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Get Happy!!

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Shimon Edelman, a psychology professor at Cornell University, is equally adept at evading engagement with complexity. He begins The Happiness of Pursuit with a straightforward reductionist claim. The mind is not merely a computer in metaphor, he announces, but in fact. The mind is what the brain does: “bundles of computations” promote forethought and allow us to make the choices that carry us forward into the future. Everything is in constant motion: neurons send signals down neural pathways, networking with other neurons, brains responding to neural activity by moving the mind to move the body. The centrality of motion accounts for the elephantine whimsy of his book’s title. We are never happy when we’re at rest; our brains have programmed us to be endlessly restless. That’s the only way we can be happy.

The Mansion of Happiness.
A History of Life and Death.
By Jill Lepore.
Buy this book

Pursuing the Good Life
100 Reflections on Positive Psychology.
By Christopher Peterson.
Buy this book

The Myths of Happiness
What Should Make You Happy, but Doesn’t. What Shouldn’t Make You Happy, but Does.
By Sonja Lyubomirsky.
Buy this book

The Happiness of Pursuit
What Neuroscience Can Teach Us About the Good Life.
By Shimon Edelman.
Buy this book

The Antidote
Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking.
By Oliver Burkeman.
Buy this book

How Much Is Enough?
Money and the Good Life.
By Robert Skidelsky and Edward Skidelsky.
Buy this book

About the Author

Jackson Lears
Jackson Lears teaches American history at Rutgers University. He is the editor of Raritan: A Quarterly Review and the...

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Keep talkin' happy talk… till the fat lady sings…

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Not everyone will accept the universality of his “we.” Time magazine recently published a cover story insisting that the happiness of pursuit is peculiarly American, that from colonial times to the present, “American happiness would never be about savor-the-moment contentment. That way lay the reflective café culture of the Old World—fine for Europe, not for Jamestown. Our happiness would be bred, instead, of an almost adolescent restlessness, an itch to do the Next Big Thing.” Those assertions, despite their inane exceptionalist aura, carry as much or more explanatory power than the neuroscientists’ universalism: cultural differences and historical circumstances really do make a difference in how people define happiness. Lyubomirsky and Edelman provide apt examples.

As with Lyubomirsky, Edelman has undertaken an argument that is little more than an extended projective fantasy; his “we” sounds like no one so much as a typical busy professor like himself, multitasking professional and personal obligations, racing from the lecture hall to yoga class to rock-climbing lessons. Indeed, Edelman admits that he wrote the book because he wondered why he was always eager to move on, even when he’d reached the wilderness summit he’d been hiking to for days. So he turned to his own discipline for enlightenment, and one can’t help but admire the efficiency of his method. No cumbersome surveys hobbled by self-reporting, no crawling around on gym mats with your spouse—just the neuroscientific facts. They alone are the basis for Edelman’s assertion (quoting the science fiction writers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky) that “The goal [the summit, the end of the trail] is only a means…. Happiness is not in happiness itself, but in running toward happiness.” Many people may find this to be true; many others may find themselves more responsive to William Faulkner’s alternative perspective. “I’m inclined to think that the only peace man knows is—he says, ‘Why good gracious, yesterday I was happy.’ That at the moment he’s too busy,” Faulkner wrote. “Maybe peace is not ‘is,’ but ‘was.’” Blanket pronouncements about happiness are usually too sweeping to be persuasive, and neither Faulkner’s nor Edelman’s is an exception. But Faulkner’s uses the power of “maybe” to suggest that busyness might be an obstacle as well as a path to personal satisfaction.

Edelman, by contrast, is ill at ease with ambiguity. His minimalist model of mind leads him to a “radically minimalistic” notion of happiness. It is, writes Edelman, simply another word for choice: “whenever you find yourself motivated (that is, being moved) to do one thing rather than another—a predicament that incorporates what we perceive as choice—happiness is the prime mover.” This vacuous definition leads to some extraordinary statements. Edelman writes: “if you are after happiness, change is good, even if, for the moment, it is change to the worse—unless, of course, one is trapped inside a Shakespearean tragedy in which everyone is doomed to die before their luck turns to the better.” The notion that Shakespearean tragedy is concerned with unrepresentative human figures, that it makes no universal claims on our imagination, gets points for chutzpah but not for accuracy. Still, who needs Shakespeare when we have “evolution”? As Edelman says, “the most valuable lesson that evolution offers, to all who would listen, is that the world is inconstant but learnable and that a good living can be made by those who can learn faster than it changes.” This is the sort of wisdom offered by corporate team-building retreats and bank advertisements in airport terminals.

Despite its resolute avoidance of social questions, The Happiness of Pursuit implicitly endorses a neoliberal vision of gradual self-betterment through personal choice. This involves, Edelman claims, giving up old and no longer scientifically viable notions of a separate self, engaged in the pursuit of happiness through some version of heroic struggle—either against its own baser impulses or against a recalcitrant world (or both). Away with this self-dramatization, Edelman advises. “Cognitive science’s discovery that minds are in fact not sealed black boxes but open, intermingled societies of computational processes gives one hope that a person wishing for a happier life can attain it through gradual, cognitively transparent change…it should be possible for people to strive for happiness without resorting to any kind of ‘conquest.’” And indeed, things are getting better. Moral progress moves forward from the judicial murder of John Brown to the election of Barack Obama, going hand in hand with cognitive betterment—“which, unsurprisingly, brings about also increased individual well-being.” We are becoming smarter and more moral. Like other complacent centrists, Edelman overlooks (among other things) the global environmental and social ravages of neo-liberalism, as well as Obama’s stunning failure of leadership, his embrace of finance capital and the national security state. Who cares about such matters, as long as “we” can keep “running toward happiness”?

Like other practitioners of positive psychology, Edelman is simply bowled over with just how good his version of the good life can be—and how firmly founded it is in “evolution.” He concludes that “the urge to explore, accrue information about the world, and use it to dodge the ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ (or catch such stuff as looks good) makes evolutionary sense.” The bottom line is that “feeling good is the means, but the end is happiness. Could you imagine it any better than that?” Well, yes, I think I could. 

Oliver Burkeman tries to grapple with the subject more imaginatively in The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking. He recognizes the absurdity inherent in the notion of willed happiness (which is much like willed spontaneity). Despite his disdain for positive thinking, he shares two important assumptions with the positive psychologists—but he takes them in more interesting directions. 

Like Lyubomirsky and Edelman, Burkeman looks to neuroscience to reject the idea of autonomous selfhood, of a clear and bounded identity. “Modern neuroscience has provided strong support for the suspicion that the self is not the ‘thing’ that we imagine it to be.” So “stop taking your thoughts to be you…. You are not your mind.” We should use the mind, not the other way around. One way to do this is to detach yourself from your conscious thoughts, as in Buddhist meditation. You do not identify with them, as in positive thinking (“I will sell this house today!”); you allow yourself to treat them as transient phenomena. This, according to Burkeman, frees the mind from looking for happiness in the future and allows it to focus on the only place it can be found, the present.

This statement points toward the other assumption shared by Burkeman and the positive philosophers: the advice to de-emphasize goal-setting. The problem, says Burkeman, is the interconnectedness of all life: “you can never change only one thing,” because (as the pioneering environmentalist John Muir put it) everything in the universe is “hitched to everything else.” This is a novel turn toward the social and decisively away from the happiness industry’s obsessive focus on the inner dynamics of the choosing individual. For the positive psychologists, change is a product of restless human choice—the recognition of impermanence reinforces a commitment to constant “personal growth.” For Burkeman, change is a consequence of cosmic conditions beyond human control; “real happiness,” he writes, “might be dependent on being willing to face, and to tolerate, insecurity and vulnerability.” Indeed, “acceptance of impermanence” is a condition for connections with others. He quotes C.S. Lewis: “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung, and possibly broken.” Ultimately, Burkeman recommends cultivating what Keats called “negative capability,” the state of mind that occurs “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” With this book, we have finally moved beyond the formulations of utilitarian individualism. 

But they haven’t been abandoned completely. Burkeman’s ringing conclusion—“This, then, is the deep truth about insecurity: it is another word for life”—is a little too open-ended. By identifying all forms of insecurity with “life,” he depoliticizes it. The experience of economic insecurity, from this view, cannot be mitigated (or exacerbated) by particular public policies. Indeed, the equation of insecurity and “life,” while it does contain a “deep truth,” in the end blends all too easily with the neoliberal celebration of risk-taking as an end in itself—a celebration conducted by political and media elites who are themselves well insulated from risk. Burkeman’s notion of happiness, like the positive psychologists’, needs a thicker sense of the ways that social and economic circumstances can promote or undermine possibilities for a satisfying life. 

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