Sunday, September 19, 2010

Happiness: Are We There Yet?

I sat in the backseat of a Volvo, feeling a bit like a kid heading to prom, as two longtime friends from college navigated the one way streets in the West End of DC. We had spent the morning in the bridal suite of another college friend and in our blue bridesmaids’ dresses and made-up faces, sat in sharp contrast to the casual Washingtonians strolling the streets on this beautiful September morning.

“Wow,” my one friend said, looking at the scene near a Starbucks. It was staged, as most, with a bike, dog, and smoker, positioned out front.

“It’s the most important day of (the bride’s) life, and these people are just going about life as usual.”

“If this is the most important day,” my other friend said, “then the rest of her life is going to suck.”

Ah, the milestone of life, floating in the river of banality called life. Or is it the other way around—the banality of milestones interrupting the flow of an otherwise joyous life?

Luckily, the Rabbi chose neither of these generalizations to pontificate on in her sermon. She spoke about the bride and groom, their love, and then said a lot of things in Hebrew I didn’t understand while a fly nipped at my leg through my pantyhose.

The trivialities of life don’t stop during sacred moments—I was reminded of this while I swatted the fly, in the same way I was reminded of it when I stood near my grandmother’s deathbed and heard the relentless string of commercials on her roommate’s television.

Significant moments are so cluttered with the insignificant that it’s impossible to separate the two. Perhaps, the real questions we might have debated in the Volvo that morning were those related to happiness.

Last March, a study, What Makes Us Feel the Best Also Makes Us Feel the Worst: The Emotional Impact of Independent and Interdependent Experiences, published in the journal Self and Identity, argued that events in association with other people cause the greatest emotional impact—greater than individual achievements in work or school.

A wedding might be the perfect combination of “achievement” and “social connection”—not just between the betrothed, but with the family and friends surrounding the couple. But, this kind of isolated joy doesn’t speak to the evaluation of happiness in the day to day, minute to minute routine of life.

When it comes to understanding that happiness, it might be good to look to Princeton Professor and Nobel laureate, Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist who specializes in behavioral economics. I listened to a TED speech he gave this year in which he says that, although more than forty books have been written about “happiness” in recent years, it’s actually a very difficult subject to grasp. Most of us fall into a few “cognitive traps.”

First, he says, we overuse the word happiness and are reluctant to admit its complexity; second, there is a difference between how you feel in your life and how you feel with your life. And, third, we distort the importance of things.

It’s the second point that is most fascinating to me.

How you feel in your life: What do you feel in the specific, isolated, episodic moments of your life? This is how you experience life.

Compare that to: How you feel when you remember or think about your life. This is how you feel about your life, and this “Remembering Self” is extremely powerful.

Kahneman says the Remembering Self drives decisions; it even ascribes value to past experiences that might not be accurate. If the Remembering Self drives future behavior, it’s easy to see how the cycle between the two selves creates a conflict between actually feeling happy, and believing you are (or should be, or have been) happy.

In 2004, Kahneman and a team of colleagues presented findings from The Day Reconstruction Method (DRM). The DRM is a survey that asks participants to create a specific diary, writing down what they did throughout the previous day. The person lists how long each episode lasted and jots down how they felt, or what they remembered feeling, during that activity. Then, they are asked to look back over the entire day, and the notes in their diary, and answer specific questions, rating each moment on a scale of 0-6. How much were they: impatient for it to end; happy; frustrated; depressed; hassled; worried; enjoying themselves, and so on.

A story in the New York Times by Benedict Carey, back in 2004, explains the findings:

The study, of 909 women living in Texas, found that in general, the group woke up a little grumpy but soon entered a state of mild pleasure that increased by degrees throughout the day, punctuated by occasional bouts of anxiety, frustration, and anger. Predictably, they found that commuting, housework, and facing a boss rated as the least pleasant activities, while sex, socializing with friends and relaxing were most enjoyable.

Taking care of kids fell below cooking, housework, shopping and talking on the phone. More enjoyable than all of these things was, “watching TV”.

Before you cry out that these activities portray women to be shallow, heartless, couch potatoes, I found a PDF of the questionnaire and took the survey. And, I see how easily these responses made the list.

In outlining the more than thirty events of my day, I noted that many times when I was with my kids I was, “frustrated, tired,” and only mildly “happy.” In my diary I wrote this a lot of times: rushed. Watching an hour of Rubicon on my DVR while eating leftovers once they were asleep? Wonderful!

Kahneman points out that no one is suggesting these high- ranking activities are the “the best thing” participants could be doing.” Rather, they are a “measure of people’s moods in the moment...”

The moment to moment aspects of raising kids is no cakewalk. And, that’s the irony of the adage, “live in the moment”. I try to, and usually, when I do, I am less anxious and more able to savor the good in things. But, it’s liberating to know that sometimes, living in the moment—the real moment—is what produces such a discrepancy between the experiential self and the Remembering Self.

Going to the farm with my kids, for example: the Remembering Self says I love it. There’s fresh air, apples, and it’s just a short drive from the house. But, what is it like in the moment? I spend most of my time dodging goose poop, running from the guinea hens, calming my five year old (who is afraid of guinea hens) and picking cake donuts out of my two year old’s hair. I don’t think I have fun while I’m there, but I always remember it as something enjoyable. The proof? I keep going back.

And, it’s my Remembering Self that says the birth of my first child was the most joyous day I’ve ever known. An honest jolt of euphoria rushed through my veins when they handed me that six pound baby, a fantastic end to a day that, moment-to-moment, was dominated by hours of physical pain, mental anxiety and ill-timed hunger.

But, how things end, makes a difference, Kahneman says. At least to the Remembering Self.

 Just this week, a friend said her book club had recently read The Happiness Project, and another said her colleagues at the Princeton Press had worked with Derek Bok on his book, The Politics of Happiness, which “examines how governments could use happiness research in a variety of policy areas to increase well-being and improve the quality of life for all their citizens.”

I remember more than a decade ago reading Edward Albee’s play, Three Tall Women, which, like many artistic examinations of life and happiness, was actually well ahead of science.

Three women inhabit the stage, all versions of the same self, in different and distinct embodiments of age: mid-twenties, early fifties, and somewhere around ninety. The younger self has no knowledge of her future; the oldest one, perhaps a bit selective in her memory. Still, they argue over what is or will be their happiest moment. The youngest, Woman C, clings to the idea that there will be happiness, “all along the way” of life and the happiest moment is still to come. Woman B, says she is living in the happiest moment—half of her life behind her, and half ahead.

And Woman A, the oldest, says: ...That’s the happiest moment. When it’s all done. When we stop. When we can stop.

She means death, I suppose.

But, it reminds me of my notes about watching TV—at the end of the night, when everything is quiet and I can sit for a moment. And, that presents a predicament, because I don’t want to live for the end of things. I want to be, and hope I strive to be, happy while it’s all happening....while I am dodging goose poop, and guinea hens, and...and.....the rest of it.


Tim Morrissey said...

In other's more a journey than a destination? Very thoughtful post, Sarah.

Lunch Box Mom said...


Cory said...

Nellie, my 3 year old, feels so much happiness when embedded in a big messy project- I think that is why she is happy with our life- it really is just one big messy project!