Do we have to be happy?

The paradox of happiness studies
Do we have to be happy?

The topic of today's article is happiness. Coincidentally, while we were working on this newsletter, on Thursday last week, the Turkish Statistical Institute (TUIK) published the 2021 results of the Life Satisfaction Survey, which has been conducted regularly since 2003. Hürriyet published the news with the headline "Happiness rate increased" while Cumhuriyet chose the headline "The rate of those who are happy remained below 50%".

In this article, we will not enter into the debate on the interpretation of life satisfaction and happiness measures in Turkey. Our concern is mainly with the essence of the issue. Namely, the idea of measuring happiness and the fact that happiness, in general, has become a popular field of research.

In recent years, popular publications on happiness have increased considerably. On the shelves devoted to personal development in chain bookstores that mostly sell reading materials, souvenirs, games, and other trinkets, you can find plenty of books that give you tips on how to be happy. In our increasingly difficult and cramped lives, it is understandable that there are more and more of these books. After all, we live in a world based on putting the scarce on the market, trying to sell not the original but the fake, the hollow, the plasticized. Let us remind you that a quote in an article on this subject was previously published in Zappa Times:

"Happiness is no longer just a personal matter it has moved out of the private sphere and has become an area that needs to researched, studied, and regulated through interventions... Economists, psychologists, doctors, neuroscientists, market researchers, and publishers are working hard to access and disseminate the knowledge of happiness."

Economists are among the leading happiness researchers with their studies questioning the relationship between income and happiness. Academic interest in the study of happiness has grown over time with the participation of psychology experts, especially social psychologists, and social scientists interested in quantitative assessments. In the 2020s, happiness studies is a research field that has come a long way towards institutionalization with its academic journals, international conferences, and certificate programs at universities.

Arthur C. Brooks, one of the leading figures in this field, recently published an article titled "How to Want Less" in The Atlantic magazine. This article is based on the author's "From Strength to Strength: Finding Success, Happiness, and Deep Purpose in the Second half of Life", which hit the shelves on February 15th: Finding Success, Happiness, and Deep Purpose in the Second half of Life". Brooks, a Harvard University professor (Kennedy School and Business School) and known conservative, is the author of the 2008 book Gross National Happiness: Why Happiness Matters for America-and How We Can Get More of It: Why Happiness Matters for America-and How We Can Get More of It] was also widely discussed.

In his article, Brooks starts with Mick Jagger's song "Satisfaction (I Can't Get No)" and discusses the relationship between satisfaction and happiness. He underlines the commonality between Jagger, Thomas Aquinas, and Buddha in emphasizing how seeking satisfaction in the possession of worldly things creates dissatisfaction and unhappiness. It can be a piece of clothing, an item of furniture or an achievement, anything we want so much. According to Brooks, as soon as we have this thing, we are happy, and depending on the magnitude of the desire and the thing, this happiness lasts for a while; but necessarily after a while, we start wanting something else. Having made this astute observation, Brooks doesn't completely discard worldly things and achievements. In other words, he does not invite us to live a life like Thomas Aquinas, who left his noble and rich family behind and became a Dominican monk, or Buddha, who found happiness by sitting under a tree. He offers a solution that is compatible with the consumer society and the spirit of our time. It invites us to abandon the equation "Satisfaction = getting what you want", which leads us into a vicious circle and ultimately brings dissatisfaction and unhappiness, and to adopt a new equation:

Satisfaction = What You Have ÷ What You Want

Citing the example of how even the Dalai Lama, in The Art of Happiness, says he likes to walk around supermarkets and look at beautiful things, Brooks says the problem is not in wanting worldly things, but in managing them. Brooks' own life is the best proof of all these arguments, as on the day he turned forty, he achieved all of the things on his list of life's aspirations: he wrote books, and columns, was successfully invited to a professorship at a university like Harvard, gave lectures and speeches, and became the director of a very prestigious research center (the American Enterprise Institute). Yet at 48, he realized that he had not achieved lasting happiness. So what did he do as a remedy? Like many other people he saw around him, he decided to get off the "hedonic treadmill" on which he had spent his life. He went to downsize his life. Rather than listing experiences or jobs that would make him more admirable and desirable in the eyes of people he had never met, he now listed expectations that would make him even more valuable to those who knew and loved him. In this way, he was no longer satisfied with the value of his achievements in the eyes of others and was able to achieve inner peace and "real fulfillment."

Brooks' emphasis on minimalism within the framework of the idea of reorganizing our desires and expectations to achieve lasting satisfaction and happiness reminds us of the recent wave of decluttering that has become very popular. One of the leading gurus of this wave is Marie Kondo. For years, Kondo has been telling her millions of followers around the world with her KonMari method that suggests how to organize their wardrobes, how to best store objects of high sentimental value, and how to "become aware" of their belongings. In this way, it is possible to save space, live more organized lives and be happier.

In other words, the time of learning and wanting to buy more, as in the 1990s and 2000s, is over. Now we are trying to learn how to live happier lives with our belongings by throwing out the unnecessary ones or being more organized. We need to take our belongings one by one, look at them and ask "do you make me happy?" İf the answer isn't positive, we need to get rid of them. There are still so many things that pass this preliminary sifting process and are able to go on their way with us and continue to make us happy, and we are trying to learn how to organize them in the best way possible. You probably already keep your clothes rolled up in your closets instead of folded. But do you have enough space organizers in your home? These days you can easily find all kinds of boxes, baskets, baskets, shelves, dividers, bags for your shoes, glasses, refrigerator, vegetables, and fruits in many shops. So maybe it's a bit early to see how much time we spend managing our wants, as Brooks suggests, but it's clear that we've come a long way in terms of organizing things. Decluttering is a topic in itself, requiring a new Zappa Times article. For now, let's fold up Marie Kondo and put her in the "potential articles box" to return to in future newsletters.

This parallel between decluttering and managing our desires lies at the heart of the cloud of thought that leads us to distance ourselves from both Brooks' approach to happiness and happiness research in general. Let's put it this way:

Brooks quotes a passage from the Tao Te Ching, a 4th century BC book that forms the basis of Taoism, which recommends simplicity, harmony, and freedom from desires in daily life, and points out that peace can be found in this way.

This quote is from Stephen Mitchell, considered one of the most reliable English translations of this work. Interestingly, in the quoted paragraph, Mitchell prefers the word "content" to "happy". However, Brooks does not even pay attention to this detail and interprets the quote using the concept of "happiness". As someone who has thought and written so much on the subject of happiness, the fact that Brooks misses this preference/distinction (or doesn't pay any attention to it at all) is very meaningful to us because this is a very critical distinction.

In English, happiness and contentment, which are usually translated as "satisfaction" or "contentment" in Turkish, are concepts that are close to each other but describe two different states. Contentment is a word that combines both contentment and happiness. Although contentment implies a state of humility and calm, it corresponds to a much stronger state of being than inhibition and gratification. Happiness, on the other hand, describes a slightly more volatile, transient, and fleeting feeling, as if it has not been able to shed the burden of its historical meaning. In all Germanic and Latin languages, the word happiness has luck, prosperity, and abundance at its root. Happiness has a material aspect. Content, on the other hand, is a concept that draws boundaries. The state of being satisfied with one's existence. One is after a pleasure that is closely related to possessions, the other is after the satisfaction experienced when one draws a boundary to pleasure.

At first glance, this omission in Brooks' article may seem like a simple and insignificant mistake, but if we want to hear the muffled voice of the unsaid and unseen, the picture may change. First, a few brief reminders about the history of happiness studies.

Happiness studies received a vital boost in the 1970s with the research of economics professor Richard Ainley Easterlin, who questioned the relationship between happiness and income. In his influential 1974 article "Does Economic Growth Improve the Human Lot?", Easterlin answered "no" to the question "Does economic growth improve the human lot?". Looking at data from 19 countries, Easterlin argued that within a country, the rich are happier than the poor but the country's collective prosperity does not increase the collective happiness of the country.

The 1970s were the years when the consumer society that had emerged in the West in the post-World War II period with the support of state welfare policies was in crisis. In other words, the golden age of capitalism and the "happiness" of that period came to end. In these years, which marked the beginning of a downward descent from the peak that would later turn into a downward spiral, it became increasingly difficult to maintain the satisfaction created by consumption.

In the early 1980s, with the questions on happiness in the World Values Survey, happiness became a measurable subject of social science and an object of social/economic policy. On the other hand, the question Easterlin posed and the paradox he drew attention to determine the fundamental orientations and methods in this field. In other words, the relationship between economic development variables such as economic growth, gross product, income and consumption, and happiness is still at the top of researchers' agendas. İt is not surprising in a world where, for almost two centuries, all energy has been devoted solely to economic growth. In such a world, of course, important to ask the question "Is economic growth enough?". But the sad thing is that even happiness studies that pursue this question continue to grow in the area defined by the relationship between happiness and economic growth. In a sense, it cannot get out of the paradox put forward by Easterlin, who started this field of study.

We live in a world where the mere union of hearts cannot make the haystack go haywire, and we know very well that the lack of material conditions such as health, housing, and education plays a very important role in the path to unhappiness; but as Brooks' article shows, a perspective that remains within the dynamics and discourse of the capitalist market causes us to go round and round in a cycle of pleasure-consumption-satisfaction-seeking new pleasure while trying to imagine, construct, understand and define happiness. Even the Tao Te Ching's description of a situation far removed from these can only be viewed from the perspective of happiness that is now intertwined with pleasure and satisfaction, even by the most "experts" in this field. It is vital to see the power of words and concepts. Could one way out of this cycle be to give up on happiness by starting to imagine a calmer, more permanent state, one that is more in everyday life and outside the market?

Anna Alexandrova's A Philosophy for the Science of Well-Being (2017, Oxford University Press), which we discovered thanks to the Thoughtlines podcast series published in 2021, is a work built around this question. 

Alexandrova categorizes research on happiness under the heading of well-being studies. Her book has two main arguments: One, different social groups with different life practices and values may have different understandings of well-being and happiness. Second, these differences cannot necessarily be explained by generalizable and quantifiable methods. In other words, in her book, Alexandrova examines the categories of "research" "knowing" and "specialization" in the field of well-being and explores different states/probabilities of learning and well-being. In addition, this book is also a very good source to follow the historical development of this field, which we are going through very quickly in our article. Alexandrova continues her research at the Bennett Institute for Public Policy at the University of Cambridge within the framework of the project "The Many Dimensions of Wellbeing".

We also highly recommend the Thoughtlines podcast series. Thoughtlines is a series of 12 programs produced in 2021 by CRASSH (Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities), one of the research centers of Cambridge University. All of the programs are very good and very enjoyable to listen to. It consists of interviews with academics, journalists, and scientists who have passed through Cambridge on topics that are being talked about today, from food to artificial intelligence, from literature to politics. The titles of the interviews are based on the philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach's phrase "We are what we eat": We are what we read, we are what we do, we are what we spend. The title of the interview with Anna Alexondrava is "We are what we question."

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Do we have to be happy?

The paradox of happiness studies

17 Haz 2022


Zappa Times

“So many books so little time...” Inspired by Frank Zappa, Zappa Times writes about literature, nature, food, and economics.