Posted by: Harold Knight | 07/13/2011

Let’s have some SWB and then get real

Paradise Point Beach too crowded

Paradise Point Beach too crowded

So you are on the beach, happy.

I’ll bet for 95% (or more) of friends (or strangers) who read that sentence  Ipanema or Waikiki or Puerto Vallarta, or the French Riviera, or Malibu, or—these days—Dubai comes instantly to mind.

Sunshine and sand and water (into which one almost never actually ventures) and beach umbrellas and beer and volleyball and Speedos and bikinis and noise and excitement and (above all else) people. Many many people. What would be the point of going to a beach the hordes had not decided was “the” place to go—to be seen having the time of your life? Thousands of people can’t be wrong, can they?

Yesterday I made a joke to my closest confidantes. I spent a good portion of the day on the beach at Paradise Point at Port Orford (Oregon, you remember). It’s my favorite beach. Anywhere. One possible exception: Ipanema in Rio. I was there on July 4, 1990. Hardly anyone was waving an American flag, and most of the people (by American standards) needed to drape flags around themselves. Speedos and bikinis were overdressing (remember, “Tall and slender and young and tender, the girl from Ipanema. . . each one she passes goes ‘Ahhh’”).  That’s not the reason Ipanema ranks with Paradise Point Beach. I think it was novelty that pleased me. But I would like to go back there.

And back to Oregon.

My joke was that after I had spent a couple of hours on the beach at Paradise Point, it became overcrowded so I had to leave. A couple with their three dogs showed up (see photo). If you look closely you can see they weren’t the original cause of the overcrowding. A fisherman had been at that end of the beach for about half an hour. One lone fisherman (with a reason to be there other than to be “happy”) was not a crowd. Two more people and three dogs, however, were.

Or was it a joke?

Adopting a cultural psychological approach, we believe that culture and SWB are most productively analyzed together as a dynamic of mutual constitution. We outline a cultural theory of SWB to systematically analyze conceptions of happiness as embedded in both Euro-American and Asian cultures. Our cultural theory posits that distinct and different characteristics of the conceptions of happiness are prevalent in Asian and Euro-American cultures (1).

The Journal of Happiness Studies. SWB. Of course, culture and SWB are most productively analyzed together. Happiness studies.

That’s a no brainer. You have to go to the beach and find the culture to analyze SWB. The culture of sunburn and crowds and kids screaming and dogs barking and a few brave souls understanding that “beach” means water and maybe even a surfer or two. As I see it, however, Subjective Well-Being is, well, subjective. If I have a sense of well-being on a beach in Oregon completely alone, that’s my SWB. And it doesn’t (does it?) depend on culture—or need anyone’s approval.

Either Luo and Gilmour have found the cultural source of well-being or they set out to demonstrate their preconception that a sense of well-being

. . .  often goes hand-in-hand with various positive feelings and emotions in experiences of happiness. Some participants defined happiness in terms of simple joy and hedonistic pleasures, such as joy, elation, and enjoyment . . . [saying]  ‘‘Happiness is smiling and laughing, living for the being at peace with yourself and letting this inner peace radiate out towards others positively. . . ’’ (2).

I’m not certain (pardon my less than charitable English prof manner) if they intentionally use a word to define itself (“simple joy. . . such as joy”) or if their editor didn’t do her job. Or—perhaps most likely—the project of attempting to define “subjective” well-being in terms of culture is bound to fail no matter how popular such a project might be. “And as she passes, each one she passes, says, “Ahhhh!’” Let this inner peace radiate out towards others positively.

If Subjective Well-Being is real or attainable or desirable or. . . then it seems to me the subject has to find it herself. Pardon my apparent anti-social bent (at which no one who knows me either as a person or by reading this blog should be surprised), but I think most of what passes as well-being is, in Luo and Gilmour’s terms, “smiling and laughing, living for the being at peace with yourself.”

Smiling and laughing may well be the goal of life. But living to say “Ahhh!” as the Girl from Ipanema passes (or living to have each one say it as you pass by) seems to me to be missing some aspect of reality. I don’t know, of course. I’m a depressive. Perhaps I need a good dose of saying “Ahhhhh!” On the other hand, it seems to me that

analyses of happiness can make do without distinguishing merely apparent happiness from real or higher or lasting or spiritual or genuine happiness. Reflection on these truer forms of happiness seems troubled by the ease with which imposter forms not only take people in but actually satisfy them (3).

I get squeamish when people start talking about “spiritual” happiness (see my writing about spirituality). But I get more squeamish when anyone hints that I shouldn’t enjoy, for example, being on the beach alone. The unrelenting reality of the ocean (oh, what the heck, I might as well write clichés) gets under my skin as nothing else can. We each come to our understanding of our own mortality, I think, in one of two ways. We either confront it unequivocally in the form of illness or disaster, or we confront it through some mysterious process of thought, of unfolding awareness. Mine is the second.

Whenever I place myself in proximity to the ocean, I mysteriously understand my mortality. We are taught “of dust we are and to dust we shall return.” I think that’s ultimately not true. Of the ocean we are and to the ocean we shall return.  Mark Larrimore thinks we need to find real or spiritual or genuine happiness. For me, all I need is to contemplate—without the intervention of a cultural sense of subjective well-being (an oxymoron)—the unfathomable mystery of life crawling out of the ocean. Even if evolutionists are wrong, the rhythm and vastness of the sea tells me I’m mortal—and probably came from “the deep.”

The rhythm and vastness are a comfort. I am not depressed knowing that of which I am a part. And I cherish moments when the ocean and I can share that knowledge alone together.
(1) Luo, Lu and Robin Gilmour. “Culture and conceptions of happiness: individual oriented and social oriented SWB.” Journal of Happiness Studies 5.3 (2004): 269-291.
(2) ibid.
(3) Larrimore, Mark. “Religion and the Promise of Happiness.” Social Research 77.2 (2010): 569-594.


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