The study and practice of “happiness” has become an increasingly important focus of philosophical and scientific endevour over recent decades. One of the seminal figures in the scientific study of happiness is Phillip Brickman. His famous study 1978 study he concluded that lottery winners ultimately were no happier than and paralysed accident victims. The study indicates that happiness is possible under the most extreme circumstances and sometimes unexpected circumstances.
Dr Brikman is considered an important early researcher in a field now often referred to as positive psychology. He coined the term “hedonic treadmill,” to refer to the unending quest for the next acquisition, but which ultimately failed to provide sustained happiness. True happiness, ultimately, is independant of the material realities of the external world. The aim of positive psychology is to maximise happiness and wellbeing through a positive attitude, gratitude and reframing of adversity. “Hakuna matata”, as the lion king instructs us to do, might best capture the ethos of this new view of psychology.
In 1982, at approximately 735 pm, Dr Brickman took the stairs to the top floor of the Tower Plaza apartment in Ann Arbour, Michigan, a block West of the main university campus. Approximately 3.8 seconds later he was back as the bottom, having reached a maximum speed of 90 miles per hour and leaving behind a wife, three daughters and stunned colleagues. Brickman, up until that day, had been successful and prosperous. He had spent the 10 days before his death in Mercywood Hospital, a local, private mental health hospital. Why he killed himself is unclear, thought what is clear is that there remains a large gulf between theoretical knowledge and practical know how when it comes to happiness.
There are a number of vocal critics a to the positive psychology ethos. For these detractors, the problem relates to an unrealistic focus on happiness, which has become a virtue in itself, to the exclusion of other values such as duty, self sacrifice and integrity. In our modern positive world we now find ourselves pressured to be constantly cheerful. Unhappiness has become a sign of illness, failure, personal weakness or ingratitude. Happiness has been transformed from a philosophical undertaking, to a consumer commodity, available to all both as an inalienable right and unquestionable necessity.
Today we are bombarded with daily prophets of bliss, promising euphoria and delectation for the masses- all that is needed is the right book, program, guru, analyst or pill. Much like the perfectly toned body, the perfectly happy mind is available to us if we just follow a few easy monthly payments to the TV guru of the week.
But what if there exist those in our mists for whom constant bliss and happiness, much like a ripped six pack and super sexy butt, is not achievable. Research suggests not only that such people may well exist, but that in some situations there are advantages to their negative outlook. Pessimists may not only be more realistic in accurate in their reasoning but they tend to be more creative and are often higher achievers. They may even be more intelligent and rational than their cheerful counterparts.
“It seems to me,” says Adam Phillips, that “anyone who could maintain a state of happiness, given the state of the world, is living in a delusion”.For such people the positive psychology movement with its focus on gratefulness, self belief and self empowering self talk can be as nauseating and un-inspiring as a rerun of the Brady bunch.
Pessimism and mood are also to a high degree hard wired and biological. So if you are that way inclined, positive psychology is not only unlike to work for you, but may further make you worse rather than better. Optimism may well make you feel better, but so does believing in a beneficent God, the afterlife and Santa Clause- that does not make it true, nor does it mean you can make yourself believe it, if you simply do not.
The indirect message of self psychology can have a sanctimonious almost religious tone- Ultimately it suggests is that if you re unhappy, it is your doing because you are not embracing the fool proof techniques and doctrine which it clearly provides you with and which all your peers appear to be embarrassing. The focus for happiness has, to critics, become more like a religious cult or pyramid selling scheme than a true science. An obsession with happiness can be no different to an obsession with thinness, wealth or beauty- it is an unrealistic standard which detracts rather than improves our health and well being. .
So is there a better option for the pessimists and dysphorics in the world. Firstly of all remember that you are not alone, nor re you a failure. The world is full of highly successful people who have embraced and thrived despite their depressive disposition. From musicians to writers and philosophers, there world is full of brooding depressives leading functional and melancholy existences. From Shopenhaur to Dostoevsky to Julie Norem, (a Wellesley professor and author of The Positive Power of Negative Thinking), there are those who rebel against the othodoxy of the positive psychology Zeitgeist, and embrace their darker side.
It could be that negative thinkers, melancholics and pessimists of this world may be better served to embrace their negativity, rather than trying to strive for an ideal that is neither achievable or even desirable for them. The world after all, is by an large an awful and depressing place. For those of us who live unfortunate or painful lives, the semi religious tones of the positivists may feel more unctuous and sanctimonious than helpful. Accepting the adversity and injustices of our circumstance, including our moods and disposition, may sometimes be a better option than trying to deny our pain and replace it with false alacrity. In such situations, as the writers of South Park and the highly successful musical, the book of Mormon, might say – “Hasa Diga Eebowai”.
(Warning- Strong language)