Posted by: Harold Knight | 07/07/2011

A depressive’s guide to happiness

An article in the Atlantic Monthly in 2009 purports to answer the question, “What Makes Us Happy?” I found the article because I have a bee in my bonnet about the absurdity of the “pursuit of happiness,” which, as far as I can tell, is Americans’ primary activity. I’ve been searching academic data bases for articles about the “pursuit of happiness,” and I’ve found some doozeys.

The abstract for the article in Academic Search Complete explains that it

. . .  discusses the methodology and results of the longitudinal Harvard Study of Adult Development and the work of its chief investigator, psychiatrist George Vaillant. The study was begun in 1937 and has studied the lives of a cohort of Harvard students [268 of them] since that period (1).

Among these happy men (Harvard had no women students in 1937) were (are) such luminaries as Ben Bradlee, legendary editor of the Washington Post, and John Fitzgerald Kennedy. (The study keeps the men anonymous, but Ben Bradlee talks about it in his autobiography, and the authors of the article found in the archives the note that one file had been sealed until 2040 because it’s Kennedy’s.)

My first reaction to the article was that the title is wrong. “What makes them happy?” The idea that what makes those guys happy can possibly shed any light on what makes me happy is preposterous. I’m pretty sure marrying Jacqueline Bouvier would not have made me happy any more than marrying Ann did. Perhaps there is a similarity between Jack and me—but for different reasons. Even an affair with Marilyn Monroe wouldn’t have made me happy.

One of the men in the study apparently fell down drunk one day and died. Maybe he and I would have some commonality in the happiness segment of our lives.

One of the strangest ideas about happiness I know of is that God somehow wants us to be happy. The King James Version of the Bible does not use the word “happiness.” A search for happiness seems not to be rooted in what many believe is the infallible Word of God. It’s difficult to find the basis of the preaching of, for example,

Pastor and author Joel Osteen [who] talks about the importance of not growing bored with life. Retraining the mind to take life one day at a time and keeping everything in perspective [he says] will ultimately make us all happier (2).

This description comes from, a website that describes its mission “to help people like you find, and walk, a spiritual path that will bring comfort, hope, clarity, strength, and happiness.” Gotta have that happiness.

The KJV uses the word “happy” only 28 times, and most of those uses are descriptions of particular actions that will make one happy. “Happy are you who sow beside all waters, who let the feet of the ox and the ass range free” (Isaiah 32:20). Gotta run right out and buy me an ox—or an ass.

I started my search for happy articles a few days ago prompted by the Declaration of Independence. I searched for several words in conjunction with “happiness.” Something over 3400 results came up. As I looked at the first hundred articles on the list and read abstracts that looked interesting, I downloaded a half dozen to read. I particularly like the titles of the one I’ve quoted above (“What Makes Us Happy”) and the next on my list (“What Really Makes Us Happy?”).

Ay, there’s the rub!

As I wrote in my last post, quoting Darrin McMahon,

A notion born in ancient Greece, cultivated and shaped by a long Judeo-Christian tradition, only to blossom fully in the age of the Enlightenment as the definitive human end— happiness is today triumphant in the West. . . We shall be happy. We shall have good feelings. We shall feel good (3).  [Emphasis added.]

We are hell-bent on our pursuit of happiness, but the best we can do is ask what makes us happy and then ask what really makes us happy. Ad infinitum. We never get there.

I suppose someone might say my ideas about happiness are not valid because I admit upfront I’m not a happy person. Good grief! I was a gay kid when absolutely no one, was around to tell me that “it gets better.” I was a loner. I spent hours practicing the organ while other kids were out doing happy things.

In third grade, I began having what I discovered much later were Temporal Lobe seizures. How happy could that have made a kid? From third grade until I was 35 doctors universally told me if I’d get over being gay, those terrible feelings would go away. For the last 30 years or so I’ve been depressed enough to be on anti-depressants, in the care of therapists, and once in the hospital because I was just a tad suicidal.

I grew up in a church centered community where happiness was not, I think, much spoken of. I don’t recall my father ever preaching about happiness (I think he was both theologically and psychologically unlikely to do so). But I did not miss the ubiquitous message that happiness was some kind of ultimate goal. After all, Happy Days memorialized the era when I grew up. It aired when I was in graduate school being drunk and happy.

But I wonder. I wonder if happiness is all it’s cracked up to be or if Americans who think they are happy really are.  It may well be that “[s]elf reports of happiness in countries like the United States are so relentlessly upbeat that they could be considerably inflated even with most people actually being happy” (4). Haybron goes on to say “we should take seriously the possibility that very many people are substantially mistaken about how happy they are. This in turn may reflect erroneous views about the nature of happiness. . .”

This may reflect erroneous views about the nature of happiness. There’s the so-called Coca Cola happiness factory commercial. There’s the Avon Wish of Happiness commercial. Then we have the ING Investments Road to Happiness commercial. Even local businesses know that what people want is to be guaranteed happiness.  And so on. Again, ad infinitum.

There is, of course, an enormous literature both philosophical and psychological speculating on what happiness is, beginning with Plato and Aristotle, working through Locke, Hobbes, and Nietzsche, and now in one of its most recent incarnations, Positive Psychology.

Positive Psychologists have four definitions of happiness—the Hedonic (pleasure), the Prudential (satisfaction, as in work), the Eudaimonic (psychological well-being), and the Chaironic (oneness with nature or God) (5).

I suppose if we’re all going to pursue it, we need to know exactly what it is. But my minority report says two things. First, “happiness” is like “spirituality.” It’s a word everyone uses that has no intrinsic meaning.  And, second, a person is not a bad person if he or she either admits to being not happy, or thinks its pursuit is some Enlightenment construct that has nothing to do with real life.
(1) Shenk, Joshua Wolf, Peter Arkle, and Istvan Banyai. “What Makes Us Happy?”Atlantic Monthly 303.5 (2009): 36-53. (2) “Joel Osteen on Habitual Happiness.” N.D. Web. 6 Jul. 2011. (3) McMahon, Darrin M. “What Does the Ideal of Happiness Mean?” Social Research 77.2 (2010): 469-490. (4) Haybron, Daniel M. “Do We Know How Happy We Are? On Some Limits of Affective Introspection and Recall.” Nous 41.3 (2007): 394-428. (5) Wong, Paul T. P. “Positive Psychology 2.0: Towards a Balanced Interactive Model of the Good Life.” Canadian Psychology 52.2 (2011): 69-81.


  1. […] 2009 Atlantic Monthly published an article titled “What Makes Us Happy?” (1). (I’ve written a bit about it before.) It purports to reveal what makes us happy. It’s about what has made a select group of […]



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