The Trouble with Happiness

Wednesday July 6, 2011

Good Bits

I have been meaning to write about happiness for some time; and as I turned on the news this evening to hear Martin Seligman, the director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, addressing the British All Party Parliamentary Group on Well-Being earlier today, it seems like as good an occasion as any.

I’ve been thinking about happiness for some time now, in part because I’ve been writing a book on the subject for Icon Books. It’s a short, philosophically-slanted book, and is due out next spring – I’ll post to thinkBuddha when it is launched. This is a topic I’ve been interested in for a while; but the more I have been reading and thinking about happiness over the past few months, the more it occurs to me that there is something curious about the current enthusiasm for all things happy.

In the past I have written enthusiastically about the enthusiasm for happiness; and I still would rather, all other things being equal, that the world were a happier place. But increasingly, I am thinking that too much focus upon happiness is somewhat questionable, and that the conceptions of happiness that are being promoted by Seligman, by the positive psychology movement, and by government more broadly, are somewhat narrow.

Why so? In part, because happiness is not the only good thing in the world. Happiness is not the only thing for which we might hope or wish (of course, at this point we can pull off the Aristotelian trick of saying that everything we might aim for or desire is itself is directed towards a further end, and that only happiness is an end that we desire for its own sake; but this, I think, gives us rather too broad an idea of happiness to be useful). There are many good things in the world, and it seems to me that these various good things may not be entirely compatible.

One further thing that strikes me about positive psychology as a movement is that it is promoting a strongly normative notion of happiness. Positive psychology is not just a questioning of how happiness might be constituted and what it might be, but it is a proposal for the kinds of societies and lives that might be happy. And here I begin to have my doubts, because the proposals for what a happy society might actually be like are so very limited. From reading the literature, it seems, a happy life looks a bit like this: living in a family group, ideally in a Western democracy, having a moderate amount of wealth, having realistic but challenging goals, possessing a strong work ethic so that it might be possible to realise those goals, and having a sprinkling of ‘transcendence’, a sense of some kind of otherworldly glimmering of possibility (here Seligman’s Authentic Happiness is an object lesson, with it’s bizarre religiously-inflected coda). And it may be that all of these things, in certain contexts, can indeed be good things. But, firstly, they are not necessarily so; and, secondly, they are not the only possible good things. There are other forms of life that might be both good and happy, but that don’t get a look-in when it comes to this normative view of the happy life.

And this worries me. It worries me because the guiding view of happiness that is promoted in positive psychology is one that is, as far as governments are concerned, profoundly politically untroubling. It does not call into question the human damage wrought by some of the most powerful democracies in the world, for example; nor does it call into question the damage sometimes wrought by families, or by those institutions that promote ‘transcendence’. We should resist the tendency to shy away from certain difficult questions, and to simply roll over and let our stomachs be tickled in a frenzy of feel-good sentiment. I came across an example of this today when I looked at the action for happiness page on Facebook, and there was a downloadable poster that suggests that we should “See life as it is, but focus on the good bits.” Now, once again, in certain contexts this may be the best thing to do. But in other contexts, it may be precisely the worst kind of thing to do.

I am reminded here of an interesting talk given to the RSA by author Jake Wallis Simons, on the reason that he is no longer a Buddhist (available via the link here ). Simons was involved with the New Kadampa Tradition, a Buddhist group that has been very successful in the UK; and it’s worth reading the transcript of the whole talk, as it’s both interesting and thought-provoking. The main subject of the talk is the tangled tale of the abstruse political wrangling in the Tibetan Buddhist world surrounding the figure of Dorje Shugden (not to be confused with Mollie Sugden), a somewhat disturbing and complex story of religious politics. When Simons put his concerns about the Dorje Shugden affair to the French monk Matthieu Ricard – a man who has written his own book in happiness, and who is often referred to in the media as being the ‘happiest man in the world’ (a claim that Ricard has the good sense to gently rebuff) – he received the following response:

So I said to the happiest man in the world, your book contains everything that is pure and wholesome about Tibetan Buddhism. But what about the darker side? What about the shamanistic practices, the superstition, the factional infighting, the oracles? The demonstrations? And he looked me in the eye and said, “you should separate what is good and pure in Buddhism from the negativity and politics. Trust the Dalai Lama, and focus on developing compassion.”

See life as it is, in other words; but focus on the good bits.

However, this seems to me to be an inadequate response. A robust and broad approach to the question of happiness cannot really get away with avoiding the more difficult questions. The call to focus on the good bits risks becoming politically disempowering. If we really care about happiness and well-being, of course we should care about the good bits; but we should care also about the bad bits: about the obscene extent of the global military investment, for example; or about the pervasive problems of poverty and the scandal of the fact that there are people in this country who do not have a roof over their head; about the ever-widening gulf between rich and poor; about the way the very richest and most powerful individuals and institutions across the globe, with the support of our elected or unelected representatives, often act to the detriment of the collective good. Even when it comes to positive psychology itself, there are some postentially disturbing trends, for example the massive project on positive psychology in the military that is being carried out by Seligman and the Positive Psychology Center (see here ); and trends such as these at the very least need to be opened up to difficult questioning.

So what are we to make of the current politics of happiness? On the one hand, the notion that there are other things that might matter in life than the endless treadmill of wealth creation is one that should be cautiously encouraged. We should be talking about happiness. But there are two caveats. The first is that we should allow other conceptions of happiness into the debate: many philosophers of happiness, from Diogenes to Zhuangzi to the Buddha, do not so much support as subvert popular contemporary notions of happiness. And secondly we need to recognise that there is more to life than happiness. If we were to dethrone the old god of wealth creation and simply enshrine a new god of happiness in its place, it would get us nowhere (and, anyway, the old god would probably still be there pulling the strings behind the scenes). When it comes to those things that are good, we need a more robust polytheism, I think: not just happiness, but justice and reason and other things besides. We need to allow that there are many good things; and we need to allow vigorous debate about what matters, rather than allowing ourselves to only ‘focus on the good bits’.

# · Dale Favier

Oh, well said! I used to get fidgety when my lama would talk about “true happiness,” because I knew it was the old old story, the same thing Socrates meant when he said “the Good,” bringing ten thousand uncomfortable and unanswerable questions in its train: but I don’t see how we can avoid it.

# · Robert M Ellis

Hi Will,
I like this and agree with you on the whole. The way I’d put it is that optimism, like pessimism, is a kind of dogmatism. By applying certain assumptions that are beyond experience, we force our thinking into somewhat narrow channels that neglect some important conditions.
However, I think there are a couple of ways I’d want to qualify what you say. One is to point out that for many people, positive thinking may be a useful rebalancing process. If you’re used to focusing on the negative (I’ve met many people who do this relentlessly, and I think I do it a bit myself) then focusing on the positive just helps you to address conditions you haven’t been addressing before. So in that sort of case, it’s the universal pretensions of positive thinking as a panacea that are the problem, not the activity itself.
Secondly, at the end when you write “If we were to dethrone the old god of wealth creation and simply enshrine a new god of happiness in its place, it would get us nowhere” I think you are over-stating your point. It would get us somewhere if the focus on wealth-creation was too narrow and we begin to address issues of psychology a bit better by focusing on happiness. That’s why I was actually quite positive about David Cameron’s comments about this a while ago. For a Prime Minister to move in this direction is a helpful development, compared to the peculiar assumption in old-fashioned economics that the more money people have the better it is, tout court.

# · Jayarava

To be fair Seligman and the other initiators of the Positive Psychology movement saw it as a counter to 100 years of psychologists obsessed with human misery and abnormality. It is still true today that most psychology is about pathology, or pathologising.

Also I don’t think Seligman’s books read as normative at all, quite the contrary. What’s he’s done is study the kinds of things that contribute to happiness and reported on them. He leaves it pretty broad. The only way I read him as normative is in the sense that he asks people to reconsider what happiness might be – moving the focus away from sensory pleasures or ebullient emotions. It’s a while since I read, and thoroughly enjoyed Authentic Happiness, but what has stayed with me is not the coda, but the main argument of the book.

Is it fair to criticise a person who studies individual psychology for not weighing into intractable political debates about how to run countries or the world? Perhaps you should be reading sociologists or political theorists instead of psychologists if your concerns are in those areas?

Usually your posts come across as well researched and thoughtful. You often provide a welcome alternative view on an issue. With this one I do not get where you are coming from at all. It seems to me that you’ve confused a lot of different issues here, and you are criticising the wrong people for the wrong reasons.

# · Will Buckingham

Thanks for the response, Jayarava. I agree that the concern with redressing the focus on pathology is a welcome one: Jonathan Haidt makes this point. So without a psychology also of ‘positive’ states, as a science psychology remains partial and incomplete. We do need to redress the balance, and to this extent positive psychology is welcome.

In terms of the normative nature of positive psychology, it seems to me that one thing that is normative about positive psychology is the conception of happiness (equated often with subjective well-being) that it tends to promote. Barbara Ehrenreich is good on this in her book Smile or Die.

It does seem from the literature there is a broader political and social vision behind much of positive psychology, and that this seems to also have a kind of normative dimension. My comments here are not addressed just to Seligman’s work, but to the broader cultural role that positive psychology seems to be taking (see Robert’s first qualification above, where he makes the distinction rather well).

As for the intractable political debates, it does seem that the positive psychology movement, and Seligman himself, are not at all afraid to shy away from these things. One example, the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania has recently been awarded a contract with the US military for what is known as the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness programme (alluded to above), a programme that seeks to develop, amongst other things, ‘spiritual fitness’ in the US army. So here there are serious questions about the wider political uses to which positive psychology is being put.

Of course, if it is necessary to have such a large army at all, I suppose that there are arguments for such a programme: if I had to choose, I would probably rather be faced by a soldier who had some notion of compassion than by a soldier who had all traces of compassion trained out of them. And the psychological damage caused in many cases by active combat is a concern that needs addressing. But given these kinds of involvements, and the way that positive psychology is being, wittingly or unwittingly, tied in to other agendas, these broader questions need raising.

Robert, you are right that a focus on happiness is probably broader and more healthy than a focus on wealth; but not at the expense of other values, I think.

p.s. not sure why the CSS for this post, and only this post, has gone haywire. Hope to fix it soon!

# · Robert M Ellis

I think your example of the US army shows that it is impossible to separate the political from the psychological. We need approaches that integrate the two. If you just apply psychological approaches in a political context without taking the politics into account (or vice-versa) then you miss important conditions.

I’d also want to question the distinction both of you make between normative and presumably descriptive on the other side. All claims are to some extent normative, and what one takes to be prescriptive or not is very much a matter of convention. Even a ‘scientific’ account of happiness is inevitably going to put forward values, even if those are only the values of it being good to understand the causes of happiness.

It’s quite reasonable to criticise psychologists – or anybody else – for being to narrow in their assumptions. However, they may share this failing with a great many other people, and it may not exactly be top of any list of moral priorities to focus on their limitations, if what they do is more often helpful than not.

# · Will Buckingham

You are right to question the distinction, Robert. The normative and descriptive are always tangled up. So I don’t think that you can escape some kinds of prescription, nor do I think that a totally ‘value free’ approach to happiness is either possible or desirable.

My concerns are less with narrowness of assumptions (I would say that psychologists share this with all of us, rather than with a great many of us) and more with some of the broader political frameworks with which the language and practice of positive psychology is enmeshed.

Finally, do you actually have a list of moral priorities? That’s tremendously organised of you!

# · Warren

I had troubles at work with my last employer and there working conditions. You really can’t change the world or other people. If you try to change the world you will end up disappointed, all you can do is change yourself and from this you can reach your own levels of happiness.

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