Sunday, September 13, 2009

On the Road to Happiness

When last I posted on this blog I was reporting on studies connecting weight gain with dining rituals. What you eat does matter, but whom you eat with also matters. The studies were important for emphasizing this latter, often overlooked, aspect of the problem.

I have been blogging about similar studies for quite some time now, mostly because I want to chronicle an important culture shift. The therapy culture is losing influence and is being replaced by a more balanced view of human behavior.

In many cases scientific research is challenging the dogmas of the therapy culture, revealing that they are not based on science, but on ideology.

The new scientific studies have simply acknowledged the indubitable fact that human being always live in society, and thus, that their health and well-being must have something to do with the company they keep.

Where the therapy culture saw us as individual mental units controlling and channeling impulses, the new culture sees us as social beings who function at their best when interacting with others.

It may be too early to label it a full-fledged movement, but the new culture took several leaps forward in today's New York Times Magazine. Clive Thompson's article is: "Is Happiness Catching?" Link here.

As Thompson reports, recent research has shown that: "staying healthy is not just a matter of genes and diet." Being friends with healthy people contributes importantly to our own health.

Good health habits, he writes: "...pass from friend to friend almost as if they were contagious viruses."

The metaphor is strange, and was probably chosen to get our attention. Hopefully, no one will get the impression that we all need vaccines against good health habits.

Thompson is reporting that if all our friends stop smoking and start eating better we are likely to do the same. Why would we do so? We want to conform to the group's norms.

And yet, the therapy culture has always cast aspersions on conformism. It has preached that conformity is a bad thing because it prevents us from expressing our inviolate individuality.

Now, recent research has shown that it is better to get along with others than to express your true emotions creatively.

Speaking of two test subjects Thompson said: "By keeping in close, regular contact with other healthy friends for decades, Eileen and Joseph had quite possibly kept themselves alive and thriving."

It's not just about healthy habits. Anyone who keeps in touch with friends for decades usually has very good social skills. They may not be involved in operatic relationships, but they are masters of producing and sustaining harmony.

This implies good character, a willingness to put your concern for the feelings of others ahead of your own will to express your own.

Surprisingly, the studies suggest that it is more important to have many superficial relationships than to have a very few close and intense ones.

Thompson said: " of the more curious findings in their research [is]: If you want to be happy, what's most important is to have lots of friends." He adds: "the happiest people were those who had the most connections, even if the relationships weren't necessarily deep ones." And he concludes: "happiness doesn't come from having deep heart-to-heart talks."

Take a moment to measure the import of this thought. I venture that no therapist has ever suggested that the path to happiness lay in having a myriad of superficial acquaintances. Therapy has always gone for the gusto, for the deep and intense relationship, for the one true love relationship where you could pour out your heart and soul and not be judged ill for it.

This meant that therapy was using the relationship between therapist and patient as the model for the way humans ought to connect. Explicitly or implicitly, it was telling us that the bad communication habits that we would inevitably learn from therapy should form the basis for future relationships.

In other words, therapy was pretending to offer a useful social skill.

Therapists did not bother to tell us that if we talked to our friends the way we talked to our therapist then we would have far fewer friends.

The net result is: after all those years of therapy and the therapy culture, we still have difficulty knowing how to get along with each other. So, Freud had it wrong, and Rodney King had it right.

It's not about becoming a secular saint by sacrificing happiness for psychodrama, but about learning how to just get along, with large numbers of people on a superficial level.

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