Happiness Is Just Another Feeling

The title of this post is one of the best pieces of advice my therapist ever gave me. How often do we compound life’s unavoidable pains by believing that this shouldn’t happen–that if we’d only managed our lives properly, we would never be depressed? Sadness is unattractive, unless you’re a teenage girl who’s read Wuthering Heights too many times, and unattractiveness makes people stop loving you, which makes you sad. So be happy! It’s your duty as an American. Thus goes the script.

My fellow Harvard Crimson alum Joshua Wolf Shenk has written a stellar cover story for the June issue of The Atlantic. “What Makes Us Happy?” profiles George Vaillant, a Harvard psychiatrist who has spent the past four decades studying the life choices and satisfaction levels of 268 men who graduated from our alma mater in the 1930s.

It would come as no surprise to the Buddha, nor to my therapist, that a person’s resilience and interpretive framework for life’s sufferings are greater predictors of happiness than whether their life is superficially free of obstacles. Is it better to be Case No. 218, wealthy, married for 60 years, but emotionally flat, or Case No. 47, who struggled with depression and alcoholism, but was a creative and energetic activist? The article suggests that a passionate life contains emotional highs and lows that the bland safety of “happiness”, as defined by external success markers, can’t capture. Shenk writes:

The undertones of psychoanalysis are tragic; Freud dismissed the very idea of “normality” as “an ideal fiction” and famously remarked that he hoped to transform “hysterical misery into common unhappiness.” The spirit of modern social science, by contrast, draws on a brash optimism that the secrets to life can be laid bare.

Vaillant, whom Shenk describes as an optimist attuned to the tragic sense, understands that we’re often ambivalent about pursuing happiness in the first place. Dissatisfaction and anxiety have survival value, up to a point:

Last October, I watched him give a lecture to Seligman’s graduate students on the power of positive emotions—awe, love, compassion, gratitude, forgiveness, joy, hope, and trust (or faith). “The happiness books say, ‘Try happiness. You’ll like it a lot more than misery’—which is perfectly true,” he told them. But why, he asked, do people tell psychologists they’d cross the street to avoid someone who had given them a compliment the previous day?

In fact, Vaillant went on, positive emotions make us more vulnerable than negative ones. One reason is that they’re future-oriented. Fear and sadness have immediate payoffs—protecting us from attack or attracting resources at times of distress. Gratitude and joy, over time, will yield better health and deeper connections—but in the short term actually put us at risk. That’s because, while negative emotions tend to be insulating, positive emotions expose us to the common elements of rejection and heartbreak.

To illustrate his point, he told a story about one of his “prize” Grant Study men, a doctor and well-loved husband. “On his 70th birthday,” Vaillant said, “when he retired from the faculty of medicine, his wife got hold of his patient list and secretly wrote to many of his longest-running patients, ‘Would you write a letter of appreciation?’ And back came 100 single-spaced, desperately loving letters—often with pictures attached. And she put them in a lovely presentation box covered with Thai silk, and gave it to him.” Eight years later, Vaillant interviewed the man, who proudly pulled the box down from his shelf. “George, I don’t know what you’re going to make of this,” the man said, as he began to cry, “but I’ve never read it.” “It’s very hard,” Vaillant said, “for most of us to tolerate being loved.”

As a
Christian, I wonder what this insight means for evangelism. It’s easier to envision hellfire than grace. Is it really our sinfulness that makes God’s love seem intolerable, too bright, like sunlight in our eyes? Or has the church not done a good enough job of creating a community where it’s safe to let our guard down?

Religion gets little airtime in Shenk’s account of the Harvard study, perhaps reflecting the secularist biases of mid-20th-century psychology. I’m curious about the role of belief systems in supporting or hindering the mature coping strategies that Vaillant deems central to happiness, and how beliefs interact with differences in temperament to either smooth away or magnify pathologies.

For those interested in pursuing this topic further, I highly recommend Jennifer Michael Hecht’s The Happiness Myth, a provocative survey of cultural and philosophical prescriptions for a happy life, which have differed widely from one era to the next. Hecht suggests that historical perspective itself brings happiness by giving us self-awareness and the ability to try new options outside our culture’s standards of value. She argues that there are actually three kinds of happiness, with different time horizons–momentary euphoria, day-to-day contentment, and overall life satisfaction–and that we must make hard trade-offs among them.