happiness


“Greenery (or Even Photos of Trees) Can Make Us Happier” proclaims the headline of a NYT article by Gretchen Reynolds describing a recent study of the effects of seeing photos of the natural world. Looking at her summary and at the study itself, I noticed that the research isn’t so much about happiness as it is about handling stress.

A previous study had found that research participants who took a walk through a parkland had less anxiety and performed better on a test of working memory than did participants who walked along a busy street. Were the benefits due to the greenery itself or other elements of the parkland walk (more sunlight, fewer noxious fumes, other strollers who were themselves relaxed), though? The study that Reynolds describes, conducted by Dutch researcher Magdalena van den Berg and colleagues. is one of several that provide controlled exposure to natural phenomena in order to analyze the various possible effects nature has on us. This study controlled what research participants experienced by showing them pictures of “urban settings with ample greenery.” These settings were fairly ordinary–no soaring mountains or splendid waterfalls. There was a control condition in which participants viewed photos of urban scenes with little or no greenery. Here are examples of the greenery and non-greenery pictures:

Image from Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2015 Dec; 12(12)

Image from Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2015 Dec; 12(12)

After viewing either greenery or city scenes, participants took an arithmetic test designed to be stressful. The researchers state that “the difficulty of the arithmetic problems was automatically adapted to the user performance to be just beyond the individual’s capacity….” Just beyond our capacity–isn’t that typical of how life is? Oy vey! In addition, while solving problems participants were assaulted by a noxious noise and received false feedback indicating that they were performing more poorly than had previous test takers. After taking the test, participants were again shown one or the other set of photos.

The researchers included measures of both sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system activity. The sympathetic nervous system increases bodily activation, releasing adrenaline and increasing heart rate and blood pressure to produce the fight-or-flight response. The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for “rest and digest” functions, promoting the activity of the intestines and glands but slowing heart rate and reducing other components of bodily arousal. Pictures of natural scenes  more than pictures of urban scenes resulted in greater recovery via activating the parasympathetic nervous system.  There were no differences when it came to the sympathetic nervous system measure.

The study authors describe recovery from stress as a process of restoration, defined as a “return to unaffected affective, cognitive and psychophysiological functioning.” In this study, viewing mundane pictures of trees, grass, and shrubbery aided with restoration. Most of us have significant stress and need to be restored. van den Berg recommends we accomplish this by visiting nature or looking outside to see greenery. Reynolds adds that, if you can’t see the real thing, you can always “set your screen saver to show trees.”

Reading the study, I thought about how much nature I encounter on a regular basis. Quite a bit, it turns out. The house where I live has grass, shrubs, flowers, and a small wooded area. Do I actually pay attention to these things, though? I admit that when I walk out the door I’m often so focused on where I’m going that I ignore what’s around me. Spring flowers were blooming for days before I happened to notice them. I need to be more mindful of my surroundings, particularly the greenery that’s all about.

The last few weeks have actually been great in that respect. I’m putting in a small garden, and even I can’t ignore the trees and grass (and weeds!) around me when I’m out digging in the dirt. My sister and brother-in-law recently took my 90-year-old mom to a local nature center and I tagged along. An hour and a half walking in the woods and wetlands was a mega-dose of nature! I certainly felt restored afterwards and was in a particularly good mood. Maybe Reynolds is right; greenery doesn’t just aid in recovery from stress, it evokes happiness.

My mom and sister by the wetlands.

My mom and sister by the wetlands.

I recently downloaded the results of the Gallup-Healthways Global Well-Being Index. The Gallup organization interviewed more than 146,000 people in 145 countries in 2014. Participants were asked questions about the following domains of well-being.

  • Purpose: liking what you do each day and being motivated to achieve your goals
  • Social: having supportive relationships and love in your life
  • Financial: managing your economic life to reduce stress and increase security
  • Community: liking where you live, feeling safe and having pride in your community
  • Physical: having good health and enough energy to get things done daily

Regions of the world and individual countries were ranked as to the percentage of the survey participants that were thriving in each of these domains. In addition, regions and countries were ranked as to the percentage who were thriving in three or more areas.

Panama was the country that ranked first in overall well-being, followed by Costa Rico and Puerto Rico. Seven of the top 10 countries were Latin American; the only exceptions were three European nations–Switzerland, Denmark, and Austria. For the most part, the Latin American countries ranked high on the purpose, social, community, and physical dimensions, while the European countries were highest in the financial realm.

As a resident of the United States, I immediately noticed that the US is not in the top 10 in any domain of well-being. I found us down in 23rd place overall, with 30.5% of our residents thriving on three or more dimensions. We ranked moderately high in the purpose, social, and financial areas (ranks of 22, 24, and 22 respectively). Not surprisingly for a highly individualistic country, we were lowest in the area of community, though even there our rank of 41st puts us in the top third of nations surveyed.

Here are the top 10 countries in each realm of well-being:

Well-being index

The report’s authors suggest that the high ranks for Central and South American countries may be due in part to the “Latin American cultural predisposition that is associated with higher levels of positivity than other regions” Referring to results from a Gallup survey on daily positive experiences, the authors indicate that Latin Americans are particularly likely to report such experiences as smiling or laughing, enjoyment, and feeling that they were treated with respect each day.

Perhaps this tendency for positivity is responsible for the relatively high ranking of some countries for which press reports (I’m speaking of the US press here) tend to emphasize social, political, or economic turmoil much more than anything favorable–countries like Guatemala (ranked eighth), Mexico (tenth), Brazil (fifteenth) and El Salvador (eighteenth). A positivity bias certainly doesn’t provide total protection from social problems, but it seems to make life more pleasant and satisfying while dealing with such problems. Maybe more of us should try walking on the sunny side of the street.

I recently read an interview at the Atlantic website with Miya Tokumitzu, author of the book Do What You Love and Other Lies about Success and Happiness. In the original article out of which the book grew, Tokumitzu wrote:

Do what you love“There’s little doubt that “do what you love” (DWYL) is now the unofficial work mantra for our time. The problem is that it leads not to salvation, but to the devaluation of actual work, including the very work it pretends to elevate — and more importantly, the dehumanization of the vast majority of laborers.”

Most workers are dehumanized, in her view, because most work isn’t lovable–it’s dreary and mindless. Only those from privileged backgrounds have the luxury of choosing work they love rather than work they need to survive. And those eager to do work they are passionate about regardless of the circumstances are often mistreated by employers:

“Ironically, DWYL reinforces exploitation even within the so-called lovable professions where off-the-clock, underpaid, or unpaid labor is the new norm: reporters required to do the work of their laid-off photographers, publicists expected to Pin and Tweet on weekends, the 46 percent of the workforce expected to check their work email on sick days. Nothing makes exploitation go down easier than convincing workers that they are doing what they love.”

In the Atlantic interview Tokumitzu suggests that the impetus behind DWYL is the desire for happiness. She thinks that the WWII generation was still under the influence of the Protestant work ethic, which views work as a calling, but the Boomer generation discarded calling in favor of a culture of the self, characterized by “thinking about what makes me happy and how to improve myself.” She thinks that “the virtue strain of work and the self strain of work combined in the late 1970s and 1980s, and in a way pleasure-seeking became the virtue.”

When people seek work they love, are they just seeking pleasure, though? Tokumitzu thinks that DWYL is a form of self-indulgence, but I suspect it derives more from a desire for self-fulfillment. And self-fulfillment isn’t just a more acceptable way to speak about being self-centered. Charles Taylor suggests that there is a moral force behind the modern drive to self-fulfillment:

“What we need to explain is what is peculiar to our time. It’s not just that people sacrifice their love relationships, and the care of their children, to pursue their careers. Something like this has perhaps always existed. The point is that today many people feel called to do this, they feel they ought to do this, feel their lives would be somehow wasted or unfulfilled if they didn’t do it.” The Ethics of Authenticity, p. 17

For Taylor, what these workers are pursuing is not pleasure or happiness but authenticity. Taylor briefly traces the history of the moral ideal of authenticity from the Romantic era until recent times. A particularly important contribution was that of German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder, who suggested that each of us has an original way of being human. We each need to discover our own way of being human, ignoring societal pressures that would distract us from this quest. Aren’t those who want to do work they love seeking to be authentic in this way? Aren’t they trying to be true to their unique nature in the work they do?

Taylor points out that this struggle for authenticity won’t succeed if it is just an inner quest. Defining our authentic selves requires interaction with others; it is a dialogic process. Also, defining ourselves can only be done successfully in the context of some “horizon of significance,” that is, some perspective on what constitutes a meaningful or significant life, whether this horizon comes from God or nature or science or some other source.

If Taylor is right, then it may make good sense to do what we love. We just need to be in dialog with others when looking for what we love. We also need to think of the horizon of significance in which that love operates. I wrote a few years ago about work and calling, pointing out that the idea of calling has been secularized and arguing for a recovery of a more sacred sense of being called for a particular purpose. Perhaps such an infusion of overarching meaning into the workplace would mean that in doing what we love we would be true to ourselves in a way that doesn’t make personal happiness the sole criterion of what we should do.

I recently re-read a blog post I had saved from a few years ago about the American pursuit of happiness. Ruth Whippman, who is English but living in the U.S., notes that the achievement of happiness is particularly prized here:

“Happiness in America has become the overachiever’s ultimate trophy. A vicious trump card, it outranks professional achievement and social success, family, friendship and even love.”

Some try to flaunt their success via material accumulation or conspicuous consumption. However, it is quite a challenge to accumulate resources sufficient to induce envy in others. For those of modest means and shabby circumstances, there is an alternative way to compete in the successful-life sweepstakes. Simply asserting “I’m happy” is the lazy person’s strategy to quell doubts  that he or she has in fact achieved the good life.

Ruth Whippman

Ruth Whippman

Whippman notes there is a considerable difference in approaches to happiness in UK and the US:

“Cynicism is the British shtick. When happiness does come our way, it is entirely without effort, as unmeritocratic as a hereditary peerage. By contrast, in America, happiness is work. Intense, nail-biting work, slogged out in motivational seminars and therapy sessions, meditation retreats and airport bookstores. For the left there’s yoga, for the right, there’s Jesus. For no one is there respite.”

Wippman notes that “The people taking part in ‘happiness pursuits,’ as a rule, don’t seem very happy.” Indeed, despite the assiduous efforts of many Americans to become more happy, surveys haven’t shown increases in happiness over the past 40 years. What’s the problem? Why aren’t we doing better at bolstering our happiness stores?

One answer is suggested by the epigraph to Whippman’s post, a quote by Eric Hoffer: “The search for happiness is one of the chief sources of unhappiness.” Wippman suggests that “The American approach to happiness can spur a debilitating anxiety.” She thinks such anxiety may result from constantly wondering whether we are happy enough. Specifically, we’re likely to fret that our happiness doesn’t measure up to that of others. What if my hard work to be happy doesn’t make me as happy as someone who isn’t even trying?

I suspect that there are additional ways in which the pursuit of happiness increases anxiety. One of these is that we mistake the right to pursue happiness with an obligation to do so. This seems to be a bigger temptation for secular America than religious America. Among the secularists, life typically centers on furthering one’s interests and constructing the most balanced and complete life one can. What better reflects success at these self-enhancement projects than a sense of well-being or happiness? And, if happiness is absent, doesn’t that mean that one is not doing life right? In much of the world, unhappy people readily shrug their shoulders, point to circumstances that impede good cheer, and turn their attention to something else. Americans, in contrast, are expected to get to work clearing the path that will lead to felicity. We owe it to ourselves, the thinking goes.

So, the American troubled by unhappiness sets out to rectify things–but how to proceed? The American anxious to drive along the highway to happiness finds the signs along the route to be confusing, contradictory, or downright peculiar. Whippman notes the odd offerings posted on a message board in the California cafe where she was writing–Maum Meditation, TransDance, Chod Training and wolf colostrum. Will any of those really gain us life satisfaction?

Indeed, the road to happiness isn’t as direct as we might hope. When I drive from North Carolina to St. Louis, I won’t find signs for St. Louis right away. Instead, I have to head for other places–Sanford, then Winston-Salem, then Wytheville, and on and on, until, the journey mostly completed, I finally spot a sign for St. Louis. Similarly, I’m only likely to reach happiness if I forget about happiness and instead head for more proximate destinations first.

There are some good guides for where to head first on this journey, including Sonja Lyubomirsky’s The How of Happiness, which suggests such activities as forgiving, nurturing relationships, and expressing gratitude. Another favorite of mine is David K. Naugle’s Reordered Loves, Reordered Lives, on the ordering of the affections. Following the advice of these authors may make us happy eventually, but will probably first make us better people. We might even gain the maturity to regard any happiness that results not as something we earned but as a gift. Then perhaps we could stop striving to be more happy and enjoy whatever measure of happiness we receive.

 

The cover story in the December, 2014 Atlantic is an article by Jonathan Rauch entitled “The Real Roots of the Midlife Crisis.” His description of midlife, though, is not so much of a crisis but of a low point in the road, a dip that for some is barely perceptible but that for many sinks to dejection. I’d term it a midlife slough rather than a crisis.

Evidence has accumulated for some time that life satisfaction tends to decrease in midlife. Across many cultures and different research samples, happiness tends to decline during the early decades of adulthood, reaching a low point in the mid-forties. It then increases into late adulthood, until the seventies or so, when illness and disability are likely to put a damper on one’s sense of contentment. This pattern of age-related changes in life satisfaction is known as the “happiness U-curve.” Researchers measure happiness in various ways; the measurement that reveals this pattern is not a moment-by-moment report of one’s mood but responses to a question like the following:  “All things considered, how satisfied are you with your life as a whole these days?”

The Happiness U-Curve. Image from theatlantic.com

The Happiness U-Curve. Image from theatlantic.com

The U-curve turns up most often when variables such as marital status, income, and employment status are controlled for; consult the article for a discussion of the controversy over using such statistical methods. What interests me is the question of why happiness is likely to dip in the forties, then bounce back. Rauch mentions a factor that Daniel Levinson, one of the first researchers to describe the midlife crisis, considered crucial; increasing awareness of one’s mortality. Having reached the midpoint of our likely lifespan, we are more aware that we won’t live forever. This prompts a review of what we’ve done with our lives up to this point, a review that for most of us is disconcerting. Rauch describes his own life review:

“In my 40s, I found I was obsessively comparing my life with other people’s: scoring and judging myself, and counting up the ways in which I had fallen behind in a race. Where was my best seller? My literary masterpiece? Barack Obama was younger than I, and look where he was!”

When we compare our accomplishments to those of others, or with our earlier expectations, we easily see all the ways we fall short. There’s a beautiful passage in George Eliot’s Middlemarch that poignantly describes what has happened to us:

“For in the multitude of middle-aged men who go about their vocations in a daily course determined for them much in the same way as the tie of their cravats, there is always a good number who once meant to shape their own deeds and alter that world a little. The story of their coming to be shapen after the average and fit to be packed by the gross, is hardly ever told even in their own consciousness.”

Indeed, the disillusionment of middle age is of this sort; we hoped to be in control, to alter the world, but come to realize that we are more shaped than shapers.

This is the first diminishment: recognizing that neither we nor our accomplishments are exceptional. When we then think of those accomplishments in light of our eventual deaths and the centuries afterwards, during which all we did will be forgotten, our little stack of successes seems even punier. Eventually, all we can do is acknowledge that we will never be what we dreamed of being. Rauch notes that in his fifties, “the expectation of scaling ever greater heights has faded, and with it my sense of disappointment and failure.” Acceptance salves the pain of midlife disillusionment.

How do we attain acceptance, though? I hope to write more about this in a future blog post at Beyond Halfway.

Life ItselfAfter recently seeing Life Itself, the documentary about film critic Roger Ebert’s life, I became curious about Ebert’s memoir by the same name. An online search for information about the book unearthed the following quote:

“I believe that if, at the end, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn’t always know this, and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.”

Readers of this blog may be aware that I’m rather skeptical about claims that we should all pursue happiness—here’s one post where I argued against such a mandate. Our society has simplified the “pursuit of happiness” to the pursuit of pleasure, or, at the most, the pursuit of personal satisfaction, neglecting the complexities that the founding fathers had in mind when they identified happiness as something we should all be able to pursue. I doubt that the positive feeling states for which most happiness-seekers yearn constitute the good life. I’m also very much in agreement with the well-known Hawthorne quote: “Happiness is a butterfly, which when pursued, is always just beyond your grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.” Happiness eludes us when we chase after it, and is most likely to make an appearance when we aren’t giving it much thought.

Despite such reservations, I’m inclined to give Ebert a pass when he claims that seeking happiness for ourselves and others is a worthy goal. When young, he looked for happiness in booze and conviviality, learning all too well that flying high in the updrafts provided by alcohol and sociability inevitably results in crashing, Icarus-like, to earth. Finally, around age 50, Ebert found a richer happiness in his marriage to Chaz and his friendship with Gene Siskel, who had started out as an adversary. In these relationships he became more other-focused, with the result that his self was enriched more than it ever could have been by self-centeredness. There is a joy to be found where each person’s well-being intersects with that of others. Yes, Roger, we should all try to find that intersection, and, staying as long as we can in that place, contribute joy to the world.

This isn’t a review, but a reflection. The movies that intrigue me do so because they explore questions like how we should live our lives, what makes for good (and bad) relationships, and how we come to be made whole or broken, saved or lost. I write about those movies to engage these and similar questions.

Chef-Movie

I recently saw the movie “Chef”—written, directed by, produced by, and starring Jon Favreau, now in theaters. Favreau plays Chef Carl Casper, who ten years ago was a hot young gastronomic talent but has settled in as the featured attraction at an upscale Los Angeles restaurant. He’s been repeating the same tried and true recipes for years, encouraged to do so by Riva, the restaurant owner, who doesn’t want customers ruffled by innovative fare. Carl creates a new menu he intends to use in order to impress influential food critic Ramsey MIchel (Oliver Plait) who was one of his early boosters. Riva pressures him to stay with his “greatest hits” during Ramsey’s visit, and Carl complies. Eating this unoriginal fare, Ramsey rightly concludes that Carl is stuck in a rut and writes a scathing review.

Stung, Carl is mortified to learn from his 10-year-old son Percy (Emjay Anthony) that the negative review has been seen by thousands on Twitter. Carl is divorced from Percy’s mom, and has put Percy on the back burner, so to speak, so he could focus on his cooking. Asked for help and hoping for a closer relationship with his dad, Percy agrees to set up a Twitter account for Carl, who wants to read responses the review. Further disturbed by people’s derision of him, Carl impulsively picks an online fight with Ramsey. This eventually results in a blow-up with Riva, then a rant that is recorded by restaurant patrons and becomes a viral video. Humiliated, broke, and out of a job, Carl is adrift. He says, “I don’t know what to do. I’ve never not known what to do.”

As Carl sees it, he was happy with his life until these complications arose. The women around him—his ex-wife Inez (Sofia Vergara) and the restaurant’s hostess Molly (Scarlett Johansson)—tell him otherwise, that he hasn’t been happy for some time. Midlife often brings about this sort of situation. We’ve constructed a life that seems successful. We tell ourselves we are happy with it, even while others who know us well think otherwise. Then something happens, and we discover we aren’t happy after all. The movie suggests, I think accurately, that we can’t be trusted to honestly answer inquiries about our own happiness. We have too much at stake. Those who observe us over time can more reliably gauge our satisfaction with life.

At a loss, Carl considers a suggestion from Inez that he take over a run-down food truck owned by Marvin (Robert Downey, Jr.), another ex-husband. Aided by Percy and his former line chef Martin (John Leguizamo), Carl sets up his kitchen in the truck. The three of them then take a joyful cross-country jaunt, selling Cuban sandwiches to eager hordes called forth, pied-piper-like, by Percy’s tweets.

Carl succeeds, in other words, when he gets away from Riva, the uptight boss, and Ramsey, the acerbic critic. We all have people like this in our lives, but they aren’t easy to get away from, because they are found not only around us, but inside us.

As with Carl, we get cautious after a while. We’ve figured out something that seems to work—why not just stick with it? Riva discourages Carl from innovating by reminding him of past failures. Remember when you put organ meat on the menu? Nobody ordered it. Don’t risk that sort of mistake again. Carl probably complies because his inner dialogue offers the same cautions. So he experiments with new dishes in a protected environment–his own kitchen–but serves the same old fare to the customers. Whatever our area of endeavor, we are tempted to keep our new ideas to ourselves but serve up to others what is safe—and bland.

But we aren’t happy, because the other side, the critic who expects us to do more, also resides within us. Carl’s fury at Ramsey probably has the intensity it does because at some level he recognizes the truth of Ramsey’s critique. He eventually admits this, saying “I could have done better. I should have cooked the s**t I was going to cook.” All the while that we are churning out the same insipid stuff, we, too, realize that we are cowards for shunning the allure and danger of invention.

In taking over the food truck, Carl sides unequivocally with invention. It works out beautifully—the road trip at the end of the movie is pretty much all great food, upbeat music, and eager customers. In real life, we don’t always succeed when we take risks, and, even if the risk pays off, there is often a cost. Do we continue on at that point or turn back to the cramped confines of the safe harbor we left? In my life, I’ve mostly made the more risky choice, but at the time it was never an easy decision.

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