Paul Aguirre-Livingston on Happiness

The only thing more elusive than the search for love is the search for happiness. Historically, love and happiness are presented as synonymous: The guy gets the girl, or the girl gets the guy; they live happily ever after. This Western concept of happiness as a goal to aspire to has become the hottest commodity for the neurotic, broke and lonely modern masses. Entire industries are built around happiness; you can sell it and we will buy it. While a new wave of positive psych lit preaches the value of self-reliance above all else, your “bliss” may in fact be at the mercy of external factors. Here are five exhibits that demonstrate the way we define happiness, and why we desperately seek it.

Paul Aguirre-Livingston was content as a magazine editor until one day he wasn’t. This led him reevaluate that funny little thing called “happiness.” Now he spends his days writing wayward thoughts, studying ballet and practising yoga. Follow him @pliving

1. Exhibit A: A scientific perspective

Dan Gilbert is a professor of psychology at Harvard and the author of Stumbling On Happiness. He suggests that happiness comes in two forms: synthetic and natural. Our socially conditioned thought process, encouraged by our “experience simulating” brain, has us believing that synthetic happiness is less valid, but Gilbert questions if we’d be able to tell the difference.

2. Exhibit B: Are we basically fucked no matter what?

In this piece, Sarah Hampson points to the “tyranny of happiness.” Throwing every simile and metaphor she can find at the idea, she lists off some of the factors responsible for making us so hungry for happiness and holds up the mirror: “Are we focused on happiness because we’re subconsciously aware of how impossible modern life makes it?” (Below, disagreeing commenters suggest it must be because she’s a bitter divorcee who’s failed to find answers in her own life, not because–hey!–she may actually have a point.)

3. Exhibit C: The burning questions for confusing realities

This article acts as an inadvertent reminder of what makes happiness so appealing: We simply don’t want to be depressed. Or maybe we do. Johah Lehrer examines research that suggests depression serves an evolutionary purpose, making humans better problem solvers and analytical thinkers. The story is compelling, with discerning academic testimony about the cycle of depression and antidepressant use and how it affects mental growth and happiness. Lehrer also questions the rise of “positive psychology.”

4. Exhibit D: You + Me + Them = Us = Happiness?

Research suggests that an individual is happier when, essentially, he or she is not alone. This makes sense, right? We evolved travelling in packs and mating in pairs. But then what are the implications for those individuals, like myself, who prefer to be alone? If I never get married or have children, am I set to “auto-doom”? The subtext is that “the self” may not be enough to make itself happy; happiness is tied to external conditions. At least that’s what science keeps telling us. So what do we believe?

5. Exhibit E: But they make it look so good

I couldn’t examine this topic without including this zealous tête-à-tête between two women who went out into the world to (re)claim their own happiness. Gretchen Rubin’s best-selling memoir The Happiness Project chronicles her experiences “test-driving studies and theories about how to be happier.” Here, she interviews fellow happiness junkie Lori Deschene. Millions turn to people-turned-bloggers-turned-authors like Rubin and Deschene. I end here in hopes of understanding why this type of advice is so damn popular, and whether I’m missing out. Be sure to read the comments.