Achieve happiness, in three easy steps?

I was in an American-style steak house here in Barbados a few weeks ago, trying to write but being distracted instead by the TVs  in every corner of the room beaming out different cable channels: sport to the left of me, news to the right, an action movie front and centre. One programme particularly caught my eye: a piece on happiness, by CNN.

The news hook was the publication of a World Happiness Report, in which countries were ranked by the happiness of their citizens. The puzzle for CNN was why the United States, despite its wealth, came in only 11th in the survey, with a happiness score similar to that of Costa Rica, and why, throughout decades of rising wealth in the U.S., happiness levels had remained remarkably stagnant.

Yet instead of engaging with these issues, CNN invited on a happiness expert, and put up these three keys to achieving happiness:

That’s it, folks. Human happiness, in three easy steps! Don’t worry, America, your misery has nothing to do with rising inequality, job insecurity, lack of health coverage, racial oppression, vanishing pensions, broken family structures, longer working hours, or the gaping holes in the social safety net. It’s not because your economic system puts you on a treadmill in which permanent dissatisfaction is the only logical outcome, because if you were ever truly satisfied you might stop consuming. No, don’t worry, America. All you need is a good night’s sleep, a dose of fakery, and to “enjoy now”.

The “takeaway” culture

Of course, I know the reasons why CNN opted for gross simplification over serious engagement. I used to be a journalist myself, and I’m aware of the pressure of deadlines, the limited time and limited space. I also know that in news, particularly in TV news, there’s a lot of pressure to provide viewers with a clear, actionable “takeaway”. In other words, don’t just leave people bewildered by bad news. Give them something easy they can do right now to improve things. You’ll hear the same advice if you read any tips on blogging or writing for magazines. Always provide a takeaway.

It’s a nice idea, and sometimes it works. If you’re writing about something simple, it’s great to give readers a takeaway. Frustrated by filling out your tax return? Here are three things you can do to simplify the process.  Fine.

But I’d argue that some subjects demand a different approach. Some subjects are simply more complicated than spring rolls and egg fried rice, and they can’t just be packaged up neatly into a styrofoam box for you to take away and consume at your convenience. To me, human happiness is such a subject. It resists being made into a takeaway. It needs more careful treatment.

I should point out that I have no quarrel with CNN’s guest, Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project. I haven’t read her book, so it would be unfair to judge it, and I know her arguments were probably greatly simplified. I’ve read quite a few self-help and personal development books in my life, and got a lot from them. There are definitely some things that you can do to make yourself happier and improve your life.

But there are also some things that need to be looked at on a larger scale, on a societal level, and that’s the main problem I had with the CNN segment. It tries to provide individual solutions for social problems. This is something I notice all the time, particularly in the U.S. but also elsewhere: an individualistic approach taking precedence over the social.

The fear of big ideas

My personal theory is that the failure of so many of the grand social-engineering experiments of the 20th century has made us inherently distrustful of anything too big. We’ve retreated into our shells, concerning ourselves only with self-improvement, not wanting to get involved with anything that smacks of ideology. This is why the world is heading for catastrophic climate change, and all we’re doing in response is religiously sorting our garbage into different-coloured boxes.

It’s understandable, of course. We’ve grown up in the shadow of the 20th century and the millions who died at the hands of ideology-crazed regimes. Yet big ideas are just what we now need if we want to deal successfully with a highly complex, “globalised” world. Individualism won’t cut it any more. We’re all interconnected now. We need big ideas again, grand social schemes, trans-national agreements to safeguard the environment, to secure basic standards of living for everyone, to share resources more fairly, to make us happier. But we’re like the proverbial generals who are always fighting the last war. The tragedy of the 20th century was that big ideas killed millions of people; the tragedy of the 21st may be that the lack of big ideas kills millions of people.

Some possibilities

The World Happiness Report, if you read it, has plenty of suggestions for policy changes. The authors suggest moving away from the emphasis on GDP as a measure of social success, and towards a broader set of goals incorporating happiness, health, family relationships, community and governance, quality of work, etc.

While basic living standards are essential for happiness, after the baseline has been met happiness varies more with quality of human relationships than income. Other policy goals should include high employment and high-quality work; a strong community with high levels of trust and respect, which government can influence through inclusive participatory policies; improved physical and mental health; support of family life; and a decent education for all.

To me, this is long overdue. GDP is a measure of output, an adding up of all economic activity, all exchange of goods and services. But not all exchange is good or useful. If I crash my car on the motorway and sustain life-threatening injuries, it’s good for the economy – my purchase of a new car, hospital services, crutches, etc., all adds to GDP. But does it make anyone happy? There are plenty of other things that add to GDP but don’t make anyone happy: think of the arms industry, which accounts for an estimated $1.7 trillion of spending every year. Is that a good thing? And besides, aren’t we already producing and consuming too much? According to the UK government:

If everyone in the world lived like people in the UK, it would take about three planets’ worth of resources to support us.

Don’t we need to start defining success a little differently?

My point in this post is that sometimes a topic is too big to be given the takeaway treatment. Sometimes we just need to think, and read widely, and come to our own conclusions, and take action on a broader level than that of our own home. If we want to be happy, maybe we first need to make ourselves a little uncomfortable, by confronting some unpleasant truths about the world we live in, the power structures that dominate it, and our place in those structures.

What’s your take on all this? Am I wildly off-target in my criticisms? Am I hypocritical for criticising CNN, and then trying to solve the world’s problems in a blog post? What makes you happy? Do you think we need to think big thoughts again, or is individualism OK? How should we measure the success of our societies? Share your reaction, whatever it is: it would make me happy, at least for a while 😉

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There are 12 comments

  1. While it’s not completely this way across the board, it seems that it’s often the countries that are more laid back and have a simpler way of life (in terms of laws, pace, less blame-culture, less cameras etc) that are happier and it makes perfect sense. That the news gave the advice it did was yes, I’d agree, to gloss over whilst providing something good, and they would have had to provide something good because in our western-western world we’re supposedly so well off on all levels. I think community and family is very important, and we’ve lost that in our drive to focus on ourselves. So many times people say that we revere independence over dependence – and we’re not happy. Contrasted with, say, India who values dependence. They may not be over the moon and have their own issues to deal with, but evidence suggests that the quality of their lives in terms of being happy and content tends to be better.

    I think your criticisms are just.

    1. Hi Charlie

      Thanks for the comment! That’s an interesting point about the simpler way of life. I think you’re right about that – one of the themes of my novel On the Holloway Road was the difficulty of living an authentic, spontaneous life in a rigid, controlled, rule-based society.

      I think that money still plays a big role – it’s very difficult to be happy when you’re struggling to put food on the table, and that’s reflected in the fact that most of the countries near the top of the World Happiness Report league table are wealthy nations, and the really poverty-stricken ones don’t do so well.

      But the point is that once you get beyond that initial taking care of basic needs, more wealth simply doesn’t equal more happiness. That’s the point where the other stuff comes into play, the sort of community and family ties that you are talking about. But we’ve become so addicted to wealth that we just continue to weaken communities and families even further in our pursuit of more money. It’s become the only thing we know how to do, and we think that if we just get a little more, we’ll be happy then, even when, as you rightly say, the evidence suggests that we need to look elsewhere.

      By the way, what does that beautiful symbol next to your name mean?

      1. Oh definitely, money makes for a lot, but that saying of it not buying happiness is true – it can only make you a certain amount of happy. We need to remember that and stop chasing it with that in mind. Chasing it for more financial stability is of course something else.

        The symbol is the Hindi letter for “H”. There was no real reason for choosing it other than that I love the way it looks. Although I’m biased because it’s also one of the letters I feel I write best!

        1. I agree, money works up to a point, but then it stops. For many people in the Western world it’s gone way beyond the point of no return, but we still keep chasing anyway. Thanks for letting me know about the symbol – aesthetic beauty is a good enough reason for choosing it!

  2. It HAD to be an American program.

    I don’t agree with you on the fear of big ideas, although it’s another way to put Voltaire’s conclusion to Candide. “Cultivons notre jardin”. Let’s forget big ideas and take care of our back yard.

    I just think that’s typically American to think that you’re responsible for your misery. It’s the country of the self-made man. They have the mystique of the successful person who managed well thanks to hard work. Poor people are poor because they don’t work hard enough, it’s their fault! Or God has abandoned you, you’re not the chosen one.

    It goes deeper than rejecting grand political ideas because they failed in the 20thC. It’s true for European countries though, at least France.

    And I think it’s also typically American to go straight to action and propose ready-made solutions for you to think you’re moving forward and will be able to solve your problem.

    1. Hi Emma

      It’s good that you can still tell the difference 🙂 The UK has gone so far down the road of aping everything American that it’s hard for me to distinguish any more. I get the impression, looking from outside, that France has kept its distance a little more and preserved its own way of seeing the world.

      You make an excellent point about the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mythology of the United States. Belief in the idea that anyone can make it does lead to a culture of blaming the poor. This despite the fact that social mobility is actually lower there than in many other countries. Most people can’t live the American dream, and get made to feel inadequate for their failure. The attachment to “quick fixes” simply makes things worse.

      I agree that the idea of rejecting big ideas has been around for a long time. But it seems to have reached epidemic proportions right now, and I do think a large part of it is our disillusionment and disorientation after the failure of so many big ideas in the 20th century. The end of the Cold War was presented as the end of history, the settling of the argument once and for all, the elimination of all possible alternatives. That idea is cracking apart now, but it was very powerful for a long time and I think still holds sway. Communism/socialism/Marxism were the lens through which so much alternative thinking was seen for so long, and it’s taking some time to come up with other ideas that are not tainted by association with the gulag.

      Anyway, thanks for a thoughtful comment (as always!)

  3. Hey Andrew, I’ve been enjoying the blog but I haven’t felt compelled to reply in a while this post however is just too good to pass up. I largely agree with what you have to say. I’ve been hearing a lot of ideas about “faking it till you make it” I am really sick of that idea. I don’t think that fakery is a good foundation for anything and certainly not ones emotional state. Monday at work we spent over an hour in a presentation where they talked about internalizing an “idea of happiness” to overcome any negativity and how this would change our attitude. In corporate culture terms all this tells me is if you’re not happy in your job: it’s not that your supervisor is not supportive; that expectations are unreasonable or that there is too much stress. The problem is yours so just turn that frown upside down. Is it any wonder we’ve become so self-absorbed. Now some might read that and think I’m asking that employers coddle their employees and let them do what they may regardless of the bottom line. Isn’t it interesting however that the presentation I listened to began with statistics about how much money a company looses due to negative attitudes and concluded with how our internalized happiness would have a positive impact on others around me. I interpret this to mean that it’s no longer an employers’ job to provide a positive work environment or to boost moral it’s the employees’.

    I agree with your list of America’s ills. Wouldn’t you say that both of our countries are more or less on the same trajectory? I think in large part we are and right now conservative ideologies are pushing austerity to the determent of the poor and disenfranchised. The idea of balance and compromise has been lost. It’s winner take all politics and nobody wins in the end. When you speak of big ideas you speak in terms of ideology. If I read correctly you go on to say that after so many died in the 20th century in the name of ideology that we moved away from big ideas. This is an idea that I don’t think fits very well in an American context. Never mind our motives for foreign engagements that would take too long. Instead I want to talk about the danger of ideology. There is one ideology that both sides of the political spectrum in the United States have in common: freedom and liberty. This ideology may be defined in somewhat different terms between the parties but it has driven us to become individualistic and insular. On the one hand Democrats tend to be less heterogeneous in their ideology than Republicans. This and the fact that they value their individuality makes them less likely to come to a consensus and or to tow the party line. They’ve become leery of big ideas because they buy somewhat into the idea that big programs can compromise individual freedoms. On the other hand Conservative Republicans see two enemies of freedom the government and of course the poor and otherwise needy population who drain resources and keep America down.

    You speak of the importance of community I think this is key. Unfortunately the US threw out the idea of the social contract a long time ago. I doubt we could ever reach the kind of political climate in which we could ever pass laws to strengthen communities. Politicians legislate in the most near sighted narrow minded and self-interested way possible. Again winner take all politics. We need to take matters into our own hands and come up with some big ideas. The first thing we need to do is examine our personal paradigms or ideologies. We need to figure out what it is about our own filters that keep us focused only on the self. We need to remember that helping to improve the quality of life for others in our community does not diminish us. If we want solutions or “big ideas” we need strong communities. Let’s start to measure success by the strength of our communities. Let’s stop faking happiness and instead find it as we work to strengthen our communities.

    1. Hi Charles

      Glad I was able to tempt you back into the fray 🙂 Great comment – it’s a blog post in itself!

      I hate that idea of “faking it till you make it” as well. I can see the value of positive thinking to a certain extent, but it’s important to be clear about when to use it.

      For example, when I’m writing, I’m often beset by doubt and negativity, and these feelings get worse when I’m about to send my work out into the world or to give a talk in public. In this case, the negativity is entirely self-generated and is damaging to my life chances. So it’s appropriate to counteract the negativity with some exercises in positive thinking.

      But in many cases, negative feelings come from real situations outside of yourself. The example you gave is a perfect one – a work environment full of stress and unreasonable expectations and without support. In that context, the appropriate solution is to take action on the things that are making the employees unhappy, not to tell the employees to think happy thoughts.

      So sometimes we look inside, and sometimes outside. Sometimes we take action on ourselves, and other times we need to step out into the world and take action there. There’s a balance, and it seems to have shifted hugely in favour of internal self-talk to the detriment of changing things in the world around us.

      Yes, I’d agree that the UK is on the same trajectory, perhaps a little behind the US but doing its best to catch up. I like your point about ideology. Usually the most dangerous ideology is the one we’re not aware of, because that means it’s so pervasive we don’t notice it. Market fundamentalism is an ideology in some ways far more radical than socialism, and yet it’s not seen that way because it’s presented as common sense, the only sensible alternative, espoused by people of power and status, not by bomb-toting radicals.

      And of course freedom – who can argue with freedom? But freedom is used to reject or dilute policies that would be beneficial to millions of people (e.g. healthcare reform), while protecting business interests – corporations must have the freedom to make money, no matter what, and have even invoked the constitutional rights of citizens to protect themselves from government action to rein them in. Fear seems to be a big factor in political life, and while the bogeyman is always changing depending on the situation in the world outside, you’re right that there’s always one constant – fear of the poor (and I’d also add racial fear to that).

      I agree with everything you say about community. The destruction of communities runs so deep and cuts across so many different areas of policy – for example, it’s embedded in the very architecture of modern American cities, with massive sprawl and car culture and megamalls making it so difficult to come together. But I think it is important, and I like your proposals. The more I think about happiness, the more I come to the conclusion that, no matter how much our economic and political systems force us into competition with each other, what seems to make so many people truly happy is altruism. Maybe that could be a good place to start.

      Thanks for taking the time to write such a detailed and thoughtful comment, Charles!

      1. Great point about the internal and external influences and responses. I certainly agree with you there. I didn’t think of that distinction as I was responding to how this fakery seem’s to be so pervasive.My post was an incidental second draft. I actually tried responding yesterday and when I hit submit it disappeared. So I started a reply in a document and then pasted it so I wouldn’t risk loosing it. That’s why it went a little long. I stopped myself when I saw it was going well into page 2:)


        1. Hi Charles

          I didn’t think of it before either – came to me on the spot, but it seems to make sense! Really sorry to hear that you lost your first draft. I hate it when that happens! It seems to be a sporadic thing that occurs on blogs. I often copy and paste my comment before hitting submit, but of course the times when it disappears are usually the times when I’ve forgotten to do this!

          Thanks for taking the time to write it again – I’m glad you did, because it really added a lot to the original post.

  4. I completely agree with you. I was discussing with my husband just the other day the horror we both feel that nothing has changed, ideologically or indeed any other way, since the great banking crisis. We are still obsessed with constant growth in societies that have nowhere to grow to any more. And we can only think of falling back on the old way of running economies, even though those old ways have proven to be failures. I quite agree that it’s at the level of big ideas that we are failing ourselves now. If we improved our sense of community, that would help, I think, and thought about the long term as much as the short term. The problems around the state of the environment give me cold chills down my spine, for instance.

    But we were also talking about the problems that Greece is facing right now, and I was saying, why won’t anyone tell me how I can help? What does Greece export that I could buy at the supermarket, to support their economy? Where’s the charity helpline to which I could donate money? Why can’t we all be empowered a bit to do what we can when nations are in trouble? My friend at the bookstore had a brilliant idea: she felt that Greece ought to be given the Olympics to host continually. It would prevent other countries having to sink masses of money into creating the facilities, and it would provide constant income for Greece, as athletes could come and train all year round. I thought that was such a good idea.

    1. Hi litlove
      I think you’ve hit on something important there – the lack of a feeling of agency. That would contribute a lot to unhappiness. There are so many problems that feel too big for us to solve as individuals, and that feeling of powerlessness can so easily lead to apathy, depression and despair. Taking action, even small ones, is very important. I’ve been a member of Amnesty since I was a teenager, and writing polite letters to dictators always makes me feel better. Often it’s futile, but often someone gets released as a result of the pressure. Individuals acting in concert can suddenly become very powerful. And they are also happier than people who read bad news and feel impotent. You’re right that being able to do something about large problems like the Greek debt would be so much better. And I LOVE the Olympics idea – it makes so much sense on so many levels!

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