15 May 2009

The Happiness of the Theoried Class

There are a blessed few who are so happy that they never reflect on the nature of happiness. I'm certainly not one of them. I'm a malcontent and think about happiness a lot. Of course, there are a lot of books on how to be happy, but I have no interest in junk psych or pep talks on positive mental attitude. I have no faith that there is some single, simple formula for perpetual bliss, though most happy folk certainly share some common denominators. For example, in one study those participants who watched the least TV were least likely to suffer depression. But cause and effect are very hard to determine.

Hard research on happiness comes to the basic conclusion that it is simple in theory and complex in execution. This much we all knew already. But thanks to my favorite columnist, David Brooks of the Times, this essay on the nature of happiness by Joshua Shenk just came to my attention, and I found it very compelling. (And yes, I just cited Shenk a couple of days ago, though I'd never even heard of him a week ago. Too strange.)

I won't summarize Shenk's essay (Brooks does), but basically happiness comes down to our capacity (both innate and developed) for resilience or adaptation in the face of disappointment or tragedy. Here is a long pull:

    [A]daptations (also called “defense mechanisms”) are unconscious thoughts and behaviors that you could say either shape or distort—depending on whether you approve or disapprove—a person’s reality.
    Vaillant [i.e., the article's expert] explains defenses as the mental equivalent of a basic biological process. When we cut ourselves, for example, our blood clots—a swift and involuntary response that maintains homeostasis. Similarly, when we encounter a challenge large or small—a mother’s death or a broken shoelace—our defenses float us through the emotional swamp. And just as clotting can save us from bleeding to death—or plug a coronary artery and lead to a heart attack—defenses can spell our redemption or ruin. Vaillant’s taxonomy ranks defenses from worst to best, in four categories.
    At the bottom of the pile are the unhealthiest, or “psychotic,” adaptations—like paranoia, hallucination, or megalomania—which, while they can serve to make reality tolerable for the person employing them, seem crazy to anyone else. One level up are the “immature” adaptations, which include acting out, passive aggression, hypochondria, projection, and fantasy. These aren’t as isolating as psychotic adaptations, but they impede intimacy. “Neurotic” defenses are common in “normal” people. These include intellectualization (mutating the primal stuff of life into objects of formal thought); dissociation (intense, often brief, removal from one’s feelings); and repression, which, Vaillant says, can involve “seemingly inexplicable naïveté, memory lapse, or failure to acknowledge input from a selected sense organ.” The healthiest, or “mature,” adaptations include altruism, humor, anticipation (looking ahead and planning for future discomfort), suppression (a conscious decision to postpone attention to an impulse or conflict, to be addressed in good time), and sublimation (finding outlets for feelings, like putting aggression into sport, or lust into courtship). . . .
    Most psychology preoccupies itself with mapping the heavens of health in sharp contrast to the underworld of illness. “Social anxiety disorder” is distinguished from shyness. Depression is defined as errors in cognition. Vaillant’s work, in contrast, creates a refreshing conversation about health and illness as weather patterns in a common space. “Much of what is labeled mental illness,” Vaillant writes, “simply reflects our ‘unwise’ deployment of defense mechanisms. If we use defenses well, we are deemed mentally healthy, conscientious, funny, creative, and altruistic. If we use them badly, the psychiatrist diagnoses us ill, our neighbors label us unpleasant, and society brands us immoral.”
This is all interesting. But what is fascinating is that long-term "longitudinal" studies show that our deployment of defense mechanisms changes over the course of our lives, from more to less healthy and vice-versa, and upbringing, education, income, etc., the usual presumed predictors of happiness, determine relatively little and guarantee nothing. One study concluded that 50% of a person's happiness simply stems from one's dispositional "set-point" for happiness, with another 10% attributable to circumstances and 40% to factors more or less within our control (religiosity, healthy relationships, PMA, etc.).

That 40% is of course the critical bit, and in the end the science says that happiness is mostly about loving and altruistic relationships. “Happiness is love. Full stop,” Valliant says. “The only way to keep it is to give it away.”


Mister Fweem said...

I read a book last year called "Understanding Reading" by Frank Smith. He's a psychologist who has studied and theorized a lot on the nature of how we learn to communicate. He's especially interested in how children learn to communicate. One of the more striking things that he says is that children learn how to categorize words and concepts on their own, without a lot of help from adults or others in the outside world, even for those who get into early education. They figure out mostly by themselves, for example, what the differences are between a dog and a cat, and then have to figure out why dogs are different from horses, cows, et cetera. Reading what you wrote here, I'm sure we learn as youngsters to figure out what happiness is, and to develop defenses that help guise us back to those states of happiness, just as we have to figure out what the difference is between a dog and a cat. Emotions are harder to figure out than words, however, I imagine. Interesting reading.

carl g said...

Thanks for the comment. Emotionally healthy people figure out what happiness is, and how to achieve it, but our culture is so oriented to selling happiness that a welter of conflicting "happiness philosophies" can easily confuse us or cause us to doubt what we know. I'm now in my 40s and still surprising myself all the time with little (or even big) discoveries about what really makes me happy. More often than not, it is the things that made me happy in my youth. The more I embrace my inner man-child, the happier I am.

Mister Fweem said...

Selling happiness. Ah yes. It reminds me, oddly enough, of what Dr. Seuss wrote in "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas." Christmas, [the Grinch] thought, doesn't come from a store. Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more. Apply happiness to that, I say. For a long time, I looked for happiness in my job as a journalist, and occasionally found it. Even with changing careers, I'm seeing more and more that happiness can come from a career, but more often than not it's the career that fuels other happiness possibilities. I was insanely happy last night, for example, sanding plaster and watching "Cyrano de Bergerac" in the study.

And it makes me think of something I heard British comedian Stephen Fry say a few years ago. He decided he wanted to write one of those thick self-help books, but the pages would be blank. On the first page would be written the sentence: Stop feeling sorry for yourself. Self-pity is indeed an antithesis to happiness.