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Happiness, Part 2: In which reality is twisted

April 6, 2010

In the first part of this series, I touched on what happiness is generally taken to mean in Western societies, and some factors considered to contribute to a sense of happiness and contentment. I also mentioned that sometimes cognitive dissonance based in faulty assumptions (Prejudice, Stereotyping, and Discrimination, besides the more benign) can lead other people to discount the happiness of whole categories of other people. That dismissal and invalidation can lead to the people in question actually being less happy.

Note: what I am talking about in this post does not only apply to those of us with atypical neurological setups or other disabilities, but to people from sufficiently different cultures, and other marginalized people as well.

How can this work? There are a number of interconnected ways.

The first looks very individual in focus: the other person may not be able to fully recognize the way you express happiness, not to mention other emotions. They may have trouble getting around their preconceptions to see you. They may assume that there is only one way to express emotions (universalism), and that they know how that necessarily looks. Similarly, they may assume that everyone will respond to the same events and circumstances with the same emotions, and have trouble recognizing different responses for what they are. Looking through their own particular lens of preconceptions, they may interpret what they see in a very negative light.

Autistics and people with other sensory and/or neurological differences may show their emotions in ways members of the dominant culture don’t expect.

Besides the differences in nonverbal communication, people may use (and interpret) facial expressions differently depending on culture: Facial Expressions Show Language Barriers, Too. Note the bias expressed by one researcher: ‘”Westerners look at the eyes and the mouth in equal measure, whereas Easterners favor the eyes and neglect the mouth…”‘ Similar bias is repeated in coverage of a more recent study: “Asians mostly focused on the eyes and not enough on the mouth, which meant some emotions were wrongly identified, Blais contends.” In neither study, from universities in the UK and Canada, is it clear without tracking down the full text, from which culture(s) the photo models were chosen to represent these emotions; in the second study, only “112 Caucasian and Asian faces” are specified, with no reference to the models’ cultures of origin.

What constitutes a “good” photographic example of a particular emotion? Could Westerners be overly fixated/dependent on the mouth? And so on.

Sometimes the bias is based on race, if still implicit. From Racial Bias Kicks in Quickly:

Despite that egalitarian attitude, according to new Northwestern University research, subconscious — or implicit — bias can emerge subtly but quickly from its hiding places in the psyche and cause even well-meaning whites to look at identical facial expressions of African Americans and European Americans and see greater hostility in the African American faces.

Or take whites’ perceptions of racially ambiguous faces that combine both African American and European American features. If the expression on the racially ambiguous face is hostile, European Americans are more likely to identify it as African American…

A self-fulfilling prophecy may be among the most troubling consequences.

“If stereotypes color something as basic as face perception, then the downstream consequences may be considerable,” said Bodenhausen. “Perceived hostility will at best promote avoidance — or worse, may foster reciprocation.”

I would be amazed if similar biases did not kick in, dealing with other groups of people deemed sufficiently different–even before any bias closer to the surface comes into play.

For some demonstrations of just how impossible it is to escape these implicit attitudes, I’d highly recommend trying some of the demo tests at Harvard’s Project Implicit, which include a wide variety of associations, including race and disability. Some of the associations I’ve picked up just from living in this society amazed and appalled me, to the point that at first I hoped I was just having trouble with the testing format. The Strange Brain Tricks, with sudden bizarre problems seeing and clicking on the choices I consciously wanted as soon as the associations flipped around on certain tests, came straight from implicit attitudes. It was a really effective (and more than a little scary) demonstration.

What could possibly show happiness better than a big old smile? One interesting quote from this paper (emphasis mine):

Indeed, the idea of baring one’s teeth in “defense” is not a new one. Interestingly, it seems that in all other cultures, baring one’s teeth is a sign of aggression. The idea that showing your teeth is a friendly gesture is almost unique to Western culture… “…In a lot of human smiling, it is something you do in public, but it does not reflect true ‘friendly’ feelings–think of politicians smiling for photographers.”[10]

Even more interpretations are possible when taking into account the number of variations on the smile, as McAndrew mentioned with the “politician” smile. The smirk and the grin, for example, connote different emotions. While the grin is usually a broad smile, displaying a high level of happiness, the smirk can be undercut with hints of sarcasm or meanness.

Cross-cultural norms often contribute to the ambiguity of smiles. In every culture, smiles have different meanings, and are used in different contexts.

When I am grinning with my teeth showing, it’s rarely to express any kind of pleasure. That kind of smile does come out in some of the situations I’m going to describe next. The ones so far have been marginal, but these definitely cross the Empathy Line and head straight for poor theory of mind.

One favorite here is the assumption of universalism extended to what makes people happy in the first place, not just how they show it. There is a very narrow range of “good” or “decent” lives to lead, and you can’t be happy without yours meeting their criteria. A well-paid job, marriage, kids, a particular religion, whatever. You can’t possibly be happy–maybe not even a worthwhile human being–if you live in any other way. The idea of being disabled, racially/ethnically different, queer, trans, etc. is scary.

Consumerism plays in here, to some extent. Our society places a lot of emphasis on seeking satisfaction and happiness through consumer choice, not to mention on what messages you send other people through the goods you have purchased. (Including, but hardly limited to, Lifestyle Activists.) If you are not displaying the expected outward signs, for whatever reason, how can you be happy? I am not explaining this well, but I have seen this in action in both gender performance (“care about your appearance”) and neurodiversity (same thing, little different details) contexts. Shallow people are shallow, as most of us can probably remember from junior high. If you send sufficiently unexpected signals as an adult, some of them can still get nasty.

At least one step up from implicit bias getting in the way, is when someone is sufficiently put off by their perceptions of another person’s facial expression(s) and/or body language that they choose to turn into the Face Police. I mentioned some experiences with this in Tics, and alphabet soup.

One too-common scenario here, which I’ve run into both as an autistic person and a female human being, Amanda Hess describes well in Don’t Fucking Tell Me To Smile, Baby.

You may have excellent reasons not to be smiling, but the other person is too busy objectifying you for that to matter. They don’t care what you might be feeling. In their mental version of who you are, you may have different emotions entirely–or none–as it suits them. The display is what matters.

The commenter Saurs gives a pretty good analysis of when this is based on gender, in the followup, Sexist Comments of the Week: “Smile, Baby” Edition. But, it does not have to be about gender. It is entitled behavior, based in power differentials.

From Male-Female Communication, East-West Final Paper: A Study on Smiling (not the best paper ever, but with some useful stuff):

The accusations come from the idea that females are often assigned the social role of smiling. However, “the behavior of smiling is often ambiguous and open to such interpretations as submission, ingratiation, or holding of a weak position in the power/status hierarchy.”

This happens on the grounds of disability, race, class, etc. (Remember the “more hostile” perceptions?) In this set of contexts, it’s hard not to see the orders to smile as demands that you show deference or submission at another person’s say-so. It can also be a demand that you pretend to be happy with less-than-ideal conditions; if you have the gall not to be happy, the least you can do is act like you enjoy whatever treatment they’re handing out.

Another related scenario is when someone–in a fit of blatant invalidation and gaslighting–feels entitled to tell you: “No, you’re not feeling X, you are obviously feeling Y and Z–and lying about it, or too stupid/crazy/low on insight/etc. to know what you are really feeling. Nobody feels X in this situation, if at all.” This can also show up as “You have no right to feel X,” possibly with attempts at guilt tripping.

In both cases, they are telling you what you should feel, and insisting that you put on a performance to their specifications, on demand. They feel entitled to decide what your reality is, and substitute their own version. They have no right to do that, even when it’s ostensibly for your | own good.

Sometimes these tactics come as part and parcel of concern trolling, a.k.a. civilized oppression. As Sparky put it in A Spark of Wisdom: Polite Prejudice:

I do not owe such a person my respect and I certainly don’t owe them my friendship.

I will respect them when they respect me – and they can only do that by acknowledging me as an equal who deserves all the rights and privileges that they enjoy.

It is impossible to respect a person while denying their emotions, much less projecting your preferred ones onto them.

In all of the scenarios so far, you may have really been happy, and the other person either could not tell or did not give a fig. How likely are you to stay happy, just based on this behavior?!

Now we come to the overt bigotry, dehumanization, and objectification. Not all of this is necessarily conscious, though sometimes it is.

Some people let their prejudices dictate what other people are capable of feeling, based on perceived membership in one or more particular groups. This may be explained in terms of inherent qualities, “deficits”/”impairments”, or in terms of unavoidable oppression.

For example, all sorts of “inferior”, “savage” people (Black, assorted indigenous, queer, autistic, and so on) have been deemed incapable of experiencing Real Love, and a variety of other emotions. Some people still seem to cling onto this kind of crap. They’re Just Not Like Us, you know.

Autistic people are still subject to all sorts of strange and dehumanizing assumptions, which are still pushed by hate groups such as Autism Speaks.

On the possibly more distressing side of things, some of these assumptions are common enough to show up as research bias. Mike Stanton provides some other examples in Autistic skill or social deficit?. Some parents take this kind of harmful crap to extremes.

Elmindreda’s Autism does not mean… covers some of these, including:

…no hope

…lack of social interest

Not knowing how to participate in social events or being prevented from participation doesn’t equate to not wanting to participate. A lot of autistic people would like to have more active social lives, and can be quite miserable over lacking it. The problems that arise are mostly related to the fundamental differences of neurologies, causing misunderstandings on both sides.

It’s also quite common for non-autistic people to shun autistic people, since they don’t get the kind of verbal and non-verbal feedback they expect from everyone. Although, in all fairness, it’s also quite common for autistic people to shun non-autistic people, since for similar reasons communication with them is usually much more demanding…

…lack of emotions

There are autistic people who report having little or no emotions, but they’re most definitely not the norm, and I personally believe that a lot of them are depressed due to the extremely common bullying and exclusion of autistic people.

However, just because we may have different emotions, or show them in different ways, doesn’t mean we feel any less. In fact, many of us seem to have far stronger emotions than most people, and some also report being hypersensitive to the emotional states of others, even if they cannot pick up the social cues that would explain them.

This belief may stem from the fact that non-autistic people often cannot read our emotions the way they’re used to be able to with others. However, emotions are inside a person; they don’t reside in one’s facial muscles. The basic rule here is to ask.

Sounds like basic respect, eh?

I could go on with this, but it’s depressing, and this is probably enough to make the point.

Some people honestly think that people like me are incapable of having “real” emotions, which means we’re incapable of being happy. Or sad, or depressed, or… This is a straightforward part of dehumanization. If we’re not really human, we must be like “lower” animals–and Descartes and those who have taken him seriously on some subjects have a lot to answer for.

Again, I’ll point to Amanda’s short and sweet If we were real people.

The less strong version of this one: “It’s sad, but you are necessarily going to be unhappy because of your impairments/deficits/lifestyle and other people’s bigotry”. Nah, that’s not aiding and abetting abuse and even murder. (Why do I keep thinking of Friends of the Indian?!) It’s understandable that people would want to treat you like crap, when you get down to it.

In Part 1, we saw that social support is regarded as a major factor in happiness. From another BBC Happiness Formula page:

First, family and friends are crucial – the wider and deeper the relationships with those around you the better.

It is even suggested that friendship can ward off germs. Our brains control many of the mechanisms in our bodies which are responsible for disease.

Just as stress can trigger ill health, it is thought that friendship and happiness can have a protective effect.

According to happiness research, friendship has a much bigger effect on average on happiness than a typical person’s income itself…

Marriage also seems to be very important.

From the bit that I quoted before:

Another factor that influences the life satisfaction of most people is work or school, or performance in an important role such as homemaker or grandparent.

When the person enjoys his or her work, whether it is paid or unpaid work, and feels that it is meaningful and important, this contributes to life satisfaction.

When work is going poorly because of bad circumstances or a poor fit with the person’s strengths, this can lower life satisfaction.

When a person has important goals, and is failing to make adequate progress toward them, this too can lead to life dissatisfaction.

Too often, when people encounter difficulties with successfully incorporating any or all of these things into their lives, it is considered a direct consequence of their Problem. As we’ve seen, it’s more likely to be coming from poor understanding, limited opportunities, and shoddy treatment, which are not inevitable consequences of being different.

There’s an awful lot of victim blaming going around, so people won’t have to look too closely at some power setups. Sometimes it’s dressed up as civilized oppression, but it’s not any nicer that way. It frequently involves explaining the effects of discrimination and abuse away as part of your “Problem”. Your only hope for much in the way of happiness is to somehow stop being the way you are.

Which comes right back around to the Cures and happiness post which inspired this.🙂

In the next installment, I’ll move on to some other ways of looking at the question of happiness, and some often-neglected things which seem to help people’s satisfaction levels–such as equality!

Edit: One excellent link I forgot to throw in is Joel’s Expressing and Feeling Emotions, which tackles a lot of myths–including ones concerning happiness among the neurodivergent:

As an aside, I believe it is important for parents to realize that autistic children can experience happiness as well as anguish. Happiness seems to be one of the most basic of emotions, not affected by the emotional difficulties in autism. Some people think that some autistic children can only be upset – that the “prison” of autism has confined them to a life of misery. This is not accurate. An autistic child can enjoy happiness. Even people who live in tremendous physical pain (most autistics do not live a life of physical pain) have lived enjoyable lives.

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