Have you just about had it with pious moralizing about happiness? If so, you are not alone. Having identified a symptom in their midst psycho professionals named it negativity and turned their eyes toward, if not the pursuit, the production of happiness.
It’s been good for business. It’s even been very good for business. Why sell a bleak and depressing worldview when you can sell positivity? Why sell a gussied-up form of adolescent angst when you can sell wide-eyed optimism? Dream of the good things that will happen and they will happen. No serious scientist says it this way, but it's the psycho equivalent to believing that God will answer your prayers.
It isn’t wrong to shift the focus of therapy away from depression and anxiety, away from Freud’s bleak and tragic vision, toward a more positive outcome. Not toward mental health but toward happiness. If the psycho professionals had not gone overboard with it, if they had not lost all sense of perspective, it might have been a good thing. Sometimes too much happiness will do that to you.
Or at least it would have been a good thing until such time as someone noticed that making happiness your goal effectively makes you something other than a mental health professional. The goal of mental health interventions should be mental health, or a reasonable facsimile thereof.
Happiness, we all know, does not belong to medical science. Healing a patient's illness restores his health. It does not necessarily make him happy.
Happiness is an ethical principle, given by Aristotle himself. Aristotle thought that success brought happiness and that learning brought happiness. He was not selling a cheap version of ecstasy, an experience that would later be reserved for saints and angels.
One thing that will not get you to happiness is science. It is not designed to do so. It cannot really be science if it gets in the business of producing happiness.
In the meantime, it’s not all bad news on the psycho front. Psychology professor Frank McAndrew has offered some excellent reflections on the subject on a site called The Conversation. God only knows how I find these sites.
McAndrew draws an excellent inference about happiness by examining the way we use language. We are more likely to declare that we will be happy in the future or were happy in the past than we are to say that we are happy in the present.
Allow him his point:
We’ve all started a sentence with the phrase “Won’t it be great when…” (I go to college, fall in love, have kids, etc.). Similarly, we often hear older people start sentences with this phrase “Wasn’t it great when…”
Think about how seldom you hear anyone say, “Isn’t this great, right now?”
Surely, our past and future aren’t always better than the present. Yet we continue to think that this is the case.
These are the bricks that wall off harsh reality from the part of our mind that thinks about past and future happiness. Entire religions have been constructed from them. Whether we’re talking about our ancestral Garden of Eden (when things were great!) or the promise of unfathomable future happiness in Heaven, Valhalla, Jannah or Vaikuntha, eternal happiness is always the carrot dangling from the end of the divine stick.
But, what does it all mean? Does it mean that we are chronic malcontents who are never satisfied with their current state of things? Does it mean that we fear living in the famous here-and-now? Do we have such a problem with the present that we always pine for the past and anticipate the future?
Of course, I have been wont to say that living in the present, living entirely and wholly in the present is a trap. It suggests that you should learn nothing from the past and should never plan for the future. It is a formula for stagnation.
In order to achieve a measure of happiness, McAndrew points out, we need to make plans and we need to follow them, even when our current bliss or our heart’s desire is tempting us to abandon them.
Worse yet, happiness does not come about because we have done a few mental exercises. It arrives when we have put in the time and effort to succeed at a task. The psycho theorists do not note the salient point, because it does not make very much sense, but if you have not worked to achieve your happiness, it will not feel like it is really yours. This tells us some of why pill-produced happiness never feels quite right.
For example, a satisfying life built on a successful career and a good marriage is something that unfolds over a long period of time. It takes a lot of work, and it often requires avoiding hedonistic pleasures like partying or going on spur-of-the-moment trips. It also means you can’t while away too much of your time spending one pleasant lazy day after another in the company of good friends.
On the other hand, keeping your nose to the grindstone demands that you cut back on many of life’s pleasures. Relaxing days and friendships may fall by the wayside.
As happiness in one area of life increases, it’ll often decline in another.
McAndrew addresses the most important issue. Why do we tend to see happiness in the past and future more than in the present? Does it simply mean that we are creatures of desire who are never satisfied with what we have? Or is there a better interpretation.
McAndrew offers this. I am inclined to agree with him:
These delusions about the past and the future could be an adaptive part of the human psyche, with innocent self-deceptions actually enabling us to keep striving. If our past is great and our future can be even better, then we can work our way out of the unpleasant – or at least, mundane – present.
Dissatisfaction with the present and dreams of the future are what keep us motivated, while warm fuzzy memories of the past reassure us that the feelings we seek can be had. In fact, perpetual bliss would completely undermine our will to accomplish anything at all; among our earliest ancestors, those who were perfectly content may have been left in the dust.
If we can recognize and accept that we succeeded in the past we can develop enough confidence to engage in difficult tasks in the present. If, however, we undergo the kind of therapy that obliges us—through a Freudian version of confirmation bias—to focus on past traumas and failures, our own and those of others, we will undermine our courage to face the future.
Moreover, we cannot stay motivated unless we have a sense that the future will be better than the present. If the present is the best it will ever be, we will give up and stagnate. Living in the here and now is a formula for depression.