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In defense of happiness: Helping society to flourish

As most students I’ve meet here at Stanford wish that they could slow down and enjoy life, I was surprised to come across this article by Allison Martin, which criticizes the allegedly hedonistic nature of Yale’s popular Psychology and the Good Life course (PSYC 157). She urges readers not to search for happiness but instead purpose, arguing that the former pursuit is self-serving and superficial.

That claim seems innocent enough, and it’s easy to second as purpose seems more noble than happiness. Unfortunately, though, purpose has been reduced to all but a buzzword in America’s collective pursuit of the ‘Good Life.’ Like success or mindfulness, everyone seems to want it, but what exactly it is isn’t clear and how to get there is even less so.

To the contrary, there is a practice behind cultivating purpose, but it works with happiness as part of an enabling base to create a state of flourishing. Yale’s PSYC 157 is in the field of positive psychology, the branch of psychology that seeks to take people from a baseline state of well-being to that state of flourishing (traditional psychology deals with bringing people up to a baseline state). Thus, wielding purpose to criticize positive psychology ignores the field’s aims as well as the broader cultural shifts which have made it so popular.

That oversight and the ambiguity of the term purpose should cause readers to wonder: Who, exactly, is Martin addressing? No one’s idea of happiness is so self-oriented or dopaminergic as she claims. To say that PSYC 157’s aim is “maximizing individual well-being” is a gross mischaracterization.

Indeed, I am forced to wonder if she even looked into the course because even its catalog description states as a goal: “Discussion of psychological insights into protecting the environment, improving education, promoting charitable giving, and inspiring healthier lifestyles…[and] positive behavior change.” Even if we discount that and suppose Against happiness: Pursuing purpose is a social critique, it proves a hollow one when we consider why wellness practices have gained cultural salience.

The article’s largest issue is its attack on a synaptic strawman. Happiness, as understood by positive psychologists, is not mere shorthand for pleasure.

Instead, it is a dichotomy between two elements, hedonia and eudaimonia. No positive psychologist would tell you that hedonia alone is sufficient to be happy. Conversely, real happiness is also believed to be eudaimonic, or coming from meaningful achievement. The teacher of the Yale course doesn’t neglect this, instead hoping that her course helps “students feel like they are part of a movement and fighting the good fight.”

That said, just as hedonia alone is not enough to make a good life, neither is eudaimonia. There are two reasons for this; the first is based in neuroscience, and the latter is common sense.

First, persistent unhappiness is not just an ideological roadblock. It is largely the result of negative thinking patterns and emotional and hormonal reaction pathways which are neurologically ingrained over the course of a lifetime.  These patterns make life less fulfilling, purpose in mind or not. While a purpose certainly helps, it can only do so much to mend what Martin calls the “potholes of depression, self-hatred and shame,” which are not only the result of purposelessness but also a lifetime of neural development. Positive psychology works to undo these detrimental but plastic brain patterns.

Second, as two wellness professors of mine recently made clear, you aren’t going to find your purpose if you’re always anxious, unfocused by stress or caught in other negative thinking patterns. You’re also not going to be motivated to pursue that purpose. Wellness and a positive mentality free your mind to aspire. This is obvious, but it’s unfortunately not often foreseen before burnout. How else could students get so far into the rat-race to nowhere before realizing their complicity in it?

Another significant issue with Martin’s piece is that it paints wellness practices as hedonistic. As far as I can tell, people don’t sit down to mediate or journal for a burst of dopamine. In fact, little is less stimulating (and that’s the point). Furthermore, no one can seriously call wellness students at elite universities, as Martin does, “dopamine addicts who get high on instant gratification.” That statement is largely unjust to the positive psychologists teaching them, mental health advocates promoting their practices and the students themselves.

Positive psychologists are not mere dopamine peddlers. Their stated intent is, generally, to not only help the individual to flourish but also whole communities and societies. When they encourage students to be happier, it is to empower purpose. Martin’s hypothetical – “Imagine, for a moment, that the goal of purposefulness replaced happiness” – is problematic because, in reality, the two are inextricable.

Next, mental health advocates often promote happiness as a tool for social good. As I’ve argued, misery and feeling alone in the pursuit of happiness can be debilitating. Conversely, happiness is a strong motivator for kids in school and employees at work, reduces the likelihood and hence social cost of health problems and is ‘contagious’ while also reducing social tension. These are the real win-win benefits of pursuing happiness, promoted as a means to improve society at large.

Finally, Martin’s claim that these are ‘ever-so-happy times’ dismisses statistical trends to the contrary, which have likely brought students to wellness courses. In the past 10 years, there has been both a genuine drop in American happiness and a massive spike in the rates of anxiety among students. This is happening against the backdrop of a ‘public health crisis’ related to stress.

I don’t raise any of this to doomsay but instead, like Martin, to ask readers to critically examine our culture’s understanding of well-being as well as our awareness of unhappiness. We are still far from a culture of self-care that might actively ameliorate and prevent mental suffering. For example, though the United States has one of the highest rates of mental illness in the world, the stigma surrounding it runs rampant. Moreover, our culture still expects people to repress negative emotion in what seems to be a remnant of an overly masculine past.

However, if we want to create a culture of self-care, we have to be very careful in our analysis of the cultural, neurological and behavioral aspects which contribute to well-being. Romantic imagery of life as a voyage, unnavigable by the hedonists pursuing happiness gets us nowhere. I am all for a philosophical discussion of what exactly constitutes a ‘Good Life,’ but there’s no reason to criticize people moving society towards well-being through proven practice.

 

Contact Noah Louis-Ferdinand at nlouisfe ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Noah Louis-Ferdinand

Noah Louis-Ferdinand

Noah Louis-Ferdinand is a freshman from Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. He studies Human Biology and Anthropology. Noah is also an avid reader of philosophy and enjoys contemporary fiction. When not studying or writing, he loves to run trail races throughout the United States.