science of us

Who Gets Left Out of the Advice to ‘Make Your Own Happiness’

Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images

If you’re looking for advice about how to be happier, you don’t have to search very hard — in fact, these days, you’d probably have to go out of your way to avoid it. Best-seller lists regularly feature titles like The Happiness Project and Delivering Happiness. The internet is saturated with tips like “Get outside” and “Fake it till you feel it” and “Tell yourself you’re having more sex than your neighbors.” Companies like Google are hiring chief happiness officers, C-suite employees charged with making the office environment both fun and meaningful.

At the same time that our collective preoccupation with happiness has grown, though, our actual happiness has declined — research shows that Americans are noticeably unhappier than we were just a few decades ago. In his new book, Happier? The History of a Cultural Movement That Aspired to Transform America, cultural historian Daniel Horowitz, a history professor emeritus at Smith College, argues that this inverse relationship is no coincidence.

Horowitz takes a linear historical approach to the academic question of happiness, tracing the rise of “positive psychology” over time — a rise, he notes, that parallels the growth of both inequality in the U.S. and the cultural emphasis on individuality. Happiness studies, he argues, seem to be a way of convincing people they’re happy — or could be happy — even as they’re being dealt increasingly bad hands in terms of things like income inequality, educational affordability, and access to health care.

The means for doing so, though, are suspect. Although there have been few concrete, surefire findings that have come out of the study of positive psychology, one success of the field has been to make happiness a definable objective that can be worked for, like money or professional success. Controllable behaviors like working long hours or mindfulness have come to take on a greater sense of importance.
This also helps explain why so many Eastern traditions, like meditation and yoga, have become recently popular in the West: They promise a controllable form of happiness in a society where happiness, in truth, tends to be out of our hands.

One of the more insidious effects of this is the conflation of success and merit. Angela Duckworth’s treatise on how hard work breeds success, Grit, which was widely embraced upon its publication a year and a half ago, is one well-known example of this line of thinking: that perseverance necessarily breeds success. If you work hard and don’t give up, you’ll be rewarded.

But such a claim ignores the challenging socioeconomic realities so many people face. (A particularly incensed reader, writing in the New York Times’ letters to the editor, noted that “anyone who would tell a child that the only thing standing between him or her and world-class achievement is sufficient work ought to be jailed for child abuse.”) Indeed, the idea that “anyone can be happy” is a seductive one, but ultimately flawed and deeply unfair, equating those who have been given social privileges with those who have not. When the less-privileged person fails to achieve the happiness they desire, they’re told to blame themselves first and foremost, rather than the circumstances that have helped shape their life.

Given the contemporary focus on the individual, it’s not surprising that positive psychology is a particularly American phenomenon, with more publications and practitioners who focus on it living in the United States, with its highly individualistic culture, than any other country. It is also a field of study that tends to be white, middle- and upper-middle class, with few academic papers considering race or class as variables.

Intriguingly, it’s also a rather culturally conservative science, Horowitz writes, “despite accusations that academic fields have been overly shaped by those on the left.” For example, Martin Seligman, the former president of the American Psychological Association and the person who popularized the term “positive psychology” in a 1998 speech, emphasizes the psychological equivalent of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps. While working to help American soldiers going to and returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, Seligman focused on bolstering these soldiers’ psychological resilience and toughness both before and after going to war — a more typically conservative view than, say, providing them therapy in which they might discuss their feelings of vulnerability or postwar unease.

At no point has “positive psychology” been a subject that fits perfectly into the academic mold. “Virtually every finding of positive psychology under consideration remains contested by both insiders and outsiders,” Horowitz writes. Often, studies on happiness contradict each other, he notes, and they tend to be difficult to replicate. It’s therefore not surprising that happiness research has some of the most charismatic proponents, like the psychiatrist Robert Waldinger and the social psychologist Daniel Gilbert, both of whom have given rousing TED Talks on the subject; as positive psychology inches closer to more mainstream scientific legitimacy, it needs a strong marketing team to get there.

But Horowitz also notes that, lately, a significant shift has occurred: Positive psychology has begun to move away from defining happiness simply as a positive emotion, he writes, and toward the idea of eudaimonia, or the Aristotelian definition of happiness: well-being that comes from living a moral life.

Living a good, fulfilled, satisfying life is not the same as being happy. In fact, the quest for happiness, so deeply inscribed in the American psyche, can often do more harm than good, especially if your personal happiness comes at the expense of another’s. To make morality, rather than happiness, your central goal is to ultimately achieve a greater form of satisfaction.

It’s perhaps a less charming solution than deciding to travel the world or making time to sing every morning, to borrow a few more pieces of advice from those ubiquitous listicles. But unlike so much of positive psychology, it’s also tried and true. Morality, rather, is something that can truly be within your control, no matter the circumstance.

Who Gets Left Out of the Advice to ‘Make Your Own Happiness’