Don’t Worry: Be Unhappy

April 20, 2015


Happiness is the god of a modern cult. Its worshippers are lined up to sell us the secrets to its attainment, and a slew of willing consumers will hand over their money, time, and worshipful admiration to those who would teach them its secrets. It isn’t a new belief system, it dates back at least to the ancient Greeks. The stoics saw “positive thinking” as we now call it as the basis for living the good life, leaving our own mental states to be the masters over our circumstances, and the focus of our own responsibility over the hardships of life. In modern times, the happiness cult has spawned a whole pharmaceutical industry as well as such legends as Tony Robbins and countless others now supposedly legitimized by the “positive psychology” movement. In modern ethics, happiness serves as the value by which “the good” can be judged, most notably in the various forms of Utilitarianism, from ethical egoism (think, Ayn Rand) to ethical altruism (such as August Comte).

It is of course true that all creatures “like” happiness, but this is more or less a tautological statement, devoid of any insight, vacuous of content. Yet this forms the central thesis for the cult of happiness. We are happy about happiness, but big deal. It can be bought and paid for in measured and predictable doses, but is it the best value to strive for, and should we seek it as an end in itself? Certainly all of the other emotions serve functions and should be valued. Our finest art is often steeped in “negative” emotions and is produced from states and lives whose happiness quotients were low indeed.

Most recently, happiness research has begun to incorporate fMRI and other tools of neuroscience to try to capture and measure our happiness, and the positive psychology folks have latched onto these validating brain images to help peddle their wares. But the happiness cult has (at least) two major weaknesses: one is the assumption that happiness is an important part of the good life (just because we like it doesn’t mean it’s central or even necessary), and the other is that the modern “theory” on which much of the recent rash of positive psychology promotors have based their work has been rather successfully debunked.

Bolstering the rash of modern books of positive psychology (which take off where Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking left off in the 1950s) is a now mythic graph that ”shows” that flourishing, successful individuals ratio of positive thought to negative is roughly 3 to 1 (2.9013, to be more precise). Science backs it up, and with a nice science-y number and complex mathematics behind it. The paper introducing this magical number was entitled “Positive Affect and the Complex Dynamics of Human Flourishing” and was co-authored by Barbara Fredrickson and Marcial Losada. It has been cited more than a thousand times. It also provided the scientific grounding for a new bevy of positive thinking books and theorists, including such best-sellers as Flow: The Psychology of Happiness by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realise Your Potential for Lasting Fulfilment by Martin Seligman, and Fredrickson’s Positivity.

As it turns out, the math was bunk, and the ratio claimed is not grounded in any sound science. In the paper The Complex Dynamics of Wishful Thinking by Nicholas J. L. Brown, Alan D. Sokal, and Harris L. Friedman, Fredrickson and Losada’s ratio is eviscerated, and even Frederickson has now conceded this point, still putting a positive spin on things and clinging to her thesis. We should be skeptical.

Happiness is nice, yes. We like it, but there is no evidence (yet) that it is critical to the life well lived, its contours and nature are still poorly understood, and there is no magical ratio of positivity to negativity necessary for the good life. A full, rich emotional life is likely to be comprised of every range of emotion, with happiness being just one. It is clearly often a byproduct of our most successful endeavors, but not necessarily the most important one, nor the measure of the success of those endeavors, nor of ourselves in the end.