Few things seem more obvious than feeling good–about ourselves, as well as life in general.
Compelling scientific evidence supports this. A November 2012 study in American Psychologist has found that subjective well-being–the academic term for happiness–predicts health, longevity, good citizenship, and the quantity and quality of interpersonal relationships. Yes, it is generally better to be happier.
However, it is true happiness is the result of achievements–both collective and individual–rather than an end goal or achievement itself. Research shows a person’s state of health, personal sense of security, and freedom play a key role in determining their typical levels of happiness. Economic factors like income and employment rates are also important: It matters whether you are born in Switzerland or South Sudan.
Although these figures seem intuitive, their implications are more counterintuitive than you may think. They suggest that instead of chasing happiness we should be chasing the factors and conditions that create it. This isn’t a quick fix–the key requirement is coordinated human action over a prolonged period of time. The collective efforts of organized groups and social units are arguably the biggest–and the most enduring–engine of happiness. But they require hard work and sacrifices rather than the ability to distort reality in a favorable way and persuade ourselves that everything is great when isn’t. The only reason to consume chicken soup for the soul is because you’re sick, but the soup won’t eliminate the causes of the problem–it just brings temporary relief from its symptoms.
The self-help industry, worth an estimated $10 billion, is still based on the premise–first popularized in Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power Of Positive Thinking–that rewiring our thoughts to see the glass as half full can fix all suffering. Yet, most self-help products cater to a loyal and recurrent audience who are as hooked on them as chronic gamblers, smokers, or drinkers are on their vices. The majority of people who buy a self-help book have bought another one during the previous 18 months.
Little evidence exists for the idea that forcing positive thoughts lead to happiness. Meanwhile, a great deal of evidence shows the opposite–trying to suppress negative thoughts tends to backfire because you cannot devote mental resources to not think of something without actually thinking of that something.
As Allan Watts famously noted: “When you try to stay on the surface of the water, you sink, but when you try to sink, you float.”
One of the central messages of our feel-good society is the premise that we are all entitled to happiness, yet by definition happiness levels–like any other physical or psychological trait–should be normally distributed in the population. With most people being close to average, around 20% report they’re either very happy or very unhappy. The same holds true when we compare different nations–some are bound to be happier than others–whether we compare various countries at the same point in time, or the same country across time.
There’s no logical reason to expect happiness levels to be on the rise. In the U.S., where the idea of a feel-good society has been endorsed most emphatically, sales of antidepressants have risen around 400% since the late 1980s.
Perhaps, as author and journalist Oliver Burkeman noted in his critique of happiness: “It’s our relentless effort to feel happy, or to achieve certain goals, that is precisely what makes us miserable and sabotages our plans. And that it is our constant quest to eliminate or to ignore the negative–insecurity, uncertainty, failure, sadness–that causes us to feel so insecure, anxious, uncertain, or unhappy in the first place.”
There is a bright side to negativity that should be nurtured. Lucius Seneca, the most influential Roman stoic, noted that nothing in the world is so much admired as a man who knows how to bear unhappiness with courage. When people are unhappy, it is usually for a reason–and that reason is rarely their inability to think positively. Rather, it is their acknowledgment of the fact that things aren’t as good as they would want them to be–that is, an awareness of the gap between their ideal self and their actual self.
It is time to embrace the value of practical pessimism. We have evolved the capacity to experience negative feelings precisely to improve the state of affairs. Even extreme negative emotions, such as fear, depression, and anxiety, serve a key adaptive purpose, which is to incentivize us to make things better. Happiness is earned rather than deserved. The purpose of life is not to be happy, but to live a meaningful and selfless existence where we can contribute to society and civilization.