What does it mean to be happy and what can the positive psychology movement teach us about happiness? These were two questions I had when I picked up Paul Martin’s “Making Happy People” (2005) in the library. It has a bright yellow cover with a smiley face on it and I was not expecting much to be honest. But so far I’ve reached page 56 and I’ve been quite pleasantly surprised. I still have some misgivings about the whole ‘science of happiness’ but we’ll get to that later.
Martin tells a nice story by way of introduction:
During a visit to France many years ago, the former British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan asked Madame de Gaulle, wife of the French president, what she was most looking forward to when her hard-working husband retired. To Macmillan’s surprise and embarrassment, Madame de Gaulle replied, “A penis.” Only later did it dawn on him that what she had actually said was ‘Happiness’.
I like this story, partly because of the little frisson of embarrassment which it creates in our minds. For me, it also poses the question of how important pleasure is to happiness. Are the positive psychology people saying that we should all just have more sex and then we would be happier? No, thankfully not. Martin Seligman, one of the founders of positive psychology, defines a happy life in terms of three dimensions: pleasure, engagement and meaning. It’s worth listening to his TED talk (from Feb 2004) in which he differentiates between the pleasant life, the life of engagement and a life of meaning. Ideally we should have all three but the second two are more important than the first.
Martin traces the word ‘happy’ back to the Old Norse word happ, which means luck or good fortune. I started wondering about the origin of the French word content as in “Je suis tres content” and the differences between the French and English understandings of happiness. ‘Content’ in English has two meanings: ‘that which is contained’ and ‘quietly happy’. This is rather neat since much of the unhappiness that I come across in my work has to do with feelings not being adequately contained. Anxiety that overwhelms someone and leaves them panicky for example, or other negative emotions which come from not being adequately held in a relationship.
Not surprisingly, Martin says that the “single biggest influence on happiness is … our relationships with other people”. And he also has a rather handy definition of happiness which has three main components: pleasure, the absence of displeasure and satisfaction. Happiness here is about the heart and and the head and it can be formulated like this:
Happiness = Pleasure – displeasure + satisfaction (and meaning)
According to this formula, what we need to be happy is the presence of pleasure, the absence of displeasure and then satisfaction, which is “judging, on reflection, that you are satisfied with your life in general and with at least some specific aspects of your life (for example, your personal relationships, career or physical abilities)”. The fourth aspect which is added on in brackets is that of meaning and it is this aspect which Seligman makes more of in his talk.
So far so good. But then Martin gets a little repetitive and boring. He bangs on about how happy people are healthier and more successful than unhappy people, implying (but not implicitly saying) that if the unhappy people could just learn to be happier then their whole lives would be so much better. This starts to look like blaming the victim and ignores the broader context. To be fair to him, the rest of the book seems to focus a lot on relationships so I should hold back on the criticism.
However, having recently read Jonah Lehrer’s piece on the usefulness of depression, I had to take exception to this paragraph:
Another dubious piece of folklore asserts that you have to be unhappy to be creative. Happiness encourages intellectual mediocrity, it is claimed, and creative geniuses are usually tortured souls. This romantic belief runs counter to the evidence, which I outlined earlier, that happiness boosts creativity; it is hard to find credible support for the ‘tortured genius’ hypothesis, even in the form of historical anecdotes. (p.38)
What a lazy argument! It’s so easy to dismiss views that don’t agree with your own when you can describe them as ‘dubious … folklore”, romantic beliefs and anecdotes. But then he balances it out by saying that there are some uses of displeasure and negative emotions after all. Lehrer referred to the close attention to detail which a more melancholic frame of mind can induce. Martin points out that the negative emotions are actually more important than the positive ones, certainly from a survival point of view. He says that there is also a greater repertoire of negative emotions than positive ones and these require specific attention. However, his focus is more on how to bring about happiness, which he says is quite straightforward and less complicated than unhappiness. I was reminded here of Tolstoy’s comment that happy families are all alike whereas unhappy families are all unhappy in their own way.
Incidentally, he comes up with an optimal positive / negative ratio of 62:38 but I’m not sure if those are thoughts or feelings (or both) that are represented there. (I remember from one of Dorothy’s posts that Barbara Fredrickson has a similar ratio of 3:1 which is apparently the tipping point in bringing about positive change.)
I’ll be back with some more thoughts when I’ve finished. Already I can feel a slight shift, however, in that this approach to happiness holds thoughts and feelings in equal balance. We are often a lot happier than we realise and being engaged and finding meaning in our daily lives is a trusty (and now scientifically proven) way to lasting satisfaction.