I am interested in the notion of “happiness” as a goal or as an ideal state. “The History of Happiness”, by Peter N. Stearns” (Harvard Business Review, January-February 2012), traces prevailing attitudes towards happiness, in the west, as well as cultural differences. A quote I found interesting, and the one that begins the article is this: “A modern Russian adage holds that ‘a person who smiles a lot is either a fool or an American’.” (page 104).

In my disconsolate teenage years, a close relative, not an American, said to me: “Well, who said you were going to be happy all the time? Where did you get that idea?” Well, I guess that I got the idea somehow; I certainly did not make it up. Apparently, Americans took the lead, beginning in the 1920s, in promoting “the importance of being happy and the personal responsibility to gain happiness.” (page 107). The pursuit of happiness as a goal was new in the 18th century, beginning with our Declaration of Independence: “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

So, is happiness a human state of perfection? Is it something we should try to cultivate in our organizations? We construct our culture through stories and language: “Don’t worry, be happy.”

What really jumped out as I read through the article is how ingrained the notion of happiness is, in our culture: the smiley face; destinations like Disney World, which emphasize having fun and making people happy; parental worry if a child appears to be unhappy. “Happiness is as essential as food if a child is to develop into normal manhood or womanhood” (page 108). So, in defense of myself as a teenager, I did somehow expect that I was supposed to be happy and came by that expectation “honestly”, as they say.

What we know to be normal is what we learn from the family and culture in which we grow up. It’s hard to see these influences as choices or to imagine that there might be other perspectives.

If there is a cultural expectation that we be happy, what does it mean if we are not? Stearns says (page 108), “Understanding the happiness imperative as an artifact of modern history, not as an inherent feature of the human condition, opens new opportunities to understand central facets of our social and personal experience.” If we have constructed the notion of happiness, then it is not pathological to not be happy. Sadness and melancholy are part of our emotional landscape as humans. In fact, it may be dangerous to think of sadness as pathology. Stearns says, (page 109) “We know that at least one-fourth of depression diagnoses are mistakes, confusion of normal sadness with a pathological state.”

So, what are we striving for? Appreciative Inquiry, my favored approach for helping individuals, groups and organizations who are trying to make various kinds of changes, builds on our strengths. Building on strengths and looking at things positively is not the same as striving for happiness. When we are working from our strengths, and expanding our capacity to do what we care about, we may also be learning to manage adversity. To me this speaks of life in all of its fullness, not just happiness.

In my work in organizations, I am not promoting happiness. I am advocating for connection, partnership, dignity, careful and compassionate communication. Life contains all of it and it’s all temporary … I have found that I may experience happiness or contentment or sadness for a while and then it changes. It is all an exquisite balance. This ever-changing balance is what gives life its marvelous dimensionality.

  • felipejane

    Another thought-provoking post, Martha. I’ve shared it on my Facebook wall; let’s see if that brings in some new readers.

  • Oleg

    very interesting perspective

  • dimitriosdiamantaras

    Very nice post (I found it from Phil’s update on Facebook). As I am an economist who is interested in the philosophical underpinnings of what an economy is supposed to do well, I can recommend Amartya Sen’s writings on the capabilities approach to human fulfillment. This is an accessible book of his that intersects your topic: http://www.amazon.com/Development-as-Freedom-Amartya-Sen/dp/0385720270

    Also, Seligman’s book “Flourish” may be of interest if you have not read it (but I assume you have)

  • Okok525

    Very interesting and though provoking piece.  Thank you for writing it and thanks to Philip for sharing it on FB! 
    I found the Stern quote (page 109) to be very interesting – “We know that at least one-fourth of depression diagnoses are mistakes….”.   I have observed for some time that society (or at least the tiny piece of it that is ‘my world’) is quick to jump to a depression diagnosis, and subsequent anti-depression meds and I’ve wondered for years about the line – where is the line that separates depression from normal sadness?  Have we really turned into a society that can’t handle sadness but feel we must medicate it away?  Is sadness really the opposite of happiness?  Can’t they co-exist?  Can’t we separate ‘stuff’ that makes us sad, while still remaining happy with everything else?  Is sadness so uncomfortable that we feel a need to push it down, make it go away or remove it?   Does it need to be one – or the other? And when did this happen?  Was happiness more prevalent in the 17th century?  16th?  18th? 
    As most people (everyone!), I have had traumatic experiences in my life – some of them, to this day, make me sad to think of them, but I consider myself happy.  I have friends and doctors, who have suggested I ‘take something’ to make the sadness go away and are shocked when I refuse because the ‘cure’ is so simple – just one little pill and *poof – sadness gone!  I don’t see these (few) sad memories as something I need, or want, to remove.  I was raised on the believe that not everything that happens will make you smile – life can be tough, hard or disappointing at times and learning to deal with it was what we called – ‘growing up’ or ‘maturity’ and does, indeed, create a life that is full and diverse and wonderful!

    Thanks again!
    Sue (born and raised and still living in the USA)

  • Kimberly Ripley

    Thank you Martha! Great food for thought as always. This blog made me think of a few different perspectives about the human condition and we “Americans”. First, I thought that happiness to me is a changing state and it is a “feeling” versus knowing true joy in your life. Joy does not always refer to a feeling but that in spite of changing feelings, there is peace, contentment and satisfaction in ones life and with ones self. The second thing I thought of was the movie Eat, Pray, Love and the scene in Italy in the barber shop when the man says that we Americans think that pleasure is something that has to be earned but for Italians pleasure is just part of who they are and a part of their normal life and the art of “just being”. Just different perspectives that help integrate different cultures and ways of thinking into the balance of my own life!!

  • Sarah Danzig Simon

    Hi Martha!  LOVE this.  I just saw an interesting discussion of happiness in a Paley Center interview with the cast of Mad Men.  Go figure.  xoxo. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6C8iay4EMNc

  • Elizabeth

    I love this sentence in your blog post: I am advocating for connection, partnership, dignity, careful and compassionate communication.Much is sad in my life right now and much of my life is full and content.. Thanks for adding to the perspective and reminder to be compassionate with myself as well as others as we go thru life.   Elizabeth

  • Louise

    Happiness as an instinctual emotion couldn’t be lasting or we would miss the importance and lessons of all the other emotions. I believe that happiness has been over sold and misunderstood. What about striving for neutral, contentment or just a place of stillness – horses, which are my teachers resonate and create resonance in stillness.

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