Unhappy State (Of Mind)

According to the NYT, a recent study measuring correlations between living conditions and happiness in America found that they’re very strongly linked.  More thoughts on that in a minute.  But an informational byproduct of the study was a ranking of states from most to least happy.

At the bottom of that list?

Let’s just say that Jay-Z and Alicia Keys might not be pleased.

Sure, it’s important to avoid conflating New York City with the state as a whole.  But it does give me an excuse to finally share my photos from September’s week-long visit.

To return to the main point of the study, though, and the article covering it: this journalist dude takes on a strange, pseudo-sarcastic tone in defending New York, and in so doing seems to be talking out of two sides of his mouth: (a) objecting that Poor people in those higher-ranked places can’t really be happy — they must be faking! and (b) defending unhappiness as a catalyst for great artistic achievement.

Let’s take the second point first.  This is actually a pretty common attitude, right?  Haven’t you ever known someone who seems to derive great satisfaction from their misery and solemnity, from complaining about it, or from constantly striving for bigger and better achievements, never satisfied with what they have?

Such attitudes or habits of mind aren’t limited to artists by any means — in fact, all of us fall into similar patterns from time to time.  Even if we don’t particularly like feeling unhappy, we cling to an identity of unhappiness because it seems solid and somehow justifiable.  Or maybe we’re terrified of what might happen if we let go of it.  So we want to analyze it just so, and relate it back to our whole life history, beginning with childhood, etc.

With art, though, or “creativity” more broadly, this normal fascination with unhappiness is particularly easy to rationalize, since part of artistry involves representing human misery faithfully, accurately, and poignantly.

But all I’m saying is, if Michelangelo were a close friend of mine, and he had a choice between finding happiness and creating the Sistine Chapel, I’d encourage him to put away his brushes.

I mean, would we really wish unhappiness on another person — or on ourselves — just so that we could enjoy some good art?

It’s the same flawed logic I laughed about in another study, which implied that being a hostile and unhappy person might be worth it if it increased your longevity.


As for Haberman’s first point, being dubious about the poor yet satisfied, here’s how I see it.  His attitude reflects the common American notion that greater material wealth — and its attendant perks — grants us more happiness.  But the quality-of-life measurements used in the study included a wide variety of factors, including “climate, taxes, cost of living, commuting times, crime rates and schools.”

Now, having a lot of money does expand one’s options, meaning that you, an individual, could choose to move to a place like Louisiana (the state ranked highest in happiness) and enjoy its sunshine and other non-monetary advantages.  But simply having a load of money and living in a cold, dismal, rat-race, no-one-knows-their-neighbors and people-spend-half-their-day-in-traffic suburb ain’t gonna cut it.

Similarly, just because a state has a lot of financial wealth doesn’t mean it’s allocating it in ways that boost people’s well-being.  More likely, it’s using it to further enrich the ruling class and imprison huge numbers of people of color.  (Side note: I wonder if prisoners were surveyed for this study?)

The issue that interests me more, though, is why Americans’ happiness is so closely tied to predictable environmental factors of any kind — financial, structural, social, or otherwise.

I wonder whether a Buddhist country, for example, where dominant cultural wisdom might encourage disaggregating happiness from material conditions, would show similarly strong correlations.

Anyhow, The City was my first stop back in the States, and even though I find it stressful and would never want to live there myself, it sure was pretty to look at for a week in early autumn.

Enjoy the photos, folks, and be happy.

3 thoughts on “Unhappy State (Of Mind)

  1. Momin December 24, 2009 / 11:17 am

    Well, New York City has a city population of 8.4 million as compared to the total New York State population of 19.5 million. So we can at least say that the city itself is almost half the total state population. Also interesting is that the city’s urban and metro populations, respectively 18.2 and 19.0 million, extend into New Jersey and Connecticut. Are those states low down as well? And regardless of whether or not they are, how much can we conflate the experience of living in the city proper with the experience of living in its larger urban or metro area? But as you point out, there are other possible flaws in the methodology, and I think not surveying prison populations would make the whole study questionable and make the fallacy of conflating the happiness of the city and the happiness of the state a moot point.

    You know my thoughts about the city, I wrote it in an email… but I’ll add two things based on the rest of this post.

    This is something I’ve come to suspect, in myself as much as in others. We all seem to want a savior, somebody to come and rescue us from our misery, especially in one brilliant, ecstatic moment of release (interesting side point I just learned about: apparently, the word “liberty” in the ever-so-American quote “proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof,” on the Liberty Bell and from Leviticus 25:10, is better translated from Hebrew/Greek as “release”). And we wallow in misery because we imagine the height of the ecstasy of our release will be proportional to the depth of the misery that we have waited in. But that is nothing but a tantrum: stubbornly hurting ourselves because we believe that it will somehow exact revenge on a world that has wronged us by not giving us what we want and think we deserve. As for why we are terrified to let it go? Well, the perfect savior (or more often any savior) never comes, and we are afraid that if we let go for a lesser or no savior, we will miss out if the ultimate savior does come along. Or even more stark, we imagine that if we stop throwing our tantrum and we stop punishing the world, that will decrease the chances of the ultimate savior coming along.

    But that’s just my idea for a more developed explanation on why we cling to an identity of unhappiness. The thing to realize, of course, is that there are no saviors coming down anytime soon, and so we’ve got to save ourselves.

    Interesting point about Michelangelo; another idea I had is that the Artist is a miserable creature, who requires misery and suffering to exist and thrive. If we had a perfect world, we’d only have shitty art, for the same reasons as (like I mentioned on another comment I just left) middle-class suburbanites who go to elite colleges probably aren’t going to make good art. It’s because the art would have no depth, if it would have no suffering to tap into. Then, the opposite view is taken up by Nietzsche, who holds that creation is more important than harmony. He argues that humanity became interesting only when it gained depth, that is to say, when it became ‘evil,’ and takes this as a good thing. But I’ll stop before I get lost in abstractions…

    As to the connection between money and happiness, there’s a literature about this that I’ve dug out but haven’t gone through yet. The major landmark is the article, “Does Economic Growth Improve the Human Lot? Some Empirical Evidence” by Richard A. Easterlin. Its an interpretation of the results of a survey of nineteen countries from the 1950s to the 1970s (the paper explains the methodology of surveying something as abstract and subjective—not to mention possibly culturally specific—as happiness). I think the overall conclusion is that money does make you happy to a point, which is when basic needs are met. Then, above that, money has no connection to happiness.

    Easterlin updated this argument in a 1995 article. Then recently, a 2003 article by Michael R. Hagerty and Ruut Veenhoven, “Wealth and Happiness Revisited: Growing wealth of nations does go with greater happiness,” argues “increasing national income does go with increasing national happiness, but the short-term effect on happiness is higher than the long-term effect for a given rise in income.” Then in 2004, Easterlin responded/defended with “Feeding the Illusion of Growth and Happiness: A Reply to Hagerty and Veenhoven” that delved into their methodology. And then a 2008 paper by Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, “Economic Growth and Subjective Well-Being: Reassessing the Easterlin Paradox” takes new evidence and reassesses Easterlin’s claim, and concludes that there is no saturation point, and there is “a clear positive link between average levels of subjective well-being and GDP per capita across countries.”

    So, I’d really need to spend some time with these papers to examine their data and methodology and arguments before I decide which to agree with (if any) and I haven’t gotten around to that yet. I’ll also have to look very carefully and what bounds they set, because all of them do admit that happiness is very subjective. Then, as people like Hans Rosling point out, there is a major difference between the GDP of a country and the fate of the majority of its citizens; an increase in GDP could mean the rich are getting a fuckload richer while the majority of people actually suffer more. Do these papers take subtleties like this into account?

    Rosling does some quite convincing data analysis to conclude that this overall has not been the effect of capitalism and globalization, and that inequality overall has been decreasing both among countries and within countries, but ultimately that’s not going to be as important as considering whether we should do something like what Bhutan did, and replace GNP with GNH (Gross National Happiness).

    By the way, if you want any of the papers I mentioned, they are all available online but I also have them downloaded. I can send any to you if you’re interested and don’t want to hunt them down. However, I can understand if you aren’t interested, because all of these ultimately do rest on the assumption that there is significant understanding to be gleaned from massive data mining, and that insight derived in this manner is superior to intuitive insight about the human condition gleaned from human contact and from experience. I am working on this latter angle as well, but usually not in the same discursive way as I use to explore rational claims.

    I see all of this ultimately relating back to New York as the concrete expression of this, because the city is the cosmopolitan model of the height of the consumerist-capitalist-globalized model of civilization. Is New York what we want to strive for more of the world to look like? If yes, is such a goal possible with the resources we have available? Or does something like New York need to be the center of an empire that draws in resources from the world as its periphery to itself at the center to have the cosmopolitan character it does. Is the greatest expression of cosmopolitanism the possession solely of a Caput Mundi, which (by definition) will be unique? But first, how do we determine whether the New York model is desirable? Do we measure happiness, or are there preferable measures of value of life, or even preferable ways to value life? All questions I’m working on, trying but usually failing to stay away from flights of abstraction…

  2. ei powell December 25, 2009 / 1:00 am

    I have so many thoughts about this post. I also read an article about New York being #51 in the list of happy states, and wasn’t surprised at all (note to the commenter above, New Jersey and Connecticut are #49 and 50, maybe not in that order).

    Anecdotally, NYC is crowded, it’s dirty, it’s busy and a lot of the city is damn poor. Greater material wealth can certainly grant more options, and that shouldn’t be downplayed. Being able to choose where to live, shop, and see your doctor are only some of the more obvious examples. Feeling secure, knowing you have a place to live, and that you can go to college or a decent high school are others. Cultivating a greater understanding of one’s own self-potential (including the potential to recognize that your understanding of the world is not necessarily an objective observation and can be changed)- and realizing that a lack of these options can fully stunt this cultivation – is another privilege of having options. A simple example: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy teaches people to change their thought patterns and reactions to life events, from a friend’s rebuff to the death of a loved one. That a therapy is necessary to teach people this skill is evidence that it’s not common sense for at least some of us. And that changing how we view our lives, if we’re not naturally wired to “look on the bright side”, which some of us aren’t, and if there are a lot of clouds in our lives (we can’t cover rent, we can’t afford organic food, we have an overdue hospital bill – and so we might lose things that make us feel secure: our apartment, our healthiness, and we do not have the energy to “find a free solution” because our energies are spent at our jobs, with our children or friends, or we just don’t have the energy) requires more than simply willpower. Sometimes it requires learning a skill – and, at the lowest sliding scale fee in New York City, 50 bucks.

    Money can mean stability in at least one area of life, and that financial stability can bleed into other areas. It doesn’t always, but it has the option of doing so. Having no money, however, means no stability in at least one area of life, and that instability invariably bleeds into other areas: no money, no place to rest your feet, no food – or at least none of those things with peace of mind. So the question of why our happiness is tied to environmental things seems to me a question of why we don’t realize this more. Usually, the “benefits” of poverty are only realized once one is up and out – because you have to be out to be able to see in. While in, you might just be trying to satisfy those basic needs, and worrying that they won’t be satisfied. I guess I am saying that I look at happiness as a product of tangibles, or a sum of integers, not as an ideal that can be cultivated by willpower. Just as I don’t think depression or sadness are, for most people, states that they choose to visit or leave. They are responses to external stimuli, some of which are out of our control to avoid or seek out. If you’re behind on rent, you can choose to approach your landlord peacefully and with a smile, but imagining doing it, doing it once, and doing it every month are different things entirely. Choosing to live cheaply is one thing, being forced to is another. Usually, people are sad, depressed, frustrated and anxious because of things outside of their control: the wellbeing of their children, their families, their homes, their futures. Sure, some of us are looking for saviors and some of us are throwing tantrums. Some of us (most of us) are also bedevilled by very real tragedies, obstacles and challenges, and respond accordingly. Misery, sadness and depression are natural human responses to naturally occurring events, from feeling powerless to having to stand in a crowded subway car to not being able to hear your teacher over the kids screaming in the class. Being upset is as much a part of the emotional spectrum as being happy. Perhaps the fallacy is assuming that happiness should be elevated as a more authentic and worthwhile response to life than the full range of our emotions – and artistic, intellectual, and cultural productions. The Sistine Chapel has brought countless people joy, wonder, enlightenment and beauty. Should that have been sacrificed if constructing it did not make Michelangelo “happy”? Perhaps painting, though it might not make him “happy,” made him, and countless others, more fulfilled.

  3. kloncke December 26, 2009 / 8:53 pm

    Mmm. Endy, I’ve been thinking on this for a couple of days, and just listened to a tape (a conversation between Alice Walker and Pema Chodron, very cool and totally hilarious in parts, i’ll try to send you a copy if I can) that helped to crystallize some of my responses.

    Being upset is as much a part of the emotional spectrum as being happy.

    Yes, I think this is a crucial point, and one I didn’t emphasize enough in my post. Happiness is a tricky word for me sometimes because to me it doesn’t mean, like, pleasure or security or joy or even peace, and certainly doesn’t mean experiencing those feelings all the time, which as you say is impossible. Instead, happiness for me is something closer to the word they used in the study: “satisfaction.” Or contentment. Or non-resistance. It’s not the addition of a secret missing ingredient (the “white light” that our culture is obsessed with, as Walker put it in this convo), but it’s actually realizing, as she says, that “the darkness is our wealth.”

    So in a funny way, I think we’re both using the same words but with really different meanings. Because when I think of “fulfillment,” for instance, I agree that it definitely includes pain and suffering, because to be fulfilled stems from the idea that actually nothing is missing: everything we need, pain pleasure light darkness, is already here. It means realizing that there is no external savior, like you say, Momin, and facing the fear of that fact, and using that strong experience of hopelessness to connect with the REALITY of life and suffering, rather than living in positive or negative fantasies, like most of us do most of the time.

    So when I say that I’d want Michelangelo to be happy, I don’t mean that I need him to be perky all the time and never cry, but simply that I hope he finds fulfillment and satisfaction.

    Where I think our views most diverge, though, is in this idea of “happiness as a product of tangibles.” In my experience, and according to the stuff I’m reading and practicing these days, happiness (or satisfaction) is radically determined by expectations and attitudes. In other words, it’s a mental, not a material, question.

    But I think there might be a compromise view, between what you and I are saying, that relates to the studies Momin was sharing. (Thanks for those, by the way — I might hit you up next month for the documents!) Maybe we’re talking about a level of trauma that comes from constant, life-threatening uncertainty (through poverty, violence, intense and virulent bigotry, etc.), and which tends to foment depression much more frequently and severely than in non-traumatic environments.

    In an interview I read recently, a white American Theravadan monk said:

    The purpose of therapy, Freud said, was to take neurotic individuals and return them to an ordinary level of unhappiness. The purpose of meditation is to take you from that ordinary level of unhappiness to a place where there is no unhappiness and no suffering.

    So maybe the same idea could apply to trauma?

    Also, I think you’re really right about the lack of good tools offered for free in our society to help all of us to learn to live well with ourselves in the world. In my not-super-educated view that’s probably very much connected to capitalism, and how capitalist systems determine the purpose of education and psychological support. (Which individuals are considered deserving of psychological help and resources, and which ones can remain destabilized, less-fit, and — not-so-side bonus — malleable as labor.) So the folks who, on average, might benefit most from therapy, often have the least access to it.

    Anyway, I’m throwing a lot of things out there, I realize, but I guess my main point is that I’m not trying to disown pain or discomfort here, and to say that it’s a bad thing. The one single article that inspired Pema Chodron to start meditating, when she was going through a life crisis, was this essay by Chogyam Trungpa on “Working With Negativity,” where he talks about negativity as being a very powerful creative energy. But the problem, he says, is when we become negative about negativity. When we start hating it or resisting it, or even clinging to it really hard out of fear, trying to fashion an identity out of it and “look on the bright/self-affirming side.” If we can just accept negativity as it is, it won’t create problems for us. It just becomes another part of life. Everyone has their ups and downs.

    Now, I’m not saying that everyone is equally poor, equally oppressed, or equally DEpressed, obviously. But I think it’s realistic to say that even if everyone had good health care, loving families, a short commute, sunshine, jobs, leisure time, a big-screen TV, great art, talented lovers, supportive community, etc., there would still be dissatisfaction.

    We may not be able to solve other people’s problems (however much we might want to), but we can certainly engage in political struggle while remaining content within ourselves.

    Sharon Salzberg puts it this way:

    Mindfulness enables us to cultivate a different quality of attention, one where we relate to what we see before us not just as an echo of the past, or a foreshadowing of the future, but more as it is right now.

    Making the effort to truly see someone doesn’t mean we never respond or react or take very strong action to try to settle the matter of dinner. We can and do attempt to restore a failing marriage, protest loud cell phones in public places, or try, with everything in us, to rectify injustice. But we can do it from a place that allows people to be as textured as they are, and that admits our feelings to be as varied and flowing as they are. A place open to surprises. A place that listens, that lets the world come alive.

    Momin, it’s really good to see you again. :) I hear what you’re saying about a perfect world with shitty art, but like Trungpa is pointing out, I think it’s possible to tap into negativity and its creative power, without getting sucked into it and spinning off into a million delusions and stories, as we are wont to do. I would bet that there are amazing artists who are also balanced, satisfied people, not particularly unhappy. (i.e. Alice Walker…) They don’t make tabloid headlines as often, maybe.

    As far as New York City being the goal for development, I guess it depends on who’s setting the goals.

    Much love to you both, and thank you so much for your long, thoughtful, awesome comments.

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