Happy Now?
September 3, 2010 |  by Barbara Ehrenreich

But are you happy?” That’s the killer question I’ve faced repeatedly since the publication of my book Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. I take a deep breath because I know what’s at stake. If I come across as unhappy or even a little conflicted, I can be dismissed as a sourpuss, a whiner, or an old-fashioned melancholic with a perverse attachment to suffering. Unhappy people, according to the conventional, positive-thinking wisdom, just aren’t worth listening to, unless you’re willing to join them in a “pity party.”

But how to answer honestly and accurately? The first problem is that happiness is not a momentary sensation, but a kind of average of the fluctuating moods we experience over many hours or months. I may have been feeling pretty good this morning—until I opened the MasterCard bill, that is—so what am I really? In one psychological experiment, subjects were asked to fill out a questionnaire on “life satisfaction”—but only after they had performed the apparently irrelevant task of photocopying a sheet of paper for the experimenter. For some of the subjects, a dime had been left on the copy machine, and these lucky ones reported “substantially” higher levels of happiness than those who had not found a dime, leaving us to wonder what a few pennies, scattered randomly on sidewalks, would do for world happiness.

Whenever I’ve sat down to take one of the happiness or life satisfaction tests devised by psychologists, I’ve been baffled by many of the questions. One well-known test wants to know if I’m “pessimistic about the future.” But whose future—my own personal trajectory or the fate of the species? I’m usually feeling pretty confident about my own but scared to death about the fate of humankind on our hot, overcrowded, and increasingly poisoned planet. So I confessed to pessimism—and thereby knocked my happiness score down from a possible 5 to a less-than-jubilant 3.67. Weeks later, when I interviewed the psychologist who had designed this test and told him I found the question confusing, he suggested I undergo “optimism training” to improve my score.

Now I’m all for designing social policy to maximize the amount of happiness. I’m just not sure anyone knows what it is or how to reliably measure it. Consider the recent fuss over a study titled “The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness” by two professors at the Wharton School, which purports to show that women have become steadily unhappier since 1972, when the women’s liberation movement first arose. A number of conservative commentators leaped to the conclusion that we should roll back the gains of the women’s movement and restore the “feminine mystique.” But strangely enough, the study found no differences in happiness between single and married women, working women and homemakers, affluent women and poor women. In fact, the “happiest” women of all turned out to be African Americans, who suffer more poverty, single motherhood, and of course discrimination than their apparently gloomier white sisters.

Then there are the philosophical issues, which go back at least to Aristotle. Today’s psychologists usually conflate “happiness” with “life satisfaction,” or contentment. In the widely used “Satisfaction with Life Scale” from the University of Illinois, respondents are asked to agree or disagree with such statements as, “I am satisfied with my life” and “So far I have gotten the important things I want in life.” Well, sadly, I have to disagree: I’m not satisfied with what I’ve accomplished so far in my life largely because it doesn’t include such “important things” as world peace or universal social justice. But does this make me unhappy? Not if happiness involves a deep engagement with the world and its people. Albert Camus concluded his essay on the perpetually unsuccessful Sisyphus by saying, “The struggle itself . . . is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

So one of the things I’m not happy about is my ability to deal with the happiness question in a sound bite. On the one hand I want to say that if happiness is contentment, then it is immoral to be happy in a world filled with so much poverty, suffering, and violence. But on the other hand—the one that is more connected to the id than the superego—I want to say that if happiness is contentment, why settle for that? What about adventure, exhilaration, or creative obsession? In our focus on the nebulous goal of “happiness,” we seem to have forgotten the far more acute and searing possibility of joy.

But in my experience, the hedonistic and socially responsible answers ultimately go together. There’s probably no greater adventure, and no better way to boost your own mood, than to work with others to make the world a happier place for everyone.

Barbara Ehrenreich is the author of 11 books, including the National Book Critics’ Circle Award–nominated Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (Metropolitan Books, 2001).