HAPPINESS IS NOW an industry. You mightn’t be able to buy it, but you sure can sell its pursuit.
Or let’s put that another way, money mightn’t be able to buy you happiness but with financial security comes the luxury of being able to chase a little self-growth.
“No longer are hunter-gatherers concerned with where to find the next kill,” is how author and psychologist Robert Biswas-Diener has put it, “we worry instead about how to live our best lives.”
And Biswas-Diener has some intriguing ideas on how to do so.
Biswas-Diener’s session at the upcoming Happiness & Its Causes conference in Sydney in June carries the same title as his most recent book (co-authored with Todd Kashdan), The Upside of Your Darkside. In the Sydney session he will share something of his insights into how “harnessing the darker parts of our personality can make us wiser and in certain situations, more effective.”
As Biswas-Diener wrote in Psychology Today, “It turns out that activities that lead us to feel uncertainty, discomfort, and even a dash of guilt are associated with some of the most memorable and enjoyable experiences of people’s lives. Happy people, it seems, engage in a wide range of counterintuitive habits that seem, well, downright unhappy.”
Anger can fuel creativity and guilt can spur improvement, he maintains. Social, emotional and mental agility comes when you don’t try to avoid the perceived lows but have the ability to function in the full range of human emotions in an ordinary life.
Biswas-Diener has made his name by gathering data from places other than our own backyards (consumer society has, after all, proven itself a pretty effective incubator for unhappiness and discontent).
He has interviewed and worked with people in places that include Greenland, India and Kenya. He has spent time with remote groups and in out-of-the-way places.
In Qaanaaq, at the northern end Greenland, he questioned 179 of the local Inughuit people. They live in a hostile, bitterly cold environment that is effectively dark for months in the winter. Not exactly the sort of environment many of us would think would be conducive to contentment.
Biswas-Diener had the Greenlanders fill out extensive questionnaires on themselves and their friends and report on levels of satisfaction, self-esteem, emotions and activities. He found them to be mostly happy, satisfied with their lives and with plenty of affection for others.
In Kolkata, India, the psychologist conducted studies with the homeless and slum dwellers and found them to be “on the midpoint of measures of happiness, significantly higher than their American counterparts”.
The simple conclusion is that happiness doesn’t depend on outer circumstances, but has more to do with something internal. No big revelations there but why is this very simple principal one that, though we intellectually understand it, we find very difficult to digest?
In his book The Upside of Your Darkside Biswas-Diener doesn’t focus on happiness so much, as wholeness and suggests that every emotion is useful.
He suggests that “people who are comfortable with both positive and negative, and can therefore draw from the full range of emotions — are the healthiest, and often, the most successful”.
In our technological, infotainment-obsessed society we too often swallow the lie that everything is controllable and we lean on the countless distractions we have available on tap. It creates the illusion of a controlled, controllable existence. But life is impermanent and constantly changing, it can be unpredictable, joyous, boring, predictable, dangerous, uplifting, uncomfortable, fabulous, confusing, annoying, thrilling and dull.
We attempt to smooth everything over, when really we should learn to accept and integrate the whole of our experience and emotions. Or as Biwas-Diener believes: we need “access to everything in the human psychological knapsack, which means unpacking and integrating previously ignored and underappreciated parts of who you are.”
Including the darkside.
Photograph of the moon by Janet Ramsden from flickr and reproduced under a Creative Commons license.