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Craig K. Comstock

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Are We Happy Yet?

Posted: 07/16/10 02:09 PM ET

Even if the good times were going to roll again, in the sense of our having more consumables, how well has that worked as a formula for happiness? And if it turns out that we have even less stuff in the future, can we find a source of felicity other than the mall? The good news is that alternatives are available. The more challenging news? Alternatives may emerge not where we normally look, but as the hidden complements of some of our dominant virtues.

One great virtue of U.S. culture is its can-do attitude: for example, Presidents are well advised to be upbeat, whether it's "peace, progress and prosperity" (Ike), "the new frontier" (JFK), "morning in America" (Reagan), "a place called hope" (Clinton), "change you can believe in" and more hope (Obama). Giving a speech about limits (Carter) is what the English call "bad form."

In her signature song, "Crazy in Love," Billie Holiday asserted that "the impossible will take a little while," a line perhaps borrowed from the Army Corps of Engineers which had gone through World War Two with a motto that began, "the difficult we do immediately ..."

Okay, here's a difficulty for us: the world has reached (or soon will reach) the peak of petroleum extracted from the ground or beneath the sea. What started decades ago with a prediction by a renegade geologist and became a movement of prescient analysts such as Richard Heinberg, who has gone mainstream: even Lloyd's of London is now warning about the peak.

The summit of global oil production doesn't mean a sudden cut-off, but it does entail a significant hike in price, even if global demand weren't also rising. Since oil is the basis of industrial society, both as a fuel and as a feedstock, this would mean big trouble. A sufficient rise in price is likely to cause another recession, leading to a search for energy alternatives; but a recession will bring a drop in consumption, a lower price, and thus the collapse of alternatives.

It is not too early in this dismal process to seek a type of happiness that doesn't depend on the accustomed flow of stuff.

It was Jefferson who 234 years ago wrote "the pursuit of happiness" into our break-away founding document, almost as if felicity were a deer and we were hunters or stalkers in the great green land. John Perry Barlow, former lyricist for the Grateful Dead, has ranted against the concept of pursuit, calling it "toxic stupidity" (while otherwise praising Mr. J). As his epigraph, Perry quoted Chuang-Tzu, the Taoist who around 350 B.C. wittily observed that "happiness is the absence of striving for happiness."

Everybody wants happiness, but if striving is an unworkable way, we're tempted to ask, how do we get it?

One dubious method would be denial, fantasy, and ungrounded hope, as analyzed by Barbara Ehrenreich in Bright-sided. Does it help to have soaring self-esteem if you lack basic skills? Is it enough to be optimistic if your economy is collapsing? When things are going well, optimism can be what the military calls a "force multiplier"; but in hard times, it can morph into self-righteous blame: who stabbed us in the back?

Another response to hard times would be to fight to grab as much of declining resources as possible, so we could maintain some semblance of our "way of life." After all, we feel we deserve it.

But these are methods resting on fantasy or brutality. Are there others? Awakening Joy offers a plan. The book is written in James Baraz's voice and is based on his course, but the authorship is shared with Shoshana Alexander, who has aided other teachers to share their truths. B&A do not predict hard times; they present an approach that would benefit us not only in relatively hopeful times (such as awaiting an economic recovery) but also in even more challenging times than we've yet experienced.

B&A know the literature on happiness, with emphasis on Buddhist practice, which is to say, they nudge us toward direct experience and our own assessment of what happens. The quickest and most striking way to sense the merits of the book is to chuckle through a brief video of Baraz's mother, talking ironically about "how my son ruined my life."

What she means is that, while kvetching or complaining is an almost sacred part of being a Jewish mother, James on a visit taught her also to voice her gratitude, which she continued after he left and which gave her a deeper respect for her son, even though he'd become a "jewbu" rather than a physician or attorney.

As research at UC/Davis has shown, expressing gratitude brings on many changes, such as a better immune system and, well, an increase in happiness. Gratitude is one element of the course that Baraz offers face to face in Berkeley and also on the internet.

What B&A have given us is not quantitative research or a philosophical analysis, but root teachings and accessible stories from participants in the course and the authors' own lives and practice. Like the late style of some artists, the wisdom is so humbly presented, so apt, and so applicable that it almost seems, afterward, like common sense.

As B&A observe, Buddhist practice can be regarded not as a religion parallel to theistic faiths such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, but rather as training for the mind, a training that is quite simple in concept, challenging in practice. One reward of practice is said to be not "salvation" later but happiness now.

The concept of happiness appears not only in can-do classics of Americana or, in a much deeper way, in Buddhist teachings, but also articles in academic venues such as The Greater Good magazine, collected in The Compassionate Instinct (2010). One of the editors, psychologist Dacher Keltner, runs a center on virtues at UC/Berkeley and has also appeared as a guest teacher in Baraz's course.

Outside the discipline of economics, happiness is beginning to compete with gross domestic product as a measure of human well-being. Bhutan frames its success in terms of gross national happiness. More than one survey tabulates self-reports of the degree of happiness all over the world (in one survey, Denmark stands at the top, Zimbabwe at the bottom). As we have seen, a new science of positive psychology flourishes in the academy, where the most popular course at Harvard is a class on happiness.

Anybody asking "are we happy yet?" has to look both at mental habits and at social structures. For example, in Unhealthy Societies: The Afflications of Inequality, Richard G. Wilkinson shows that gross injustice imposes a physical burden. But whether we look at self-defeating mental patterns or social unfairness, we would no longer be assuming that having more stuff, above a certain level, necessarily brings happiness.