Research

Happiness: can do / can’t do

In “Averted Vision” (NYTimes.com, August 2, 2009), Tim Kreider proposes that happiness is a something like a state of nostalgia for times past — that some of his happiest memories were in fact miserable as he experienced them. He says when he’s lost himself drawing cartoons, he’s happy, though he’s not aware of his happiness or self-consciously searching for it.

This is what Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd called “finding the flow of the activity” in their book, “The Time Paradox.” The psychologists might also gently suggest that Kreider, who already acknowledges the past as a source of happiness, see the present and future in the same light.

Kreider writes:

I suspect there is something inherently misguided and self-defeating and hopeless about any deliberate campaign to achieve happiness.

But Zimbardo and Boyd urge readers to shape their present and future to lend themselves to finding happiness. In fact, feeling a sense of control in one’s life — feeling efficacious, and able to actualize one’s plans — is fundamental to having a good attitude and feeling happy. They acknowledge, too, that happiness is too fleeting to be merely achieved, but it can be cultivated.

Kreider continues:

Maybe we mistakenly think we want “happiness,” which we tend to picture in very vague, soft-focus terms, when what we really crave is the harder-edged intensity of experience.

In “Sex, Drugs and Chocolate: The Science of Happiness,” Paul Martin delves into the importance of the phenomena of pain in evolutionary psychology. Humans weren’t designed to be happy; they were designed to survive. Creatures living in anxiety and fear tended to ensure higher rates of survival. In this sense, Kreider is right — humans are hardwired to pay attention to that which works against us in life. Yet, our base natures need not dictate our potentials for leading lives rich with meaning and purpose.

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