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Happiness can be so overrated

A recent study suggests happiness doesn't necessarily translate into health and long life. In fact, living a life of purpose and meaning can sometimes be anathema to happiness.

A widely publicised study published on Dec 9 last year in the venerable medical journal, The Lancet, refuted the long-held and widely subscribed view that happiness enhances health and longevity.

Investigators of the Million Women Study tracked one million middle-aged women in Britain for 10 years; the eventual analysis, which involved about 720,000 women, found that unhappiness and stress did not lead to an increased risk of death. "Good news for the grumpy," was what one of the authors claimed in the popular press.

The authors believe that the previously established connections between unhappiness and earlier death were spurious and a case of "reverse causality" where unhappiness was erroneously thought to lead to poor health and illnesses and subsequently causing death when, in actuality, unhappiness was a by-product of poor health and illness.

This study, whose strengths are in the large number of participants and its sophisticated statistical analyses, has the essential weakness common to most studies of this genre: it depends on the participants declaring whether they are "happy" and left it entirely to them to interpret happiness in whichever way they chose. Critics find this approach too vague for something that is subjective, complex and nuanced. (The ancient Chinese sage Zhuangzi, upon seeing some goldfish in a pond, remarked: "See how happy they are!" A mystified companion asked: "How do you know they are happy?" To which Zhuangzi retorted: "How do you know that I don't know?")

The notion of happiness in the Western world has evolved through the ages. For the ancient Greeks, happiness was leading "the good life" which Socrates defined as living a virtuous life and fulfilling a harmonious role in society. For most of the early history of Christianity, what mattered was not happiness in this world but the sedulous striving for the reward of everlasting bliss in the other world.

It was during the Age of Enlightenment in 18th century Europe, with its vision of the world as a rational place where scientific rigour challenged religious orthodoxy, that earthly happiness became important.

The Enlightenment "translated the ultimate question 'How can I be saved?' into 'How can I be happy?'" said the historian Roy Porter.


ST ILLUSTRATION : MIEL

The earthly pursuit of happiness was hence legitimatised and reached its apogee when it was enshrined in the American Declaration of Independence as an inalienable human right, together with life and liberty.

And in our own National Pledge, the achievement of happiness is one of our shining goals. Nowadays and perhaps emblematic of our times, happiness is more often thought of in terms of satisfaction, contentment and pleasure that may at times seem rather smug and self-indulgent.

In the past few decades, there has been what Professor Claude Fischer, a sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley, called a "stampede to study happiness, create happiness measures for national policy, and publish pop-science and how-to books on the subject".

What used to be the realm of philosophers has now become the romping ground of economists, psychologists, sociologists, geneticists, neuroscientists, self-help gurus and entrepreneurs - who collectively have spawned a booming happiness industry.

Politicians have waded in, following in the wake of Bhutan's Gross National Happiness Index. A commission (which included two Nobel laureates in economics) appointed by the then French President Nicolas Sarkozy recommended that happiness should be indexed as a means of gauging social progress and be a goal of public policy. British Prime Minister David Cameron spoke of wanting to do that, and the United Nations has placed "happiness indicators" on its agenda.

THE ELUSIVENESS OF HAPPINESS

Among the deluge of studies, an oft-cited finding is that money - beyond a point - does not create more happiness.

Longitudinal studies that traced the reported happiness of the general population of well-to-do Western countries like the United States, Switzerland, Belgium and Norway showed that despite their growing affluence since the mid-20th century, levels of happiness among the population had changed very little.

One proposed explanation is the uneven distribution of wealth, with the largess of economic growth ending up in the hands of the few while the average citizen has not really become wealthier.

But while this might be the case in the US, it seemed less likely in the European countries where there was a more equitable distribution of income.

Another explanation is the so-called "hedonic treadmill" which posits that any improvement in one's lot is matched by an expansion in expectation. This is engendered by that unfortunate and unsociable urge to compete and compare: studies have shown that any happiness of a change in income is influenced significantly by the changes to income of one's friends, colleagues and neighbours.

Thus, we self-frustrate ourselves with that constant psychological shifting of the goalposts that renders any sense of material satisfaction perpetually and maddeningly out of reach. (Lasting happiness, according to Sigmund Freud, is impossible as it is about pleasure and pleasure is by nature transitory.)

But still, should we be asked what is it that we want out of life, happiness is very likely to be our answer. However, if we are pressed to explain what exactly we mean by that, most of us might have some problem articulating it - the whole thing becomes awkwardly inchoate and amorphous.

Happiness is "an enigma, a permanent source of debates, a fluid that can take every form, but which no form exhausts", writes the French philosopher Pascal Bruckner in his book Perpetual Euphoria: On The Duty To Be Happy. "You can't summon happiness like you summon a dog. We cannot master happiness, it cannot be the fruit of our decisions." And if this elusive state is realised, Bruckner asserts that it would lead to "boredom or apathy". Happiness might then lull us into the dull and complacent state of a lotus-eater that thwarts us from searching and striving for something of a higher value which is the other deep, roiling and unspoken thing that we often yearn for - meaning to our lives.

THE PURSUIT OF MEANINGFULNESS

Existential philosopher Albert Camus had said that we can never be happy if we continue to search for what happiness consists of. He also said that we will "never live" if we are constantly looking for any preordained meaning of life because there isn't any, and that life would all the more be better lived for that reason.

What he is saying, by inference, is that those things in our life that are worthwhile are in our hands, and that it is up to us to find a personal meaning for our life.

Finding meaning in our life is often an exercise in retrospection, reflection and imagination which links the past with the present, projecting to some desired future goal.

Saying that there is no one single meaning in life but that it varies from one person to another is stating the obvious. The usual understanding is that a life of meaning should be of some social value, which precludes self-obsessed and self-regarding material success, but rather is something that transcends the self.

The starting point of any meaningful life must surely be a sense of purpose and a desire to make a difference. The subsequent endeavour to attain that goal often requires exertion and sacrifice; it can be vexing, stressful, and often not resulting in any happiness. Although happiness may emanate from these efforts,as smoke does fire, happiness and meaningfulness are distinct from each other.

A case in point is the "parenthood paradox" where most people want to be both happy and to become parents, but these two goals often conflict with each other (becoming a parent has been consistently shown in numerous studies to reduce happiness). This, however, does not deter most people who want (and continue to want) to have children despite the inevitable anxieties, frustration and even woes, and this is because they find parenthood meaningful and enriching in many other ways that compensate for any loss in happiness.

Studies have indeed shown that having purpose and meaning in life enhances overall well-being as well as mental and physical health, and decreases the chances of depression. It might not give us sustained, unadulterated happiness but it imbues our life with a sense of worth and gives it depth.

It is a consolation that assures us that we have a soul within that state of being that is not a mere chasing of the wind. And if the researchers of the Million Women Study are right, it wouldn't shorten our life.


•The writer is vice-chairman of the medical board (research) at the Institute of Mental Health.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 30, 2016, with the headline 'Happiness can be so overrated'. Print Edition | Subscribe