Psychology Magazine

Happy Or Anxious?

By Deric Bownds @DericBownds

I want to point to two interesting recent pieces:
Luhrmann notes that the Western, and particularly American, definition of anxiety or depression is very different from that of some other cultures. And, that

...personal thoughts and feelings are the central drivers of human action — not roles, not values, not personal sensation, not God. In the United States, the enormous psychotherapeutic and self-help industry teaches us that we must pay scrupulous attention to inner experience. To succeed and be happy, we are taught, we need to know what we feel.
She comments on the movie "Inside Out," mentioned in previous posts:
It’s a charming movie. It is also distinctly American. It is based on a particular model of the mind that we take for granted, but that is in fact as culturally idiosyncratic as the way we dress. I’m not suggesting that the basic science of emotion depicted in the movie is wrong. Emotions do seem to be crucial in organizing human thinking. I’m suggesting that there is something deeply cultural about the way this mind is imagined, and that it has consequences for the way we experience thoughts and feelings.
Our high anxiety, whatever the challenges we face, is probably one of the consequences.
Cederstrom notes an insidious and political side to the emphasis on interiority, knowing how we feel, as a condition for happiness. After referencing Darrin M. McMahon's recent book "Happiness: A History," he writes:
When happiness is recast as an individual choice, attitude becomes everything and circumstances are made irrelevant. Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology, has worked hard to spread this message, referring to studies that suggest that victims of car crashes are, on the whole, neither less nor more unhappy than lottery winners.
Even if we find such insights interesting or inspiring, they do not form a particularly helpful basis when we seek to make happiness the goal of politics. If we may all be equally happy, irrespective of our circumstances, then that would equip politicians like Mr. Bush with a convenient excuse to stop looking at structural issues like class, social and economic inequality or poverty.
When happiness has become championed and talked about incessantly, as it is today, the best we can hope for is that it raises other universal issues — like equality, justice, truth and ethics, which we desperately need to discuss. The worst that can happen — and this is unfortunately already underway — is that happiness becomes a Trojan horse used to normalize inequality and oppression. Poor people may then be sent to happiness courses to improve their attitudes, or assigned personal life coaches, as Paul Ryan once proposed in his bizarre anti-poverty plan.
Be wary. When politicians suggest that happiness be made the ultimate aim for society we should remember that they are probably not talking about happiness at all. They are talking about ideology: their own political agendas in disguise.

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