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Happiness, Part 3: The personal is, indeed, political

April 6, 2010

To recap: In Part 1, we looked at how the word “happiness” is generally used, and what is frequently considered to contribute to that state of mind. In Part 2, we moved on to some of the ways in which other people can discount–and sabotage–one’s emotions, including happiness.

In this installment, I want to talk about some other ways of looking at the question of happiness.

To my mind, there are some serious problems with perceptions of happiness–and what “causes” it–in modern Western society. Too often, it’s approached in a void, as a strictly personal thing.

This easily segues into “it’s your own fault if you’re unhappy; you must not be trying hard enough, and/or there must be something wrong with your brain”, as touched on in the last post. Indeed, I find the popular commodification of happiness disturbing and oppressive, especially as this emphasis is frequently used to duck the need for any kind of systemic change in people’s life conditions–which would require societal changes.

Bruce Levine’s Liberation Psychology for the U.S. offers some interesting observations on this, which do not only apply in the U.S.:

When people become broken, they cannot act on truths about injustice or about how they have been victimized by the government-corporate partnership that can lead to shame about how they have allowed it. And shame, like fear, is one more psychological way we become even more broken…

In addition to Martin-Baró’s insights, the U.S. needs its own version of liberation psychology in which we start by recognizing that the U.S. population has been broken, then understand how this has happened, and then find paths to regain morale, healing, wholeness, and strength.

It takes an awful lot of contortion to ‘splain away the levels of discontent and depression we’re seeing these days. If that many people are unhappy in their lives, there is something seriously wrong. Insisting that it’s an entirely personal problem–and that you’re a failure if you have trouble bucking up–adds insult to injury. It’s more invalidation and gaslighting, on a societal level.

Too frequently, an obligation is placed on us to somehow be happier, without looking at a lot of what might be nibbling and chomping away at our stores of satisfaction and contentment. I’m reminded of amandaw’s Gender, health, and societal obligation; I’m quoting a big chunk here, for clarity:

Health, you see, is not merely an inherent trait. Health, instead, emcompasses a variety of factors, including a person’s intrinsic qualities but also the environment in which they operate and their everyday behaviors.

Health is not just what a person is. Health is also what a person does. And what drives a person to do something is not wholly internal, but rather is largely influenced by external factors…

This framework is — I hope — useful for understanding what health actually is.

The form “health” takes is different depending on the expectations of the culture you live in.

The ultimate importance of that so-defined “health” is different depending on the expectations of the culture you live in.

The role “health” plays in the culture, what “health” means in that culture, the way the people of that culture interact or engage with that idea of “health,” are different depending on the expectations of the culture you live in.

What you do to achieve “health” is different depending on the expectations of the culture you live in.

How your health affects your position in life, your economic opportunities, the support that is offered for you to live the kind of life you desire, are all different depending on the expectations of the culture you live in.

(And yes, all of this is just as true in a culture that makes use of the scientific method and sees itself as cool and rational. What is investigated, and how, and how the results are interpreted, and what lessons are drawn from those results, and how those lessons are applied in everyday life — all these things must grow out of the culture they happen in! )

Health, then, is not merely a personal state, but rather a cultural fulfillment. Health (of whatever kind) is expected of you, expected by the people around you. Your health is not your own, but instead belongs to your family, your community and your wider culture. You must achieve and maintain (whatever kind of) health, not because it benefits you personally, but because you will have deeply failed your fellow members of society if you don’t.

This observation applies just as well to “happiness”. It’s hard to separate the two concepts; in our cluster of societies today, a certain lack of happiness is considered a personal medical problem.** As with sleep deprivation, there is pressure on pretty much everyone to function under conditions which only exascerbate the problem, so we won’t let other people down. Nasty twist, that.

I can’t say I agree with some of John F. Schumaker’s approach* in The Happiness Conspiracy, but he does make some good points about the commodification of Happiness-inna-Void.

He also draws in a set of concepts I was planning just to talk around, to avoid sounding like a broken record:

A society’s dominant value system dictates how happiness is measured. The native Navajos in the southwest of the US saw happiness as the attainment of universal beauty, or what they called Hózhó. Their counterpart of ‘Have a nice day’ was ‘May you walk in beauty’.

Back to that in a bit.

What is one of the biggest neglected factors in happiness? Equality. This article covers it in a very annoying and status quo-propping way, but I was glad to see this talked about at all in mainstream media:

Research has suggested that one of the key reasons why wealth has not translated into happiness is that we tend to compare ourselves with people who are richer than we are.

As a result, even though we may be better off ourselves, we still do not get any happier.

If we want a happier society, so the theory goes, we need to reduce the gap between rich and poor.

And the way to do that is to redistribute wealth from the rich to the less well-off…

The science of happiness suggests advertising is a major cause of unhappiness because it makes people feel less well-off.

Is advertising damaging our sense of well-being?

According to Professor Layard some advertising should be banned.

“I don’t see that we need to allow pictorial advertising which conveys very little information because it makes people feel poorer.”

Wow, it even throws in some aspect of consumerism!

Brooke Jarvis’ What Makes the Healthiest and Happiest Societies? Hint: It’s Not Wealth provides a little more depth:

In fact, it turns out that not only disease, but a whole host of social problems ranging from mental illness to drug use are worse in unequal societies. In his latest book, The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, co-written with Kate Pickett, Wilkinson details the pernicious effects that inequality has on societies: eroding trust, increasing anxiety and illness, encouraging excessive consumption.

The good news is that increased equality has the opposite effect: statistics show that communities without large gaps between rich and poor are more resilient and their members live longer, happier lives…

[from Wilkinson] In fact, in more unequal societies, these problems aren’t higher by ten or twenty percent. There are perhaps eight times the number of teenage births per capita, ten times the homicide rate, three times the rate of mental illness…We know from the findings that it’s the status divisions themselves that create the problems. We’re not making a great leap to say that this is causal. We, I think, show that it’s almost impossible to find any other consistent explanation.

I am also reminded of my footnote here, commenting on an interesting paper: Net Nutritional Success on the Great Plains: The Remarkable Heights of Equestrian Nomads in the Nineteenth Century. Based on the spotty available data, these were the tallest people in the world at the time (far from unique in North America, AFAICT; my more easterly ancestors were at least as tall, but avoided such data collection had anyone even tried.) The authors include the, erm, remarkable observation that “women were about the same height as men relative to modern height standards”, given real equality, also that “misfortune was readily distinguished from shirking” and people got the help they needed.

Very different social setup and attitudes, very different results.

The economic version of this is very blatant, but this should apply across the board, where equality is concerned. Steep socioeconomic divisions can’t be separated from the various faces of social inequality. It’s all interconnected, from the ground up.

No wonder victim blaming is so popular, all around.

I’d intended to finish the series with this post, but am further splitting it for length. Next up: more on some other ways of looking at happiness.


* That’s even without this bit of fail:

The highest forms of happiness have always been experienced and expressed as love. But happiness is being wooed in increasingly autistic ways that lack this vital dimension. In a recent survey only one per cent of people indicated ‘true love’ as what they wanted most in life.

I am half past sick of this crap.

** I am not trying to deny that clinical depression is a serious problem; rather the reverse! I have a long history of disabling depression to the point of spending years on SSI, largely situational as it has turned out.

Astrid’s post, Should the Social Model of Disability Permit Autism Treatment?, applies just as well to depression (especially given how frequently the two go together!). Amanda puts it very succinctly in comments:

I remember seeing a really good post about some people’s confusion about the medical model. Basically? The medical model isn’t “medical treatment”. It’s a way of looking at disability that sees us first and foremost as defective among other things. I think this was at Lady Bracknell’s blog. But it really irritates me when I see the medical model being described as identical to medical treatment. Because ideally no physician should ever use the medical model.

Word. Telling people that they–and their perceptions–are defective does not help them. At all.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 20, 2010 11:41 pm

    Very interesting! Lots of food for thought. Thank you 🙂


  1. Happiness, Part 3: The personal is, indeed, political « Urocyon's … Help

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