Massachusetts Daily Collegian

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A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

How hard can it be to be happy?

Chasing happiness is counterproductive
Ramesh NG/Flickr

Historically, psychologists have not been a happy bunch. For the majority of the 20th century, psychologists have focused on the less commendable aspects of the human psyche — areas such as prejudice, mental illness, addiction and crime. In the late 1990s, Martin Seligman decided to change this.

As the president of the American Psychology Association, Seligman advocated for the study of positive psychology, a branch of psychology focused on human flourishing. In subsequent years, countless books on the psychology of happiness were published. While many of these books were of questionable veracity, many also contained insightful research. According to this body of work, the staples of a happy life were satisfaction with one’s work, strong social and romantic relationships and opportunities for spiritual reflection. They also included the maintenance of  reasonable expectations and the ability to remain present and undistracted.

While the application of scientific research to the study of happiness was illuminating, many of its findings had been outlined by philosophers long before. More than 2,000 years before the positive psychology movement, Epicurus, an ancient Greek philosopher, had many similar ideas about happiness. Epicurus considered friendship the most important component to living a happy life and espoused the merits of financial and professional independence. He also advocated for gratitude and reasonable expectations, claiming that “nothing is enough for the one to whom enough is little.” Epicurus was certainly not the only philosopher whose ideas about happiness were later verified by psychologists. Long before researchers began to study distraction, Gautama Buddha was a proponent for mindfulness, claiming that the majority of human suffering was created in the mind.

As is evident, the fundamental components of happiness are neither new nor controversial. This begs an obvious question: Why are we still so miserable? Americans are some of the least content people in the developed world. This is ironic because, in America, a tremendous emphasis is placed on the attainment of happiness. The countless apps, self-help books and workshops dedicated to this objective comprise a multi-billion dollar industry.

So, why is a country obsessed with happiness so unhappy? To a great extent, it is because the type of happiness Americans value is fundamentally different from the type of happiness promoted by philosophers like Epicurus. Epicurus advocated for philosophical contemplation and tranquility of mind, but, in America, happiness has become synonymous with experiencing a state of constant euphoria not with leading a holistic, purposeful life. This pursuit of constant euphoria is not only futile, it is harmful. There is scientific evidence that chasing “intense happiness” (a.k.a. constant euphoria) is counterproductive. Additionally, doing so breaks one of the cardinal rules of happiness — the maintenance of reasonable expectations.

In America, the sort of holistic happiness Epicurus advocated for is given relatively little emphasis; the details of living contentedly and meaningfully are consistently sidestepped. Americans are taught to prioritize academic and professional success over meaningful social relationships, though the latter may be a better determinant of wellbeing. Americans are taught to pursue status and wealth, though they should, instead, search for relevance and meaning. Americans are given essays to write, concepts to repeat and tests to master, yet are rarely given time to reflect on their experiences.

It is our collective responsibility to change this. If we are to live gratifying lives, we must truly think about the way that we live. And, in order to do this well, we must challenge the things we are told define us. Flawed ideas about happiness may be omnipresent, but they are not inalterable. If we understand this, we can take the steps we need to find true value in our lives. The fundamental illusion we must dispel is that we are at the mercy of some greater system, not that we, with our every decision, build this system. So, we must be conscientious about the way we live. Because, after all, what’s more important than a meaningful life?

Jonah Dratfield is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected].

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    Naomi DratfieldFeb 11, 2018 at 7:40 am

    Thank you for this most insightful article.