The Happy Trap

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

There you have it. The United States’ Declaration of Independence clearly encourages the pursuit of happiness. So how do you pursue happiness?

The first week at work at my office job as a new graduate assistant in the U.S., I realized that answering phone calls appropriately required more than English language skills and politeness. After picking up a few calls that I thought went just fine, my office supervisor wasn’t pleased. According to her, my voice was “flat”. To me that made no sense, but once I had practiced the right way of answering the phone I finally got it. Apparently, being excessively excited and sweet on the phone (in my Icelandic opinion) was the way to go. It almost made me cringe. Saying “Have a great day!!” with a big smile on my face felt unnatural and too much somehow.

Now, seven years later, I am used to more than one way of speaking. Peppy small talk and greetings do not feel foreign anymore and I have stopped cringing. However, I am no less curious than before about the fact that what is considered appropriate in one culture may be strange and off-putting in another. In Jonathan Rottenberg’s intriguing book, The Depths, about the evolutionary origins of depression, he talks about the strong emphasis that U.S. mainstream culture places on happiness. He even cites research suggesting that U.S. children are more drawn to pictures of excited smiling facial expressions, while Taiwanese children prefer pictures of calm smiles. These and other research findings indicate that the type of happiness generally encouraged in the U.S. is characterised by excitement and high energy.

Reading this made me think of the numerous times I have been asked by American friends and acquaintances, in a high-pitched voice, “Aren’t you excited?!!”  Most often, my honest answer has been “Well, not really, but I am sure [upcoming event] will be interesting/fun/nice and I am feeling good about it”. Not very energetic, really. Simultaneously, the message impinging on U.S. society is that we should all be happy, that we should all try to stay happy, and that not feeling happy is a sign of abnormality.

The downside of this grand pursuit of happiness may be quite serious. As Rottenberg describes in his book, happiness is not a goal we can realistically pursue in the same way we pursue other goals and tasks in life. While we are taught from an early age that goals can be reached by working hard and doing our best, happiness tends to act differently. In fact, humans are not wired to stay happy. On the contrary, feelings of intense happiness are a natural, temporary consequence of reaching important life goals, such as finding a mate, getting a promotion, being acknowledged, witnessing the success of a loved one, and so on, and once we have experienced the bliss of the passing moment, the intensity of our happy-state tends to return back to a neutral level. Evolutionary speaking, this has the adaptive function of keeping us active and motivated to stay on our toes.

So what happens when the expectation of intense, sustained happiness meets the reality of our garden variety moods that include both ups and downs? Unfortunately, the unrealistic, culturally-shaped expectations of how we “should” feel can result in disappointment, to say the least. On top of that, humans have the impressive ability to not only feel bad, but feel bad about feeling bad! This can easily spiral downward and fuel a nagging sense of dissatisfaction with life and prolong low moods that would otherwise have passed by in their own time.

Kind of like a trap, with flashing lights and Pharrell singing in the background.

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