February 03, 2016

Happiness as Social Control

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

The pursuit of happiness is so central to what it means to be American that it is part of one of our founding documents, the Declaration of Independence. It is a topic that I pursued informally for many years myself, having read a library's worth of self-help books trying to unlock the mystery of personal fulfillment. I came to some simple conclusions: that to be happy means to enjoy the little things in life, to appreciate the people in our lives, to focus on the present, and to take action steps towards our goals and consider action itself a mark of success, and also to do things that improve our health because feeling good, well, feels good.

I had not considered happiness as a scientific field of study until hearing about social psychologist Daniel Gilbert's work on happiness. Gilbert was inspired by events in his own life—things were not going particularly well for him at one point, and yet he did not feel unhappy. This led to a number of experiments about how well (or as it turns out, how poorly) people predict what makes them happy, which he describes in his bestselling book, Stumbling on Happiness.


Drawing on his years of research, Gilbert concludes that we tend to presume that we know what will make us happy, but it turns out we don't do a very good job of predicting this. For instance, we might think winning the lottery would make us happy, or that having a successful career and the admiration it brings from others would top the list. I hypothesize that many celebrities with substance abuse problems find that their fame and fortune do not fill the void that they were hoping it would, and their success does not fulfill them as they once had hoped.

In an online Q&A with his publisher, Gilbert describes a very sociological process: the pursuit of happiness is a form of social control. This doesn't mean that happiness, or its pursuit is "bad," only that the things we think will bring us happiness are social constructions, rooted in the broader social structure. He observes:

For a society to function, many things must happen. For example, people must buy each other's goods and services, people must reproduce and raise their children, and so on. Of course, people won't do these things for the good of their societies because people are typically interested in doing things for the good of themselves. So societies develop essential myths such as "Money will make you happy" and "Children will make you happy," and these myths motivate their members to do what the societies need them to do. But research shows that neither of those things actually makes people particularly happy. Money has only minor and rapidly diminishing effects on happiness, and parents are generally happier watching TV or doing housework than interacting with their children. (Sorry, kids, but that's what the data show).

Happiness is such an alluring concept that we often will do many things we wouldn't otherwise to "get" happy. We might undertake a field of study for a career that we think will do the trick. We might stop eating foods we enjoy because we hope doing so might make us thinner (and presumably happier). We might marry someone simply because other people seem happily married and we learn from others that being married and having kids is a pathway to happiness. Because we see other people celebrating these accomplishments, it becomes socially ingrained that these are in fact accomplishments that others will celebrate in us, and won't that make us happy?

Of course, these things might truly enhance our life experiences. Or they might not—and that is the take away from Gilbert's research. He's not telling us to forget about college, marriage, kids or anything, for that matter. Just that they are not necessarily keys to the kingdom of happiness. For example, relationships are better when the people involved are happy to begin with, rather than when we hope or expect the other person will make us happy.


Gilbert's point in the above quote goes beyond our personal happiness. He is reminding us that what we think will make us happy serves a broader purpose than our individual lives. The pursuit of happiness is an economic engine; if we think looking younger/thinner/sexier will make us happy, and we see products that we think will help us accomplish these things we are more likely to buy them. The gym memberships, the hair products, facial cleansers, weight loss pills, and many other products are sold as happiness shortcuts.

This social control extends beyond marketing into other realms of social life, such as religion, where we might follow particular rules because we want to be part of a congregation today and eventually enjoy the benefits of an afterlife. Gilbert's point is not simply that we are duped into these things, but that we are encouraged to believe that they are part of being happy, which may or may not hold true for everyone.

What else are we regularly told will make us happy? And how does this reflect the broader needs of society?


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