Some Notes on Happiness

I’ve recently had the privilege to reflect on the meaning of happiness in a forthcoming article for Writing from Below. The premise was that the “good life” in the trans ordinary (that is, day-to-day routines and rhythms of making a trans life livable) couldn’t be indexed by normative standards of happiness. My article isn’t as overly pessimistic as one might think (as a lot of feminisms tend to be–I’m looking at you Sara Ahmedteehee). I just didn’t want to suggest that being trans was all glamour, glitz, and easy access to transition-related care. It’s tough. It’s boring. It’s life. But I was “happy” to have finished it.

So, just a few hours after having wrapped up some final edits, sending the article off to the editor, and calling it a day (for writing at least)–I found myself sitting in my psychiatrist’s office and…

“How to Be Happy”

It was a cover headline for New York Magazine. I imagined the irony, of course, sitting feet away from the office where my (who I find amazing) doctor listens to my problems and prescribes me medications that keeps me semi-stable. Given that I had just finished re-reading Lauren Berlant’s now classic Cruel Optimism(2011), a book dedicated to affects of happiness, belonging, and the good life, I was intrigued. So I couldn’t help but share my thoughts. (N.B. Click on the article link for their statistical data.)

Life Lessons

Yale’s apparently most popular course, entitled “Psychology and the Good Life,” has what the NYMag postures as some “quick answers” to finding the rhythm of the good life for all. And the necessity for the course is defined by statistics in the first few paragraphs: the US is among the least happy countries according to the UN; US students are among the least happy demographic, where over 50 percent reported feeling depressed or overwhelmed by day-to-day life; apparently Penn students don a grimace penned (sorry folks) the “Penn Face” as a mark of discontent. (Interestingly, Berlant was a bit prescient on this facial expression more generally, calling it a “recession grimace…somewhere between a frown, a smile, and a tightened lip” [196]). You can even take the happiness survey administered by Penn (you do need to create an account–it’s quick). You can see my results at the end of the blog–if you get that far.

To overcome some of these contemporary facts of life, the article states that Professor Laurie Santos (the course’s lead instructor) “wants to teach [the students] not just the science of happiness but the practice of happiness. And happiness, it turns out, does take practice. But first you have to learn what exactly happiness is. If previous courses in this field might have been characterized as “Why Happy People Are Happy,” this course could be called “What Is Happiness, Why Aren’t You Happy, and What Can You Do to Change That?” I think that sounds like a great thing, for any number of reasons. And here are just some of the ways we can get into the groove of practicing happiness.

  1. Defy the “G.I. Joe Fallacy” that knowledge is half the battle. In fact, there’s a complication to knowing anything that makes us happy, or sad, or anything at all. As an epistemologist, I like this first move. The point is that knowing what makes you happy will more likely be a distortion of what you feel will make you happy. (Hang on to that feeling versus knowing dichotomy.)
  2. Defy the idea that circumstances are conducive to happiness. Being in state of relative stability won’t promise happiness, just a sense of stability. (Hang on to that notion of stability.) Happy people are more social–spending time with friends and family. Happy people are more physically active, either through walks, gym routines, etc. In a word, happy people “savor life’s simple pleasures” (yes, that’s a quote from the article).
  3. Promote “Synthetic Happiness.” From what I gathered, Professor Santos illustrates how happiness is not something that is simply obtained (agreed), but is something that happens over a process–living. In that sense, it is a synthesis of life practices that bring about the sensation that happiness, or something like happiness, just is. In the final analysis, happiness is a constructed and subjective state of affairs. You have to work at it, folks. (It makes me wonder how Tony Robbins would approach this kind of moral psychology course. Would he enroll to understand the good life!)

The article does have plenty of interactive media to play with–from music lists to required readings from the course, to exams, to extra credit assignments. I plan to indulge.

Life in the Ordinary

What seems to be missing, and what a consensus of scholars of emotion are saying these days, is that contemporary forms of life are affectively bound to relations that reproduce happiness at whatever the cost–even if those costs are the state of being happy itself. It’s about one’s having a sense, feeling a sensation, of being happy. And therein lies the pitfalls of pinning normative happiness (as Professor Santos and the NYMag article do) to the good life. It does so at the expense of nonnormative forms of life. This is where Berlant’s rather erudite book comes in handy.

We live in an era (what Berlant has coined the “historical present”) that seems to have no immediate future anterior. In other words, we are stuck–at an impasse she might say–in an enduring moment that seems to be getting us nowhere.

The enduring present that is at once overpresent and enigmatic requires finding one’s footing in new manners of being in it. The haunting question is how much of one’s creativity and hypervigilant energy the situation will absorb before it destroys its subjects or finds a way to appear as merely a study hum of livable crisis ordinariness (196).

This durability reflects the living scenes of cruel optimism, the core of her work.

A relation of cruel optimism exists when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing. It might involve food, or a kind of love; it might be a fantasy of the good life, or a political project. It might rest on something simpler, too, like a new habit that promises to induce in you an improved way of being. These kinds of optimistic relation are not inherently cruel. They become cruel only when the object that draws your attachment actively impedes the aim that brought you to it initially (1).

The NYMag article and the Yale class contain content that promote such a cruel optimism. The article because it boasts that reading it will make you happier. The course because, well, that’s its pedagogical objective. Both rightfully argue that life is a project and that happiness can only be, in the final analysis, manufactured (#3). But what does it mean to be happy under conditions of racial injustice, sexism, transphobia, or compulsory heterosexuality? These aren’t just theoretical questions to “bum us out.” They pose real challenges to the stakes of making a good life because, at the end of the day, whose good life are we making? As happy, sexually-active people, is the good life being monogamously coupled with children? What of asexual communities? Is it economic success in the face of past adversity? Are we supposed to bear the brunt of a so-called innocuous joke when it hurts us? What does it mean to make a life where happiness is viewed, from the outside, as being low-brow or abrasive–subject to immediate social policing? Feeling that you are getting by and being happy can and perhaps must, for all intents and purposes, be taken as constituting one and the same phenomenon (if only each representing one side of a coin).

Thus our feelings and knowledge about the good life vary dramatically. Life as a project consists of an ongoing entanglement within a web of disadvantages and privileges. A singular life doesn’t amount to being a pure form of privilege or abjection, but a pendulum-like improvisation across the two. This would mean that abjection (as Professor Santos rightfully points out in the conditions of refugees) might have moments in which attachments produce states of stability that promote feelings of wellbeing–of happiness. This doesn’t mean that living in abject conditions is worth striving for or even just. Anthropologist Veena Das has argued the same in Life and Words. Making do in life means folding violence into the weave of everyday experience. The job of the investigator is to understand the how and why of that fold within the experiential sphere of violence. It can also mean that privileged people can still feel the sting of precarity, emotional pain, and physical harm. It amounts to differences mattering. If happiness is not an intelligible emotion–but is rather relations obtaining among things, people, conditions, and institutions, then the “good life” is much more complicated than learning a set of practices.

If traditional genres of being within the good life are no longer providing the stability they once promised, a growing sense (that is to say, a growing affective structure) of tentativeness fills the cultural milieu. This isn’t just economic. It’s familial and social. It’s political and personal. The fact that scholars “find” that the happiest people spend more time with families and others completely elides the point. So does the “fact” that physically active people are happier. What kinds of families? Are these people from socio-economic brackets conducive to such social and activity-oriented structures? Is it impossible to be happy in nonnormative forms of kinship? This doesn’t only complicate the literature-base of the course or of the pollyannaishness of article. My argument is that queer, trans, and non-White forms of family and life-activity may not meet (and in fact might often defy) these norms. And if that’s the case, how does the accepted standard defining “happy people” thus apply?

On Nonnormative Pedagogy

My Godfather, a converted Buddhist monk who lives in Albuquerque, NM, intones frequently that happiness, like sadness and all “emotions,” is impermanent. There’s something of a pedagogical “a-ha moment” at work each and every time he tells me. There is no “fast lane” or “cheat sheet” for happiness, no quiz that can tell you (affirmatively) that you are or are not happy compared to others, or that the relational attachments in your life are or are not self-dissipating or self-extending. There is only a sense of the durability of the present–a pressing, if not ominous, feeling: You got to get it right, whatever that “it” is. If you think about it, this isn’t some new age self-help script. This kind of epistemology leads toward a set of questions and assumptions that would saddle culture and social forms, not the individual or subjects, with the bulk of the problematic. If it is indeed cultural, then why are we so goddamn focused on individuals to get up off their asses and procure happiness for themselves? As a non-binary queer, my questions try to fuse the personal and impersonal. How can queer and trans folks find happiness when their bodies are the brunt of consumerist jokes or medicalized sensationalism? For that matter, how the fuck does Katie Couric get her own documentary on the perceived gender revolution

If there is a “good life,” we might be better off defining it collectively, in dialogue, and drop the facade of individualism. There are too many lives, and not enough visions, at stake.

I took the quiz, by the way. Here are my results. Note that to proceed, gender was a part of the questionnaire. 

Screen Shot 2018-05-29 at 4.33.21 PM

Now, if you’ll excuse me. I have grading to do. And I’m fucking happy to do it.

2 responses to “Some Notes on Happiness”

  1. Thank you! I missed the NPR piece, but I’ll have to give it a listen. It seems so off the mark to me that a course (at an Ivy institution notwithstanding) is lecturing about happiness along such blatantly normative and consumerist lines. Feeling happy and being happy have to be understood as different states in varying contexts–particularly when there are populations that may never have a vision that approximates obtaining, let alone looking like, the “good life.”

  2. Amazing, this is exactly what I needed to read after hearing the interview on NPR yesterday on Yale’s class on Psycology of the Good Life. It seemed so tone deaf to all of the insurmountable struggles different folks can experience.
    There needs to be an acknowledgement of the line between happiness not achieved because of lacking what you need, and lacking what you want. I believe they example they used was having consistent access to food as a deterrent to happiness and wanting a more prestigious raise/position at your work. These just cannot be treated as if they’re in the same ballpark.

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