Is Happiness Work?


Author Ariel Gore says writing a book on happiness actually made her happier, because she was “paying attention to it every day.” Is this really how joy works?

Happiness — and research thereon — are enjoying a very long moment right now, and Gore’s book in particular has gotten a lot of coverage. Called Bluebird: Women and the New Psychology of Happiness, the book got writeups in the Times and on Salon. And yesterday, Gore told The Daily Beast‘s Marisa Meltzer that “I define happiness as the ability to rejoice in the midst of suffering,” and that happiness isn’t only for those who live in comfort. She says, “The psychology and study of happiness can’t focus on privileged people-that’s what gives it a bad rap and says that happiness is for morons.” But what’s most striking about the interview is her claim that her happiness grew as she wrote her book, because of “the simple practice of focusing on it. Paying attention to it every day increased it.”

As the study of happiness grows ever more trendy, the idea that happiness is something to “focus on” is becoming popular too. Gwyneth presaged the new craze when she claimed, “My life is good because I am not passive about it,” but it’s not just mega-celebrities who are spending time pondering how to Make, Do, and Be. Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project, which Amy Bloom reviewed for the Times along with Bluebird, takes as its very title the concept that happiness is something to be worked at. Bloom writes that Rubin “discovered that happiness (if you have the necessaries) takes energy and discipline” — discipline to do things like declutter a house or hire a trainer. And both health and economics blogs at the Times are turning a careful eye on what makes people happy (the latter by linking to an interview with hippest-economist-ever Betsey Stevenson).

But is happiness really something to be scrutinized? Penelope Trunk’s recent quiz, “Is your life happy or interesting?” is reductive and occasionally insulting, but it does include this observation:

Peopel who are interesting but not happy have a point where they need to make sure they are okay. Also, they are interested in finding out about themselves even if they are fine.

Of course, plenty of happy people are also interesting (and I’ve often thought that I’m least interesting when I’m most unhappy), but it may be true that people who are deeply happy feel no need to analyze their lives. So for those who aren’t happy yet, is analysis the answer? Maybe — there’s something comforting about the idea that with a little work, we can pull ourselves out of a funk. At the same time, it’s disturbing to think of happiness as just another avenue for self-improvement, something that’s supposed to be measured, worked out, and buffed to a high shine. Meltzer writes that Gore “does think happiness has been marketed as a byproduct of middle-class life. “You know, ‘Without this brand of dishwasher, I can’t be happy.'”” But in a way, the idea of focusing on happiness seems very middle-class, and also very American — a Protestant work ethic of the soul. While it’s perhaps fatalistic to conceive of happiness as entirely out of our control, I think we might gain something by returning to the notion of happiness as somewhat mysterious, something that can disappear without warning but also visit us at times in our lives when we least expect it. This may be a freer, less strained, indeed happier conception of happiness: less like a job, more like a blessing.

What Makes Women Happy? [Daily Beast]
An Economist’s Thoughts On Happiness [NYT Freakonomics Blog]
How Vacations Affect Your Happiness [NYT Well Blog]

Related: The Rap On Happiness [NYT]
“Bluebird”: Lady Sings The Blues [Salon]
Test: Is Your Life Happy Or Interesting? [Brazen Careerist]

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