank you. But that it’s interesting or happy, one or the other–much as it pains me to say it, I think maybe she has a point. But, as always, I think we’d be missing something if we didn’t look a little harder at what she means when she says happiness–and it seems that, in this post, what she’s really talking about is ease. While one might argue that it’s a given that choices make life more interesting, the women we’ve spoken to for our book seem to all agree: choices make life hard. But do difficulty and challenge necessarily equate to unhappiness? And does seeking them out make us gluttons for punishment? I’m not so sure.

And, to her point that, as opposed to those who choose a “happy life”, those who opt for a life filled with options don’t feel the need to defend themselves, I’d argue: probably not. As we’ve said time and again, when it comes to women who’ve been told how lucky they are that they can be anything they want — well, to suggest that there’s something wrong with seeking out options, hoping for that access to the best of everything, that’d be right up there with suggesting that the earth is flat. As hard as dealing with all the choices afforded to women today can be, very few of us would trade all those opportunities–even if, as Trunk suggests, doing so might offer a shortcut to happiness.  Maybe that’s because happiness is in the definition, and if an interesting life is what one is after, creating and living one brings its own variety of happiness.

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