Essay/
Mood and emotion

Photo by David Pollack/Corbis/Getty

The happiness ruse

How did feeling good become a matter of relentless, competitive work; a never-to-be-attained goal which makes us miserable?

Cody Delistraty

Photo by David Pollack/Corbis/Getty

Cody Delistraty

is a writer and historian based in New York and Paris. He writes on literature, psychology and interesting humans. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker and The Atlantic, among others. 

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In 1920, the American psychologist John B Watson published the results of one of the more ethically dubious scholarly articles of the past century. Along with Rosalie Rayner, a 21-year-old graduate student at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where he taught, Watson aimed to instil a specific fear in an otherwise normal baby.

Until then, behavioural conditioning had been exercised solely within the animal realm, but Watson and Rayner selected a nine-month-old boy they called ‘Albert’ for their study, paid his mother a dollar, and placed a variety of small, live animals in front of him, including a rat – in which he initially showed a playful interest. As Albert played with the rat, the experimenters hit a nearby steel bar with a hammer, emitting a loud noise that scared the boy and made him cry. After doing this a few times, all the experimenters had to do to make Albert burst into tears was to show him the rat. Even without the noise, they successfully conditioned in him a fear of rats, which eventually carried over to a fear of numerous furry creatures, including rabbits and dogs.

One would think that such an unprincipled experiment might have led to some kind of public outcry – after all, the experimenters never deconditioned Albert – or even scientific objection, since there was no consistent control; nonetheless, it seemed to show that humans, not just animals, could be behaviourally conditioned in myriad ways. In fact, following the article’s publication, Johns Hopkins raised Watson’s salary by 50 per cent to keep him at the university. (He was already popular: a year earlier, students had voted him ‘handsomest professor’.) But then, after his wife discovered and published the love letters he’d written to Rayner, with whom he’d been having an affair and would go on to marry, the university fired him.

Watson quickly landed in advertising, where J Walter Thompson hired him to continue his work conditioning humans, specifically consumers. ‘I began to learn that it can be just as thrilling to watch the growth of a sales curve of a new product as to watch the learning curve of animals and men,’ Watson later reflected. Bringing a scientific ethos to advertising, he was tasked with instilling brand loyalty, creating product personalities, and, as he and Rayner had done with baby Albert, instilling fears in consumers in order to get them to buy certain products. For the Scott’s toilet paper account, for instance, he helped to create a print advertisement in which surgeons are looking at a patient, while the text below says ‘and the trouble began with harsh toilet tissue’ as a way of scaring and selling.

Today, such behavioural manipulations are the norm, but they take subtler and more sinister forms, thanks to Big Data and a digital environment in which algorithmic surveillance is more or less omnipresent. But rather than conditioning specific fears, it’s now more common to find human happiness the target of psychological manipulation. Happiness is in many ways the marketing breakthrough of the past decade, with self-care and anti-stress products now rounding out the bestseller list on Amazon (think of ‘gravity blankets’, ‘de-stressing’ adult colouring books and fidget spinners), where they nestle alongside chart-topping tomes by ‘happiness bloggers’. All of this is made possible by a specific, disturbing and very new version of ‘happiness’ that holds that bad feelings must be avoided at all costs.

This imperative to avoid being – even appearing – unhappy has led to a culture that rewards a performative happiness, in which people curate public-facing lives, via Instagram and its kin, composed of a string of ‘peak experiences’ – and nothing else. Sadness and disappointment are rejected, even neutral or mundane life experiences get airbrushed out of the frame. It’s as though appearing unhappy implies some kind of Protestant moral fault: as if you didn’t work hard enough or believe sufficiently in yourself.

Happiness has, of course, not always been conceived of this way. The Epicurean outlook on happiness – which Thomas Jefferson was thinking of when he enjoined Americans to cherish ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ in the Declaration of Independence – is exceedingly simple and different. As Epicurus saw it, happiness is merely the lack of aponia – physical pain – and ataraxia – mental disturbance. It was not about the pursuit of material gain, or notching up gratifying experiences, but instead was a happiness that lent itself to a constant gratefulness. So long as we are not in mental or physical pain, we can, within this understanding of happiness, be contented.

One can see this understanding of happiness across the foundations of the Western world, as in the Jewish prayer of asher yatzar, in which each morning, after going to the bathroom, one says thanks for being able to achieve even this most basic task under one’s own power. Happiness, in the Epicurean sense, is as simple as being able to go pee.

Modern thinkers tend to view happiness less as a lack of pain than as a surfeit of wellbeing. The English economist Richard Layard, for example, laid out what might be considered a ‘happiness economics’ – now forming the basis of an annual survey called the World Happiness Report, which measures the extent to which a person’s income and a society’s wealth influence happiness. However, like Epicurus, Layard still regards mental health as the most important factor in happiness, as he explained in his book Happiness: Lessons from a New Science (2005).

All of this is work, in which every moment is optimised in order to achieve peak happiness

Not all happiness movements retain as close a relation to Epicurean ideas. Positive psychology, for instance, became voguish after Martin Seligman chose happiness as his core theme in 1998, after becoming president of the American Psychological Association (APA). Seligman proposed that happiness came from having and searching for positive emotions, a sense of community and existential meaning. He believed that humans tend to ‘learn’ unhappiness in choosing not to escape unpleasant situations even when we can. On this view, happiness is something we must constantly teach ourselves: it is something we work towards.

From here, it’s only a small leap to today’s widespread understanding of happiness as the pursuit and purchase of peak experience. Prescription antidepressants are consumed at record levels, self-help books crowd the shelves, and multiple therapies compete to shift us out of negative mindsets so that we might flourish. All of this is work, but of a particular variety, in which every moment is optimised in order to achieve peak happiness, no matter how fleeting, at the same time as unhappiness is actively pushed away.

Where, historically, did this idea of ‘peak experience’ happiness come from? When the word ‘happy’ first entered the English lexicon, around the mid-14th century, it meant something closer to ‘lucky’, since one’s status, health and happiness were wrapped up in the arbitrary decisions of the Catholic God. (It’s most likely that the word ‘luck’ came first and, from that came words such as ‘happy’, related to ‘happenstance’.) Happy didn’t mean joyful until the 16th century, and it was not until the mid-17th century when Thomas Hobbes, writing in Leviathan, cast happiness as an unending process of accumulating objects of desire, thereby redefining it as a subjective, shifting feeling, predicated on our desires. ‘The felicity of this life,’ wrote Hobbes in 1651, ‘consisteth not in the repose of a mind satisfied. For there is no such finis ultimus (utmost aim) nor summum bonum (greatest good) as is spoken of in the books of the old moral philosophers.’

As Hobbes saw it, happiness could be meaningfully achieved by pursuing pleasurable experiences. He believed that there was no stable satisfaction (‘the repose of a mind satisfied’), and took indirect aim at Epicurus (‘in the books of the old moral philosophers’); happiness, he believed, must be continually sought after, its slippery and fleeting nature interpreted as a feature rather than a bug. If one had to say where the modern conception of ‘peak experience’ happiness derives, then Hobbes’s then-aberrant idea is probably the place to start.

But it’s a concept riddled with problems. ‘What is happiness?’ asks the fictional advertising executive Don Draper in Mad Men, in neo-Hobbesian mode, before answering: ‘It’s the moment before you need more happiness.’ These days, we pursue happiness rather than letting it come to us. We try to collect moments of happiness like shells at the beach, even as the waves wash them away. The pursuit is Sisyphean; it inevitably leads down a disappointing path.

There is no image of modern existential emptiness quite like the person travelling the world while constantly posting pictures of restaurants and landmarks on social media, and competitively performing happiness at the expense of making genuine connections with his peers. In trying to be happier – better – than others, this person risks alienating himself from them. It’s a zero-sum game.

Perhaps one solution to the quandary of happiness – we want to be happy but not to alienate or hurt ourselves on the path to it – lies in realigning ourselves with the Romantics, who embraced both their joys and sorrows. ‘Ay, in the very temple of Delight,’ wrote John Keats in ‘Ode on Melancholy’ (1819), ‘Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine’. During Passover, Jews discard drops of wine before they drink so as to remember tragedies before embracing pleasures (so, too, when observant Jews marry: to step on a glass is to remember sadness as you embark upon a life of happiness). This embrace of melancholy might be a way out of the lose-lose prison of happiness, whereby pursuing it leads to disappointment and loneliness, and not pursuing it seems to guarantee that it’s never reached. We might never be truly contented unless we embrace our negative feelings. Indeed, negative feelings might not be so negative.

The emotion of sadness, for instance, has all kinds of positive uses. Recent studies by the social psychologist Joseph P Forgas at the University of New South Wales in Sydney showed that people remembered the details of a shop more accurately when the weather was bad and they were in a foul mood than when the weather was more pleasant and they were happier, leading him to speculate that sadness could be useful to memory. Forgas also showed that people tend to make more accurate judgments when sad since we’re more aware and less gullible, relying more on what’s actually witnessed than on broad-strokes ideas and stereotypes. Sadness also makes us better communicators and persuaders, according to his 2007 study, and we are better conversationalists – more adept at interpreting nuance and ambiguity – when sad than happy, according to his 2013 study.

One need not actively court sadness, but nor should sadness be something we simply plough through – grinning and bearing – on the path toward happiness. People in sad moods, according to Forgas, tend to be more persistent and hardworking in complex mental tasks than happier people, not only attempting more questions but getting more of the questions correct than their happier counterparts. Sadness is a sharpening emotion. It keeps us alert. It makes us investigate ourselves more profoundly and more unsparingly. To be sad is to be keenly attuned to the world.

It’s nice to eat dessert, but the burst of happiness we get does little for our evolutionary bottom line

Just being willing to grapple with difficult emotions leads to greater life satisfaction. A few years ago, 365 people aged 14 to 88 who were considered emotionally stable were given smartphones on which they had to answer daily questions about their emotional health, over a period of three weeks. The study, published in Emotion, found that, when participants reported being in a negative mood, only those who thought of negative emotions as harmful or antithetical to happiness also felt a low satisfaction with their life. Those who believed negative emotions could be useful to them reported the same life satisfaction, regardless of their mood, indicating that engaging with our negative emotions might make us happier than simply pursuing happiness itself.

The reasons for this need to embrace the negative with the positive are deeply wired inside of us. In The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872), Charles Darwin seemed to foresee that the search for happiness might be misguided, writing that we must choose what to emote carefully because our feelings change who we are and what we do. Being fearful or angry can make us withdrawn, just as being sexually aroused can make us more outgoing. But in evolutionary terms, the emotions at either end of the spectrum – intense happiness, intense sadness – are only proximate outcomes. They are important to how we feel: but, in a grander evolutionary sense, they’re important only insofar as they drive us toward survival and reproduction. Alone, they are rather meaningless: it might be nice to have a delicious dessert, for instance, but the burst of happiness we get from eating it does little for our evolutionary bottom line. That’s to say, the kind of happiness we work to pursue is a holdover from our ancestors, motivating them to continue to find and eat the heartiest kinds of foods. But this kind of happiness is not an end goal; it’s only a route toward it.

To put existential stock in pleasure and ‘feeling good’ is to misunderstand where genuine satisfaction lies. Instead, an Epicurean happiness in which we might have the clarity of mind to control how we feel, to handle the negative waves of feeling that, as humans, will always come our way – these are likelier the abilities that will lead to genuine satisfaction.

The fetish for pursuing happiness appears to be a peculiarly Anglo-American phenomenon, perhaps because there is such strong cultural pressure in both countries to downplay negative emotions. Compared with, say, the French, who are generally content to live outside of happiness – happiness being unsophisticated, not the marker of a life well lived – Brits and, most especially, Americans downplay negative emotions in favour of putting forth the happiest face possible. Americans are known for the fake smile and ‘I’m good, thanks!’ while Brits are renowned for avoiding conversational unpleasantness, and for maintaining a ‘stiff upper lip’ in the face of pain and disappointment. Denying and masking negative feelings, because they are socially and culturally unacceptable, is the norm. In the Anglo-American scheme of thinking, negative emotions are negatively reflective of us – as if we’ve made a fundamental mistake, lived without the gusto and positivity needed to achieve happiness.

But all of this happy pretending catches up. A person living in a Western culture is about four to 10 times more likely to develop clinical depression or anxiety than a person in an Eastern culture, according to the psychologist Brock Bastian’s book, The Other Side of Happiness: Embracing a More Fearless Approach to Living (2018). In China and Japan, Bastian writes, people tend to view positive and negative emotions as essential and equal; happiness, in the East, should not be actively pursued, just as sadness should not be actively avoided. Bastian sources this stance in religion, especially those Buddhist philosophies that seek to embrace the entirety of the human condition and to comprehend pain in terms of its underlying reasons.

The desire to twist our negative emotions into something upbeat is a way of thinking that leaves us open to the kind of ad-man manipulation in which Watson specialised. But it’s not a desire that entered our culture from a vacuum. There’s a significant economic incentive for businesses when people believe that happiness is something that we must work – and buy – toward. Happy workers tend to be about 12 per cent more productive. Google has a ‘chief happiness officer’. The ‘treat-yourself’ ethic is still a major sales driver, and nearly every beauty brand now bases its advertisements on ‘self-care’. Meanwhile, the APA revised its fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (2013) so that any bereaved person grieving longer than two months might be considered to have a mental illness requiring medical treatment – for example, antidepressants such as Wellbutrin.

Life would not be worth living if it floated only between peak experiences

If Wellbutrin sounds a bit like the happiness-inducing drug ‘soma’ in Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World (1932), it’s probably because it – and all of this happiness conditioning – is a bit Huxleyan. With the rise of positive psychology in the midcentury, which piggybacks on Hobbes’s 17th-century ideas, Huxley foresaw how the Epicurean ideal of happiness was being – and would be – transformed. ‘The right to the pursuit of happiness,’ he wrote in 1956, ‘is nothing else than the right to disillusionment phrased in another way.’

Today, market research, built on Watson’s work, has only continued to grow, pioneering in-store face-scanning – to determine consumers’ emotions in front of certain products – advertisements that seem to follow us across every digital platform, and, eventually, the Holy Grail of market manipulation: being able to create products that hack our happiness, that make us neurologically need to use and buy them. (Already this exists to some extent: for example, think of how Facebook manipulates the mood of users with its News Feed algorithms.)

But if we continue to allow ourselves to be manipulated into pining after peak experiences, then we leave ourselves open not only to market manipulation but also to loneliness, poor judgment and, ironically, an abiding sadness. Epicurean happiness might not always make us ‘happy’ in the sense that we now use the word synonymously with being in an upbeat mood. But life would not be worth living if it floated only between peak experiences. In truth, the younger generations – those who are most likely to subscribe to the idea of ‘peak happiness’ – aren’t really happy in any sense at all, with 22 per cent of millennials saying they have no friends. This, surely, is not the kind of ‘happiness’ we want to pursue.

What if, instead, happiness was something that we realised ebbs and flows, that negativity is fundamental to life and, ironically, to our happiness? What if we reconditioned ourselves: not to want but to be satisfied in all feelings?

Cody Delistraty

is a writer and historian based in New York and Paris. He writes on literature, psychology and interesting humans. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker and The Atlantic, among others. 

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