I recently read White Noise Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel. It covers a year in the life of Jack Gladney, a small-town history professor who has made his mark by pioneering the field of Hitler Studies. Jack, who serves as the narrator, lives with his fifth wife, Babette, and four children. The book critiques many aspects of modern life–academic pretentiousness, blended families, parental folly, American consumerism, fear of death, and environmental catastrophe, to name a few. It is not about God or religion, at least not in any obvious way. No one prays for divine help or guidance, no one explains events as having supernatural origins, and no churches or religious rituals are mentioned. There are nuns at the hospital where Jack seeks treatment for himself and someone he’s shot near the end of the book, but these are anything but your conventional Catholics. Jack asks Sister Hermann Marie, who has just dressed his wound, about heaven, but she responds,

“Do you think we are stupid?”

Taken aback, Jack says that nuns must surely believe in heaven, angels, and saints. No to all of this, the sister says. Jack points to a picture on the wall of Kennedy and the Pope in heaven, asking why do they have such a picture on the wall, then? It’s for others, she explains, elaborating:

“As belief shrinks from the world, people find it more necessary than ever that someone believe. Wild-eyed men in caves. Nuns in black. Monks who do not speak. We are left to believe. Fools, children. Those who have abandoned belief must still believe in us. They are sure that they are right not to believe but they know belief must not fade completely. Hell is when no one believes. There must always be believers. Fools idiots, those who hear voices, those who speak in tongues. We are your lunatics. We surrender our lives to make your nonbelief possible.” (Chapter 39)

Only fools believe, the sister is saying, and we’re not fools, but we pretend to believe to make unbelief comfortable for others. It seems that she believes in a version of the Secularization Thesis, the view that religious beliefs will fade and religious institutions lose their power as modernism progresses. As this podcast explains, secularization thesis is not nearly as widely accepted as in the ’80s, when White Noise was written. Maybe the sister should have stuck with religious belief rather than exchanging it for belief in sociological theory!

In actuality, everyone believes in something that to them gives meaning to life. In this sense, Sister Hermann Marie is right: if no one believed, it would be hell. Jack himself is not an unbeliever. He just doesn’t believe in anything as sublime or majestic as God. In this sense, he exemplifies what G.K. Chesterton said about belief:

“When men choose not to believe in God, they do not thereafter believe in nothing, they then become capable of believing in anything.”

Jack and his family worship at the altar of consumerism. He experiences meaning and  a sense of transcendence when he goes to the mall or the grocery store. For example, during a trip to the mall with his family, he encounters a colleague who says something derogatory about him. Jack tells us that this potentially deflating comment “put me in the mood to shop.” Here’s what happens:

“My family glorified in the event. I was one of them, shopping, at last. They gave me advice, badgered clerks on my behalf. I kept seeing myself unexpectedly in some reflecting surface. We moved from store to store, rejecting not only items in certain departments, not only entire departments but whole stores, mammoth corporations that did not strike our fancy for one reason or another. There was always another store, three floors, eight floors, basement full of cheese graters and paring knives. I shopped with reckless abandon. I shopped for immediate needs and distant contingencies. I shopped for its own sake, looking and touching, inspecting merchandise. I had no intention of buying, then buying it. I sent clerks into their fabric books and pattern books to search for elusive designs. I began to grow in value and self-regard. I filled myself out, found new aspects of myself, located a person I’d forgotten existed. Brightness settled around me.” (Chapter 17)

What better way to overcome self-doubt than blow a few hundred dollars! Philosopher James K.A. Smith describes the mall as a place that has rituals similar to those practiced by religious believers. According to him, “The mall is a religious site.” He points out how the various aspects of the shopping experience fits this characterization, explaining,

“This temple–like countless others now emerging around the world–offers a rich, embodied visual mode of evangelism that attracts us. This is a gospel whose power is beauty, which speaks to our deepest desires. It compels us to come, not through dire moralisms, but rather with a winsome invitation to share in this envisioned good life.” You Are What You Love, p. 43

The mall has been supplanted in part by online shopping, but the religion is the same–consumerism–and makes the same promise–to give meaning and identity through what we purchase and possess. No, sister Hermann Marie, it isn’t just wild-eyed men, nuns, and monks who believe. Religious adherents are just practicing a faith that, more than consumerism, nationalism, militarism, capitalism, socialism, and all the other -isms that seek our devotion, is likely to actually deliver on promises of meaning, identity, transcendence, and purpose.

DeLillo has a fine sense of the absurdities of American beliefs and behaviors. I definitely recommend this as a fun and enlightening read.

In a previous post, I wrote about one theme David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, namely the desire many characters have to escape themselves. Social realities in the U.S. intensify this desire. DFW seems particularly interested in exploring aspects of American culture that interfere with living a healthy and authentic life. In the book, the most detailed critique of American culture is offered by a character from a rather different culture, albeit still North American. Rémy Marathe is from Quebec; he is an agent  (he’s actually a quadruple agent, when you sort out who he is betraying and pretending to betray) of the Wheelchair Assassins, a violent separatist group that is seeking to acquire the lethal “entertainment” named Infinite Jest V to use as a terrorist weapon. He complains to his contact Hugh Steeply, agent for the North American government’s Office of Unspecified Services, about the failure of Americans to live for any purpose larger than themselves:

“You U.S.A.’s do not seem to believe you may each choose what to die for. Love of a woman, the sexual, it bends back in on the self, makes you narrow, maybe crazy. Chose with care. Love of your nation, your country and people, it enlarges the heart. Something bigger that the self.” (p. 107)

He thinks that Americans “choose nothing over themselves to love, each one.” (p. 318) As a result, they are particularly susceptible to the lure of the lethal entertainment. They will “die for this chance to be fed to the death of pleasure with spoons, in their warm homes, alone, unmoving.” Exclusive self-love prepares us for self-indulgence, nothing more. The effect of the lethal entertainment on its viewers seems just a more intensified version of what the American entertainment industry does to all of us every day. When DFW wrote IJ, we were entertained mainly through television, VCR tapes, CDs, and DVDs. Now packaged entertainment also infects our laptops and cell phones, enticing us everywhere we look. It deadens us, it tempts us to give our lives to it, one cat video at a time.

And it isolates us. Though the characters in IJ are often physically present with each other, they mostly fail to forge meaningful connections. The pioneering developmental psychologist Jean Piaget coined the term “collective monologue” to describe the way in which young children talk to each other: though they take turns talking, each is carrying on an independent stream of speech, not listening to or responding to what the other is saying. Many of the conversations in IJ come close to being collective monologues–Hal and Orin, for example, or the residents of Ennet House with each other. Hal asks his Little Buddies (the younger students at E.T.A. that he mentors) “Even if we all live and eat and shower and play together, how can we keep from being 136 deeply alone people all jammed together?” (p. 112) The question can be asked more broadly: how can we keep our way of living from isolating us, even if we are sitting in the same restaurants or offices or living rooms with others? Hal thinks connection is possible because the students are united by common hardship, but this hypothesis isn’t borne out in the rest of the book.

Isolation is an issue at Ennet House as well. One of the things that residents are said to learn early in their stay is “That loneliness is not a function of solitude.” As with the E.T.A. students, they aren’t alone very much–they room together, go to meetings together, and spend almost all their time in each other’s company. There is little solitude, but a lot of loneliness.

Marathe and Steeply. Image from http://www.brickjest.com.

Marathe tells Steeply, “You are what you love.” Unlike what we desire, what we’re tempted by, or what intrudes into our lives, we have a choice about what we love. Marathe later tells Kate Gompart, a depressed Ennet House resident, what (or whom) he chose to love. As a young double amputee who belonged to a suppressed minority, he felt empty. Everything changed one day when he saw a woman about to be hit by a truck. He quickly rolled down the hill he was on, arriving just in time to sweep her out of the way.

“It was this frozen with the terror woman, she saved my life. For this saved my life. This moment broke my moribund chains, Katherine. In one instant and without thought I was allowed to choose something as more important than my thinking of my life. Her, she allowed this will without thinking. She with one blow broke the chains of the cage of pain at my half a body and nation.” p. 778

His betrayal of the Quebecois cause was for the sake of getting medical treatment for Gertraude, the woman he rescued who subsequently became his wife. He of course had told Steeply earlier that a nation was a sufficient cause to give oneself to, but a woman wasn’t. Thus he wasn’t living according to the ideals he espoused. Despite his own inconsistency, Marathe’s critique of the U.S. raises interesting questions that the rest of IJ explores in depth. Though Marathe’s views weren’t identical with those of DFW, I suspect that Wallace used Marathe to express concerns about American culture that he thought had some validity.

Most of us have felt at times that entertainment or social media is playing too big a role in our lives. Most of us have been halfhearted at best in our efforts to keep these forces in their proper place, though. St. Augustine talked about our disordered loves; for many of us, our love for our entertainments is disordered. Thus, it will never fully satisfy. Choose what you love, says Marathe. Then follow through and give your time only to that which is worthy of your love.

“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 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.

A recent New Yorker article titled “How Facebook Makes Us Unhappy” actually describes research findings indicative of greater unhappiness AND greater happiness among Facebook users, depending on what they did on the site.  Several studies were summarized, including a recent study by a team of researchers led by Ethan Kross of the University of Michigan.  Those researchers sent text messages to research participants five times a day for two weeks, asking about Facebook use and emotional status.  The more the Facebook use at the time of one text, the worse these participants felt at the time of the next text.  Greater Facebook use was associated with decreased well-being over the course of the two-week study.  Another study found that looking at Facebook posts made by others was associated with increased envy, a phenomenon thought to be the result of social comparison. How can social comparison have this effect? Within the last 24 hours, friends on my Facebook feed have posted pictures from Hawaii, a college football game, a St. Louis Cardinals baseball game, and a street festival.  Meanwhile, I’m sitting in my bedroom writing this post.  Am I envious?  No, actually, since I’m still getting over jet lag from a great trip to Washington and don’t want to be anywhere with more sizzle than where I am right now, but you get the idea.

Not all studies find that social media use puts us in the doldrums.  Some studies have found such use to be associated with increased happiness, social trust, and engagement.  Even the thought of sharing something via social media increases activity in the pleasure centers of the brain.  Why have the findings about social media use and emotional states been so inconsistent?

One possible way of accounting for the different results comes from a 2010 study by Moira Burke of Carnegie Mellon University and colleagues.  Among those who actively interacted on Facebook by posting themselves, commenting on others’ posts, or even liking those posts, loneliness was decreased and feelings of bonding were increased, particularly bonding with those who live in close proximity.  On the other hand, passively consuming content posted by others was associated with more loneliness and decreased bonding.  Thus, perhaps it is not the amount of Facebook use that matters, but whether the user is participating actively or only passively.

So, the following rules for increasing happiness (or at least minimizing misery) among those of us who use Facebook seem consistent with the research to date:

  1. Use sparingly.
  2. Have as friends those to whom you aren’t particularly likely to compare yourself (I manage to follow this rule, since I use Facebook largely to keep up with former students, my kids, and my nephews and nieces, all of whom are at very different stages of life than I am).
  3. Don’t just passively scan your feed.  Comment, like, and post things yourself.

The last rule may make you happier, but, to the extent you are creating more content for your friends to passively scan, it might have an adverse effect on them.  Ah, the ethical dilemmas of Facebook use!

I’ll conclude this post by sharing some great pictures from my trip to Washington.  Research indicates it will give me great pleasure to do so.  Beware, though: looking at them without liking or commenting on this post may be hazardous to your emotional well-being!

Lighthouse Park, Vancouver

Lighthouse Park, Vancouver

Elliot Ritzema by the Swinomish Channel, La Conner, Washington

Elliot Ritzema by the Swinomish Channel, La Conner, Washington

Mary Ritzema at the Greek Festival, Bellingham, Washington

Mary Ritzema at the Greek Festival, Bellingham, Washington

Me at Picture Lake in the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest

Me at Picture Lake in the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest

The headline of a recent MSN Money article was “7 Smart Ways to Buy Happiness.”  It’s odd to talk about happiness as something that can be bought; it makes it seem tangible like a car or a computer.   MP Dunleavey, the article’s author and an MSN Money Contributing Editor, isn’t talking about frequenting a happiness vendor, though, but about spending money to foster (mostly intangible) things that are likely to result in increased life satisfaction.   Much of what Dunleavey writes here is influenced by research findings from psychology and economics.  Dunleavey has written a book titled Money Can Buy Happiness, which seems to be a more extensive consideration of the topics considered in the article. 

Happiness for sale?

Happiness for sale?

Here’s Dunleavey’s list of the seven ways of spending money to increase happiness, with a brief explanation for each item:

  • Relationships–since those who have strong relationships tend to be happier, Dunleavey suggests you spend money on things that will connect you to others, such as buying a plane ticket to go visit a close friend.
  • Time–make extra time for yourself by paying others to do unappealing tasks or negotiating extra time off at work.
  • Health–buy better but pricier food, a gym membership, and the like.
  • Learning–buy books, DVDs, and experiences that will teach you something; in a broader sense, invest in activities that will create a challenge and lead to a sense of flow.
  • Debt Relief–rid yourself of one burden by paying down your bills. 
  • Givaways–donate money or time to enhance the welfare of others, since doing so makes you happier as well.
  • Security–start saving money for retirement, providing you with a greater sense of control over your life.

Though I think it’s fine to do all the things on the list, I find it rather peculiar that the reason given for doing all of them is to increase personal happiness.  Shouldn’t we get out of debt and save for the future because it’s fiscally responsible and will benefit us in the long term, not because we’ll feel better if we do so?  Aren’t strong relationships valuable for their own sake, not just because they increase our life satisfaction?  And what about giving to others just to make oneself feel good?  There is a debate between social psychologists who believe that all help given to others is meant to benefit the self and social psychologists who think that sometimes helping is solely intended to benefit the recipient. Even for someone taking the former view, though, Dunleavey seems particularly interested in what can be gained by the helper.  She writes:

Studies show that altruism not only tickles the feel-good centers in the brain, but it also creates a sense of social bonding and mutual support that enhances your personal well-being.

Can’t we help others because we genuinely care about their welfare, not because generosity will “tickle” our “feel-good centers?”  I hope that, during those too-infrequent times when I offer assistance to someone else, I do it at least in part out of concern, not hedonic calculation.