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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

On Happiness and the Good Life

My friend Katherine Arbuthnott has told me that psychologists have come at happiness from a number of angles, using different methods or making different assumptions, and have generally come to the same conclusions.  If you have extrinsic motivations--if you think that money or status or beauty will make you happy--you're screwed.  Because, simply put, there's never enough money or success. We know what happens to beauty.  On the other hand, if your goals are intrinsic, rising out of what gives you pleasure and joy, or out of ideals you have about the human condition or relationships between people--things that can't be seen by anyone but you, you don't need a lot of the money or status to be quite happy.  In one study, for example, a kind of bachelor's degree exit questionnaire established whether students' goals were intrinsic or extrinsic and then asked the students to say what they'd like to have achieved at the end of the next several years.  Interestingly, in their follow-up interviews, the psychologists found most students had met their goals.  Only the students with intrinsic motivation, however, were satisfied with their accomplishments and had an increased sense of well-being.

A few months ago, Bill and I watched a fascinating documentary on happiness.  Here's a clue:  it isn't winning the lottery.  When lottery winners were interviewed, they talked about the attempts to be happy in spite of the money.  Perhaps Violet and Allan Large of Lower Truro near Halifax have figured how to be happy with a lottery win:  give it away to people who need it.  Even with a five-year-old truck and a thirteen-year-old car, they have all they need--each other.  Here's another clue:  it doesn't mean you haven't suffered in some profound way.  Men who had been prisoners of war reported that if they could live their lives over, they wouldn't try to avoid those difficult times because they made them who they are.

But through this entire program, I kept asking a question that no one would answer.  Why is happiness the greatest good?  Even the economists have begun to use their mathematical models to consider happiness, mostly because they realize that GDP doesn't measure the well-being of a society.  As I understand the research, one of the things they've discovered is that I'm happy with my salary if it's more than yours.  If it's less--even if that "less" is a lot--I'm not entirely satisfied.

What makes me happy?  A good day's writing.  A great class where the students have had an "aha!" moment or have taught me something.  Meaningful conversation with Bill or Veronica or a close friend.  A cat on my lap.  Filling the bird feeders on these crisp mornings and listening to the eager birds waiting in the trees for breakfast.  A beautiful day--preferably not windy.  Saying 'thank you' to someone and surprising them.  What I'm trying to work out for myself, on my own terms, is the relationship between being happy and what the Greek philosophers (and many philosophers since) have called living the good life.

To some extent I saw this problem played out in two books I read earlier this fall.  The first was Sheila Heti's well-reviewed How Should a Person Be?  The passive verb "be" made me slightly nervous, as did the narrator's focus, often to the detriment of the people around her, on how she should present herself to the world. I wasn't nearly as fond of the book as the reviewers were (though to be fair, I've included a link to the good reviews below), because ironized or not, the ethical dilemmas faced by our Sheila-narrator seemed banal and fairly unchallenging and not a little self-involved.  There's a certain picaresque energy about Sheila's quest for meaning in her life and success as an artist, and certainly a Facebooky-texty edginess to the style. But for me, this didn't make up for the banality or sheer triviality of the narrator's anxieties and behaviour.

Let's contrast that with Diane Ackerman's plangent One Hundred Names for Love.  This work of creative non-fiction records the aftermath of a massive stroke for Ackerman's husband, writer Paul West.  The result was aphasia--sometimes an erasure, sometimes a tangling of language in West's damaged brain.  Ackerman, who has written extensively about science and recently about the brain, clearly explains what Paul is experiencing, explains the challenges his faces, the way his brain mis-fires, so that he often finds no words at all, sometimes can only create fey quasi-metaphors that need to be decoded.  The typical boring, repetitive strategies for bringing language back online don't work for the imaginative West, but Ackerman's encouragement to go ahead and be playful and offbeat does, producing the one hundred names of the book's title. While watching West's slow return to language is inspiring--he wrote three books after the stroke-- perhaps most moving for me was Ackerman's attempt to give him the best care she could at home while continuing to take care of her own creative and emotional needs.  This narrative doesn't consider what it's good to "be," but about what it's important to do, and how difficult making those decisions is when your own needs and those of someone you love are in conflict.  

As I go back to my question about the relationship between happiness and the good life via my thoughts about these books, I may have a hypothesis.  Extrinsic motivation involves being something:  being rich or being beautiful.  Intrinsic motivation involves doing something, and that something often involves creativity, kindness, justice, craftsmanship, conversation.

These questions about being and doing are given more relevance right now by the various "Occupy" movements we see occurring across Europe and North America.  In some ways, we're looking at the effects that the insatiable people with extrinsic goals have on the lives of people who are trying to find enough resources to simply live.  When I got all lofty this weekend about the benefits of intrinsic motivation, Bill asked quite pointedly whether that mattered to someone who was simply looking for enough money to pay rent and utilities and buy groceries.  Probably not:  it's something my privileged status allows me to think about in my spare time.  All the same, as Katherine Arbuthnott wisely observed last week, the more our culture spends its time observing and considering the lives of the rich and famous, the more time we as a culture spend thinking about a kind of motivation that isn't really good for any of us.

Here's the link to the reviews of How Should a Person Be?
http://www.sheilaheti.net/hsapb-reviews.html

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