Against happiness: Pursuing purpose

Feb. 23, 2018, 5:00 a.m.

This spring, approximately one in four undergrads enrolled in Yale’s most popular course to date: “Psychology and the Good Life.” Focused on maximizing individual well-being by using evidenced-based techniques in positive psychology, Psych 157 aims to meet students’ demand for tools to lead a quality life, despite pressures imposed by the academic and professional environments in which they choose to operate.

Although the course itself requires Martin Steligman’s book “Flourish,” which posits positive emotion as only one of five pillars of well-being, which otherwise include engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishment, popular discourse surrounding the course and the science of well-being gets reduced into clickbait lists of ten-things-you-can-do to bring yourself into the present moment — meditation, a walk, gratitude. While happiness techniques offer critical skills to buoy one out of daily sulks, a buoy isn’t a ship. A buoy cannot set sail, and more importantly, a buoy cannot carry the fuel necessary to complete a voyage. Although research to improve individuals’ ability to regulate the frequency and duration of a desirable affective state ought to spread, centering happiness as the primary goal is flawed, due to the temporal, hedonistic and self-seeking nature of happiness.

Imagine, for a moment, that the goal of purposefulness replaced happiness. While happiness appeals to the dopamine addict who gets high on instant gratification, purposefulness requires a deeper introspection, a sacrifice and willingness to sustain strategic work for a cause that matters more than serotonin. But the daily effort of holding oneself disciplined and accountable to a challenging, long-term pursuit may prove more difficult than grounding oneself in the present moment by petting a dog or admiring leaves glistening in the sunset. While approaching meal preparation and spring cleaning with mindfulness and intention may fill an inner void with a sense of agency and fulfillment, what created the void in the first place?

Feeling meaningless in the rat-race to nowhere perpetuates our obsessive need to master the fine art of happy living. Practicing happiness produces happy people, in theory. Is happiness what we feel and wish to express in this historical moment? Positive emotion, on its own, merely places saran wrap over potholes of depression, self-hatred and shame, stretching thinly over the deeper sinkholes of racism, sexism, classism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia and xenophobia. Are we content with contentment?

At the bottom of your next gratitude list, leave space to draft several care statements about things that matter to you; for example, “I care about expanding access to affordable, accessible and sustainable energy” or “I care about healing in families affected by the prison system.”

After listing several, pause. How can resources, people and communities on your gratitude list further your care statements? What knowledge and histories must you learn, and what tangible action or actions can you take now and in five years from now, to inch towards a world which realizes your care statement?

This is not to say that a life devoted towards societal betterment cannot benefit from, and perhaps require, a good dose of dog-petting and leaf peeping; rather, it questions whether the sum of such moments amounts to a life well-lived.

I will be damned if, on my deathbed, my fondest memory is an unearned smile. In these ever-so-happy times, we must not forget that it is sustained, humbling work, which erodes and sweats off the ego by challenging us to pursue goals greater than ourselves, that provides real and lasting reward.

Allison Martin ’18

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