A Historical Perspective on Happiness

There are two aspects I want to focus on in my summary of Jennifer Hecht’s Happiness Myths: Wisdom gathered from history about happiness and the influence of money on our society. The book is very well written and contains much more insights, gained through taking a historical perspective, than I will touch on here.

Hecht outlines three different types of happiness:

  • Good day: The things that bring us momentary happiness without necessarily considering their long-term consequences, such as a piece of chocolate cake or a one-night stand.
  • Euphoria: Intense experiences, which create lasting memories and often require “risk and vulnerability” (10)
  • A happy life: Creating our life over the longer term. This might require a lot of work but it brings a sense of contentment and happiness. Examples include walking to keep the body lean or building a relationship.

Hecht stresses that “we cannot do everything we want to do in order to be happy [because] the three kinds of happiness conflict with one another.” She encourages us to maximize our happiness by thinking about how we want to devote our time toward each of these types of happiness. All three are important aspects but because they conflict, we need to set our priorities and ask ourselves for each given moment which type of happiness is most important (314).

Underlying the work toward the happy life are “four doctrines found in all happiness theory from wisdom literature, philosophy, psychology, and self-help” (17). The four doctrines, which when ignored create a strong barrier against happiness, can be summarized as:

  • Know yourself: We need to live an examined life in order to be happy.
  • Manage your desires: Sometimes it might be more conducive to a happy life to abstain from chocolate cake. This aspect also involves letting go of the desire for revenge, practicing forgiveness and acceptance. Moderation seems to be the key in this area (36)
  • Take what’s yours: Play the role that life presents you with, which also involves discovering that role since it is “rarely obvious as a well-worn path” (45). Take what’s yours also includes being “willing who you are,” which essentially means accepting all aspects of yourself (46).
  • Remember death: Accepting the reality of death helps us put our focus on life.

Hecht underscores that it is work to master these four areas but if we do, she suggests that we are much happier (67).

In her chapters on money, Hecht develops the idea that the middle level of our interactions disappeared. With the ideas of the Enlightenment came the focus on the individual. Although originally this focus included interacting in associations, those associations disappeared when “the next generation didn’t show up” (161). Instead, the nuclear family evolved, providing an escape from the oppression of the “demands of the extended family, or the town or local church” (162). On the other side of the spectrum was the growing importance of the nation, partly because information about the other side of the country was easily available. Individual freedom and happiness was to be pursuit within the nuclear family with a solid grounding in the nation but without reference to associations or community (163). This left a vacuum that was filled, according to Hecht, by consumption.

People’s average wealth increased after World War II beyond any precedents in history (168). We changed our public behavior by going shopping, with sports and television following as replacements for associations and “public conversation” (166). It is safe to discuss sports and television shows in public; no great ability for discourse is required and critical thinking is not necessary. Television is also important because of advertisement perpetuates the idea that money can buy happiness. Money does buy happiness if you’re in poverty but once we are out of poverty the correlation becomes increasingly weaker (134). Yet, we continue to believe in the “abundance inference,” the mistaken belief that more money will continue to increase our happiness, just like it did when we left poverty (134). Advertising seems to tap into the abundance inference well, thus keeping consumerism going (148).

Combining consumerism with television has gotten us off the street and out of associations. Hecht suggests that talking about the shows we watch and parading our possessions have replaced these middle level aspects (175). Consumerism is now our way of connecting in public and defining ourselves. Hecht describes this as an attempted replacement: We think that we have found an alternative for the midlevel that can provide us as much happiness as being involved in associations and community used to give us. Yet, she also points out that people in the 2000s do not report higher levels of happiness than our 1950s counterparts (133). The importance of the nuclear family gained a hold in our culture in the 1950s, thus the replacement of the midlevel started then. If this shift had been a sustainable one, wouldn’t we stop our perpetual run for money? Maybe consumerism is a cultural trance that keeps us away from a happy life because it ignores our role as social beings. We might exchange symbols by displaying certain brands but we are not involved in dialog, in communal barn raising or problem solving. Thich Nhat Hanh‘s example of the Americans as hungry ghosts comes to mind: we try to fill a void with our consumerism but we never really can fill that void because stuff cannot fill it. Something else has to fill it. I would suggest this something else is a renewed focus on the middle level, on community and associations, without the oppression involved in the past. As human animals, we are essentially social beings and need to connect with others on deeper levels than discussions about soap operas or the latest sales event allows. And, as Hecht points out, this will require work, “drawing on inner resources” (135). Using shopping to fill this void, this vacuum, is focusing on good day happiness, whereas building connections, relationships, and community is work toward a happy life.






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A Historical Perspective on Happiness — 4 Comments

  1. Pingback: Rachel’s Musings » Writing on the Chalkwalk

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