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Psychology has traditionally investigated happiness along three different lines: (i) the presence of joy, or positive feelings; (ii) the absence of misery, or unpleasant feelings; and (iii) a sense of satisfaction that one's life has gone well. O'Connor adds "meaning" as a fourth line of investigation into happiness, which he characterizes as "something to do with self-expression, with making a contribution, with creating something that will last" (14). To be truly happy, a person should have an overall balance of all four. Curiously, though, despite incredible wealth and comfort by historical standards and the fact that we have spent an incredible amount of time and money -- both in therapy and on pharmaceuticals -- we in the Western World are not getting happier. Indeed, the evidence seems to point the other way: we are feeling less joy, more misery, are dissatisfied, and struggle with finding any meaning in our lives.
One thing this should tell us, O'Connor argues, is that happiness will not be found simply by accumulating more wealth and things it can buy. Indeed, there has been a great deal of evidence that once a certain material threshold is passed -- where we have sufficient food, a secure and safe place to live, and the various necessities to live our lives -- increases don't correlate positively in a dramatic way with increased happiness. In fact, because of the added stress that comes into our lives as we chase the American Dream of increased prosperity, additional wealth can make us unhappier.
Part 1 of Happy at Last is devoted to the sources of our unhappiness. First, O'Connor explains in some detail the nature of our contemporary 'insane' society: increased working hours, two income families, the loss of job security, long commutes, lack of a sense of community, rampant consumerism, increased personal debt load, and so on (27-53). In addition to these external sources of discontent, our lives can be made unhappy by internal ones as well. Unfortunately, our brains are built, O'Connor argues, for survival and not for happiness. And, in terms of our evolutionary history, our survival has depended upon us feeling insecure and being competitive rather than our being happy. To make matters worse, we typically are tremendously bad at predicting what will make, and remembering what has made us happy (54-67). Finally, our minds, described as "the thoughts and feelings produced by your brain," (68) also work against us becoming happy. Our minds have developed a whole host of defense mechanisms -- including denial, dissociation, projection, rationalizing, and procrastination -- to deal with our confusing and stressful world, but they have many unintended negative consequences. So, when we are in denial about aspects of our lives, we will continue, e.g., to drink too much, spend money we don't have, and fail to exercise because we don't properly assess our actual situation (68-98).
I enjoyed this part of O'Connor's book. While one could quibble over some interpretive issues and scientific detail, in the context of a mass market book intended for a wide audience, O'Connor does a masterful job explaining complex ideas in layman's terms that help us understand how our world and we ourselves contribute to our unhappiness.
Part 2 of Happy at Last is devoted to how we can overcome these problems and become happier. What O'Connor calls "mindfulness" constitutes a large part of this process. It is "using your mind in a new way, consciously and deliberately. It's turning the observational powers of the mind on itself, looking for compassion and curiosity at what's going on inside the head, and then turning the same skills on the world. It means becoming more observant and deliberate; more thoughtful about reacting to emotions and impulses; more curious, more ready to look beneath the surface; not so hasty about jumping to conclusions; kinder, more patient, more tolerant of ourselves and others.... [It can be described as] a noncategorical, creative thinking: escaping from our paradigms into a heightened state of involvement" (106). As O'Connor goes on to explain, mindfulness has much in common with certain types of Buddhism and the project of ridding ourselves of (false) desires: by employing "mindful meditation" (106-118) and other techniques he discusses, we can actually 'rewire our brains.' Here, O'Connor draws upon research in brain neuroplasticity (e.g., 164-166) and suggests that training and forming new habits can build new neural pathways. To give a simple example, when I habitually loose my temper while stuck in traffic, I create a pathway that makes losing my temper the next time I'm stuck in traffic more likely. Hence, we must practice something new -- taking a few deep breathes and thinking of something else, for example -- and over time we make it more likely that we will be calm in traffic jams in the future. Although O'Connor doesn't do so, one could trace, as many within the Positive Psychology Movement have, this way of thinking back to Aristotle's theory about virtue being habituated behavior acquired through long practice in choosing what he called the mean in action. Living such a virtuous life would, Aristotle argued, leads to eudaimonia, which often gets translated as happiness. This translation can be misleading, however, because eudaimonia isn't primarily about feelings like joy and misery per se; rather, it's about how we deal with feelings like anger, fear, etc., and eventually coming to feel satisfaction with our lives from achieving our telos or purpose.
O'Connor rejects the idea of eudaimonia (as the full story of happiness at least) exactly because it pays too little attention, in his mind, to our feelings of joy and misery (see 246-248). By taking this stance, however, O'Connor has difficulty explaining why we often choose to engage in activities -- like writing -- that are full of negative feelings (but see 254-256 for his attempt). This isn't to say that Aristotle's theory, and the theories of those who follow him, are unproblematic. Aristotle's theory is dependent on accepting a teleological conception of the universe -- that we and everything else in the universe has a purpose -- and this idea is antithetical to contemporary mechanistic science. But it offers an explanation for why we do frustrating things like write or do complex mathematical equations. Namely, as rational animals, it is our purpose to engage in our rational faculties. Doing so will make us happy in the eudaimonistic sense of feeling fulfilled even when it can fill us with misery and lack of joy while we are trying to write.
I enjoyed Part 1 of Happy at Last far more than Part 2. Oddly, and no doubt unfortunately, I've always found discussions about the cause of unhappiness far more interesting and intellectually intriguing than proposed solutions for it, which often seem incredibly banal. Pretending to be an extrovert, thinking of three things for which you're grateful before going to bed, and not working too hard are three that O'Connor mentions (among many, many others). Curiously, though, O'Connor never mentions political or social action. This is curious because, according to him, much of our current unhappiness is the result of conditions like rampant consumerism, loss of job security, and longer working hours that could be changed through political and social action. This is perhaps the nature of the therapeutic beast -- to focus on how individuals can and should change -- but it's worth remembering that sometimes we are unhappy because of external conditions that can be changed only through collective action.
© 2010 Robert Scott Stewart
Robert Scott Stewart, Ph.D., Professor of Philosophy, Chair of Philosophy and Religious Studies, Cape Breton University, Sydney, NS, Canada