Neuroscientists can now identify how happiness and unhappiness are physically inscribed inside our skulls They even report the precise parts of the brain which generate positive and negative emotions. And also uncover more and more neural explanations for why particular deeds like singing and loving and following Maarten van Doorn on Medium seem to improve our mental well-being.
As a consequence, a hard science of subjective affect is available to us, which we would be crazy not to put to work. A number of official statistical agencies around the world now, for instance, publish reports on ‘national well-being’. And a growing number of companies employ ‘chief happiness officers’.
As a psychology-student-turned-philosopher, I worry about the monopolization of well-being by the language of brain processes.
There’s something dangerous about how this neurological way of thinking and talking about well-being has trickled down into how we think and talk about our own personal happiness on a day-to-day basis.
The science of prosperity is sold as a tool for self-knowledge and improvement that can help us flourish, but with its inward focus, it may actually be the enemy of controlling your life.
‘Emotion management’ is very often how people avoid looking in the mirror.
What’s the ultimate cause?
Today, we have access to mood-tracking technologies, sentiment analysis algorithms and stress-busting meditations (also food and gaming and infinite content and …). Happiness has become a personal choice;unhappiness the product of laziness.
If we are unhappy about being unemployed, losing our health insurance, or The Good Place being cut it’s our responsibility to use these tools at our disposal, ‘accept it’ and smile.
Relationship trouble bringing you down? Somewhere, a Disney bird is chirping.
In this way, enjoyment is not just your right, it’s your duty. Since well-being is simply a matter of skill, if you’re not feeling fulfilled, “Ya basic.” (Watching The Good Place makes me happy.)
Joking aside, this shift in responsibility is a central factor in the epidemic of depression we’re seeing today. No one is happy all the time, but if being not-happy is your own fault and “basic”, there must be something wrong with you when you have the occasional bad day.
The sufferer interprets innocent bad moods as signs of personal failure, again and again, until a medical diagnosis ‘rescues’ him from accountability. “It’s dysfunction in my brain, I can’t help it.”
The default assumption that the ultimate cause of unhappiness operates ‘in here’, slips in all too easily when happiness is a brain state and fulfillment is a skill.
Where in the causal chain should we intervene?
The risk in our current cultural narrative about well-being is that society ends up blaming — and medicating — individuals for their own problems, and ignores the context that has contributed to it.
It instructs us to point our critical attention inward upon our feelings, brains or behavior — and not outward upon the world and our actual lives.
Seeing happiness as a purely internal matter could give us an excuse not to tackle the real issues. It may lead you to overlook the bigger cause of why you find yourself needing to rely on such tricks to begin with.
It’s a lot harder to admit that your life, and not just your inner voices, need(s) restructuring.
For years, my default response to negative emotions, too, was to intervene in my inner dialogue. Tune into only the helpful voices. Mindfulness helped me a lot as well. Five deep breaths. So don’t get me wrong: these techniques can have massive value.
Yet, while they’re great tools, I worry that we rely too much on cognitive interventions. We use them even when ‘life interventions’ are more appropriate.
Look, if you’re unhappy, it’s more likely that the way you’re living your life is making you unhappy than that the ultimate cause is internal.
Often, feeling bad gets at something and you can’t make it go away by constantly massaging it out of your mental processes. Some things make you unhappy for a reason, and denying that by manipulating your inner dialogue into accepting anyway will make you lose your self-respect.
Happiness is simple (but not easy). And if your life isn’t making you happy, and you continually find yourself engaging in intricate mental restructuring to experience positive emotions, perhaps you’ve overlooked the basics:
If doing anything brings you more anxiety or unease or worry or stress or anything negative than it brings you happiness and peace of mind and comfort and security and whatever else you’re looking for, then you’ve overcomplicated it. — Kris Gage
When looking inside becomes looking away
While meditation, mindfulness and other cognitive interventions surely have their uses, there’s a danger in their promise of delivering happiness independent of the external circumstances in your life (if you do them right, that is).
Assuming ‘it’s all in the head’, we too often leave the problems themselves untouched as we divert our attention to the mental and neural conditions through which we mentally and neurally experience them.
Perhaps, yes, sometimes our emotional responses are out of tune. But often, all too often, the root cause of unhappiness is in the way we live our lives and calls for changing something ‘out there’ rather than working on your mental processes ‘in here’.
In these cases, emotion management is mopping up the floor without also turning off the faucet.
Instead of encouraging honest self-reflection, the current happiness discourse places the ultimate causes of our suffering our disproportionately inside us, and not in grander decisions that shape our lives.
If a certain context is causing you unhappiness, one pro-active plan would be to change that context. Another route involves changing the way you experience it. As Niklas Göke rightly notes: “Often, changing your perspective is the simplest way to change your life.”
Mindset is an incredibly powerful thing. A wonderful tool for upgrading your life from the inside. The question is: should you?
If our attitude is the main change-agent we leverage, we might find ourselves becoming more and more powerless. Instead of setting ourselves free, we meekly adjust to the very conditions that caused our problems.