Cracks in Our Rose-Tinted Glasses?

In the last week, several media outlets have addressed research that presents an alternative view on the happy emphasis on positive psychology and self-help that has swept through America in the past few years.  I’ll just excerpt some pieces from each, not a lot of commentary this time. 

First, three pieces from Sharon Begley’s article “Happiness: Enough Already” in Newsweek: 

Excerpt #1: While careful not to extol depression—which is marked not only by chronic sadness but also by apathy, lethargy and an increased risk of suicide—[Diener] praises melancholia for generating “a turbulence of heart that results in an active questioning of the status quo, a perpetual longing to create new ways of being and seeing.” This is not romantic claptrap. Studies show that when you are in a negative mood, says Diener, “you become more analytical, more critical and more innovative. You need negative emotions, including sadness, to direct your thinking” 

#2: It’s hard to say exactly when ordinary Americans, no less than psychiatrists, began insisting that sadness is pathological. But by the end of the millennium that attitude was well entrenched. In 1999, Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” was revived on Broadway 50 years after its premiere. A reporter asked two psychiatrists to read the script. Their diagnosis: Willy Loman was suffering from clinical depression, a pathological condition that could and should be treated with drugs. Miller was appalled. “Loman is not a depressive,” he told The New York Times. “He is weighed down by life. There are social reasons for why he is where he is.” What society once viewed as an appropriate reaction to failed hopes and dashed dreams, it now regards as a psychiatric illness. 

#3: When someone is appropriately sad, friends and colleagues offer support and sympathy. But by labeling appropriate sadness pathological, “we have attached a stigma to being sad,” says Wakefield, “with the result that depression tends to elicit hostility and rejection” with an undercurrent of ” ‘Get over it; take a pill.’ The normal range of human emotion is not being tolerated.” And insisting that sadness requires treatment may interfere with the natural healing process. “We don’t know how drugs react with normal sadness and its functions, such as reconstituting your life out of the pain,” says Wakefield. 

Next NPR’s radio program In Defense of Sadness: Happiness Is Overrated  

And the blog at “Sadness — Huh, Yeah — What is It Good For?” 

The program presents an interview with Eric Wilson, a writer and professor who “thinks happiness is overrated. After trying yoga, salads, tai-chi, and a few of those self-help tomes, Wilson concluded: ‘The road to hell is paved with happy plans.’  In his new book Against Happiness, Wilson argues that there is a vital need for sadness in the world and says we’re missing out if we medicate it away.” 

One great quote early on: “Melancholy is a deep longing for a richer relationship to those around us and to the world around you” that, for him, has “led to revelations of self and new ideas.”  Wilson makes a distinction between happiness and joy, the desire for contentment versus the thrill of bliss that arises from engagement with the world and, often, with overcoming difficulties and our associated blues.   

As Neal Conan says, “Losing will make the winning all the more sweet when it happens,” and Wilson responds, “The way to appreciate life, the way to keep from taking life for granted, is to embrace the rough spots.  You need the rough spots, you need the rough spots, the bad occasions to teach you how satisfying your life is when it is not so bad. “ 

Finally, the 60 Minutes television segment And the Happiest Place on Earth Is… 

This segment (complete transcript online) presents the counter-intuitive example of Denmark as the happiest spot on earth.  “Over the past 30 years, in survey after survey, this nation of five and a half million people, the land that produced Hans Christian Andersen, the people who consume herring by the ton, consistently beat the rest of the world in the happiness stakes.” 

The segment argues that they are consistently the happiest because the Danes have low expectations, so when something good happens, they know to enjoy it.  In other words, they are not consistently disappointed as life rolls along.  One early quote: “After careful study, Christensen thinks he isolated the key to Danish anti-depression. “What we basically figured out that although the Danes were very happy with their life, when we looked at their expectations they were pretty modest,” he says.” 

A journalist puts this research into more anthropological perspective: “Dorset says that contentment may stem from the fact that Denmark is almost totally homogenous, has no large disparities of wealth, and has had very little national turmoil for more than a half century. “We have very little violence. We have very little murders. So people are, feel very safe,” he says.” 

Furthermore, this piece makes a clearer distinction between sadness and anxiety, presenting the Danes as less anxious due to their way of life and form of government.  As one student relates about other Danes his age: “For example: they have no student loans hanging over their heads. All education is free in Denmark, right on through university. And students can take as long as they like to complete their studies.”   

Finally, for those of you interested in positive psychology, here are two field leaders:

Martin Seligman and his website/program Authentic Happiness:

Mihaly Csíkszentmihalyi and his Quality of Life Research Center:

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