Globalizing Happiness
Richard Parncutt

22 April 2014, revised 19 August 2014

How can we, the lucky ones, be happy? We are the middle classes in the rich countries. Never before have so many people had it so good. The standard of living that we enjoy today was previously enjoyed only by royalty, and even they did not have modern medicine. We have it even better than those kings and queens ever did, because if we get sick, modern doctors are much more likely to be able to cure us or at least give us good quality of life. We continue to complain about problems in our everyday life, but they are usually minor (if you feel like having a laugh about that, click here).

What do the psychologists say about happiness? You can easily find the research results in the internet - just start with the wiki page. Happiness is an important and vibrant research field, for two important reasons: just about everyone wants to be happy (I try to avoid people who don't...) and there is no scientific consensus about the general underlying principles. We know for example that if you are poor and your situation improves, you will generally get happier, but if you already have a reasonable standard of living and your financial situation improves further, you will not get happier in the long run. This seems to confirm what the Beatles sang a long time ago: Money can't buy me love. It would be great if all those people out there trying to get rich at the expense of other people were smart enough to understand this message - think of the bankers and investors on Wall St that caused the 2007-2008 crisis, or the many people who make massive amounts of money from the fossil fuel industry. How about those world-famous actors? Robin Williams obviously wasn't very happy. Or the world's billionaires - there must be two thousand of them by now. They are evidently not happier than the middle class, and they still haven't learned that even more money is not the solution to their nagging loneliness. Will they every learn?

There is an easy and obvious way for people with loads of money to be happy, and that is to give most of it away to people who most need it, such as charities to alleviate poverty and disease, to improve infrastructures including education in developing countries, and so on. Those rich people who are smart enough to do this must be terribly happy. Just imagine all those smiling people and all that gratitude. Wow! Just the thought of it makes me want to be rich.

So where does that leave the rest of us who cannot buy happiness? What can make us happy?

In the short term, you can get happy by listening to your favorite happy music, eating your favorite food, smiling at your children, falling in love, or having great sex. But when people wonder about "being happy" they are usually more concerned about long-term happiness. Where does that come from?

A widespread belief is that you can make yourself permanently happy by positive thinking or optimism. Just look on the bright side of life! You can even look on the bright side of death, if you want to. If a glass is half empty, regard it as half full. Not surprisingly, studies have shown that optimists are healthier and happier than pessimists, which is in part due to their increased self-efficacy. Not only that - they radiate their positivity to people around them, which can presumably make other people healthier and happier. Positive thinking is common in functioning capitalist-democratic societies, because people with a positive attitude more easily motivate themselves to work, which helps them to make money.
Of course optimism can be refreshing, and of course it is preferable to its opposite, chronic pessimism or a deliberately negative attitude, perhaps based on victim mentality. However, these observations may be misused to justify neoliberalist selfishness, and they ignore the enormous negativity that modern capitalism generates when profit-oriented institutions and their rich owners ignore basic, universal moral-economic principles, as the financial crisis of 2007-2008 demonstrated. More generally, a positive attitude can be dangerous if it prevents us from seeing how bad things are. What if things really are really bad? If honesty is important, it is important also to be honest about how bad things are. This is most important when considering the two main problems facing humanity today, global poverty and global warming, and it is also important when talking about all kinds of other really bad things, like the possibility that the conflict in the middle east will one day go nuclear. There is nothing positive about these problems. If we care about the suffering they are causing, or are surely going to cause in the future, and if for that reason we are determined to solve them, we have to face up to their tragic consequences. We have to look the truth in the eye. Positive thinking may be one of the main reasons why most people in the rich countries today are denying global poverty and climate change, either in word or deed. If that is true, positive thinking can be a serious problem and we have to be honest about its negative side.

I found a promising alternative to positive thinking in Buddhist philosophy. Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche coined the idea of basic goodness. In meditation, when you develop open-hearted
relaxed awareness, you start to see things as they really are - as far as that is possible from our limited subjective human perspective. You see that the things in your life - the variety of shapes, colors and hues with which we are constantly surrounded, your relationships, your bank account, your dirty clothes and dishes that you have to wash when you get home - all of these things are basically good, no matter what happens. Amongst all the chaos and suffering, the ups and downs, the hopes and fears - amongst all this you see beautiful things and wonderful people, and you see that this goodness is fundamental. So there is no need for positive thinking; instead, you can just see things as they are, with all their positive and negative aspects, knowing that they are fundamentally good. In a way one could say that happiness comes from alertness: when we are alert to what is going on around us, we notice its basic goodness, so we are automatically happy. Altertness is about living in the present, about seeing things as they are right here, right now; so if you are not happy right now, perhaps you never will be happy. Why postpone happiness to the future when you can be happy right now, just by observing the beautiful things that are around you right now? Maybe that is all there is to it, so there is no point reading any more of this essay;-) Basic goodness includes the potential within each person to do wonderful things; it follows that you can be happy in the long term by finding out what your potential is (perhaps it is your calling, or what you really want in life) and then realizing it. Follow your heart! Basic goodness is a kind of optimism, of course; it is similar to the idea of seeing a glass as half full rather than half empty. It is related to optimalism, according to which the universe is like it is because it is better than its alternatives; from an evolutionary viewpoint this is clearly true for living things and hence for human beings and their environment. We and our world are therefore intrinsically good. This realization can help us to accept failures, because we suspect that success will follow. That in turn can help us solve problems like depression or conflict, you name it. And it can happen with no effort at all. Just open your eyes gently and with a loving attitude toward yourself and the world. Logically, however, optimalism does not contradict the idea that intelligent societies eventually destroy themselves, which is perhaps why we cannot find any any other intelligent societies in the universe. There is no point maintaining an attitude of "optimalism" if the world is heading for self-destruction with a given probability. If we want to prevent self-destruction, we also have to be realistic.

Related to basic goodness, it would be easy to say that love makes you happy, and most people would immediately agree with that statement: not only the general public, but also the psychologists, the sociologists, the religious scholars, and the philosophers. But
love doesn't necessarily make you happy, as the Jewish-Iranian-French writer Yasmina Reza made clear in her 2013 novel Heureux les heureux. Perhaps some people are just better at being happy than others; perhaps there is a genetic basis to that, or perhaps it is learned. Whatever, it also depends on what, exactly, you mean by love. Love seems like such an obvious and fundamental thing that everyone should know what it is. Some people even think that you spoil it by talking about it, let alone theorizing. For them, the idea of love should remain at the level of a feeling. But if love really is important to us we should also try to define it more exactly. From a scientific viewpoint, people are constantly interacting with each other, and often those interactions are mutually beneficial. Humankind could not survive and evolve without love within families - sexual love, love between parents and children, love between parents and grandparents, love between grandparents and children. So perhaps the main thing about love is merely the feeling of being connected, of being part of something larger. Beyond that, we know from evolutionary psychology that human survival also depends on love between friends and even love for strangers (altruism). Our happiness has always depended on the happiness of other people - obviously, it's hard to be happy if you are surrounded by unhappy people.

The importance of love is clear when we consider loneliness. We humans are highly social animals. Without sufficient social contacts, or the right kind of social contacts, we get lonely. This is quite normal and nothing to be ashamed about, although modern capitalist society with its emphasis on independence and economic competition may be giving us a different message. It is also normal that loneliness leads to depression if it goes on for too long. Like everything else that we experience (or every
other psychological state), depression has a biochemical and neural basis. That's why depression can often be cured by exercise, which everyone needs. But depressed people are not sick like someone with a "real" disease like a sore throat or cancer. The best medicine for depression is often simply to admit that it is based on normal everyday loneliness, and then to seek out the company of like-minded people who are equally looking for the same kind of companionship. And then to do good things for those people, which is a great way to feel happy. People can be strategic about that, why not? We need to ask ourselves what is really important to us and what we like doing, and find similar people. Antidepressant drugs have their place, but only if other strategies are not working.

That may all be true, but it does not necessary explain love in an age of economic globalization, global poverty and global warming. Today, we are faced with an unprecedented situation. As the world becomes more globalized, the geographic limitations to human interaction are constantly being reduced. The global village and economic globalization are slowly but surely becoming reality. The poorest billion people in the world (the "bottom billion") not only have a poor standard of living, they are also much more likely to die from hunger or preventable/curable disease than the rest of us. On top of that, we all have to deal with global warming. Right now, just about everybody is acting as if global warming is not happening, and we are inventing all kinds of excuses. But distorting the truth has never been a good way of making other people happy. Distorting the truth is what happens in dysfunctional relationships.

That leads to another important point about love. Love is a feeling, of course - a positive feeling toward other people that motivates us to do good things for other people. But without actually doing those good things, love is just that - a feeling. It has no effect.
It is not enough merely to feel love for other people. If you want to be happy, you have to dothings that are likely to increase the happiness of people around you. I don't agree with everything that Erich Fromm said in "The Art of Loving", but he was surely right that true love is active and not passive. He was also right that true love is a rare phenomenon and that it involves care, responsibility, respect, and knowledge. In order to truly love, we must actively care for other people, feel responsible for them, respect them, and find out about them. In a committed relationship, we do this in the long term. We can do that if we are motivated to do so - if we are wholehearted in our love, which motivates us to put it into practice. That can explain how love produces long-term happiness.

As the world becomes more globalized, our happiness increasingly depends on the happiness of people in other countries and even on the happiness of people with whom we never have direct contact. It follows that the best way to be happy is to expand the circle of people whose happiness you are promoting as widely as possible. Logically, that means including the bottom billion or other people who are suffering for some reason as well as  future generations in the list of people whose happiness you want to promote, or whose pain you want to reduce (which I am assuming for present purposes to be the same thing).
We should apply Fromm's list - care, responsibility, respect, knowledge - to the bottom billion and to future generations. We should care for the planet as an indirect way to care for those spatially and temporally distant people. We should feel responsible for future generations, in much the same way we feel responsible for our own children. If we are destroying their world, we are accountable, which means we are obliged to set things straight. We should respect the rights and dignity of all other people. We should inform ourselves about the situation of poor people in poor countries in order to develop well-founded opinions about how best to support them or otherwise work toward sustainable solutions. We cannot know much about future generations, but we can inform ourselves about the predictions of climate science and their implications for the world that future generations might find themselves in and try to put ourselves in their shoes.

Skeptics will say that loving the bottom billion and loving future generations is first of all a really weird idea and secondly is no use because it cannot make you happy. After all you will never get any love back from those people. That sounds plausible on the surface, but in reality things are more complex:
A further reason why we find it difficult to care about people in completely different times and places is that those other people are so different. They look different, think differently, or act differently from us. How can we possibly care about people who are so different? Anyone who is concerned about racism wants to overcome these differences and meet other people eye to eye, while at the same time celebrating difference and diversity. It is one thing to say that, but another thing to do it.

The good news it that it is human nature to strive for good relationships with people who are quite different from ourselves, because that is what we do with our own children. It becomes clear soon after our kids are born that they have their own personality (from a psychological viewpoint, personality is partly inborn). When they reach puberty and start to assert their independence, the differences get bigger. As parents in this situation we find reserves of patience and understanding that we never knew we had, and love conquers difference.

When two people fall in love, they psychologically melt into one - or at least they get the impression of psychological fusion. That is a beatiful experience, but Fromm was careful to point out the dangers of losing one's identity and individuality. For Fromm, "symbiotic attachment" in adults is a form of "enlarged egotism"; for small children, however, it is normal, and important for survival. The first symbiotic attachment is the physiological relationship between mother and fetus; after birth, this develops into the mother-infant relationship. As children grow up, they grow out of symbiosis into more mature relationships. I found detailed confirmation of Fromm's warnings about symbiotic relationships in a surprising place: the book "Passionate Marriage" by David Schnarch (1997, 2009). Schnarch emphasized the importance of personal differentiation for
sex, love, fulfilment, and personal development in long-term committed relationships. By differentiation he meant "the process by which we become more uniquely ourselves by maintaining ourselves in relationship with those we love" (p. 51) and "your ability to maintain your sense of self when you are emotionally and/or physically close to others - especially as they become increasingly important to you" (p. 56).

Allow me to take Fromm's idea of symbiosis and Snarch's idea of differentiation a step further. When political conservatives complain that their traditional culture is being diluted by an onslaught of immigrant cultures, they are afraid of losing their identity, just as minorities who suffer discrimination are afraid of losing their identity. The solution is surely to turn otherness-concepts on their head. Interactions with foreign cultures may be most satisfying if we systematically avoid symbiosis and promote difference, maintaining our own culture at the same time as accepting, celebrating, and even loving the Other. The same idea can even be applied to promoting the rights of humans in all times and places: our lack of symbiosis with, and our differentiation from, those Other people in Other cultures is no hindrance to caring about them, on the contrary: it may be symbiosis that hinders the development of good relationships, and differentiation that makes relationships satisfying. Differentiation helps us to grow and attain fulfilment in relationships, whereas symbiosis stands in the way of personal growth. It follows from all of this that anyone who is seriously interested in personal growth and fulfillment should be interested in promoting the rights of the bottom billion and future generations. 

If we take all these aspects of our social existence into account, we can hardly doubt the ancient Indian idea of karma: "Good intent and good deed contribute to good karma and future happiness, while bad intent and bad deed contribute to bad karma and future suffering"
(Wikipedia, 22.4.2014). One might add that to be truly happy you have to be accountable for your actions, which means that if you harm another person in any way you are obliged and intrinsically motivated to repair the damage (which is one interpretation of the motto "Do no harm"). To say that personal happiness depends on good intentions, good deeds and personal responsibility may sound naive or even like hocus pocus to a materialistically or neoliberally inclined person, but it is also a testable scientific theory that is consistent with basic principles of sociology and ecological psychology, and the obvious economic and social interconnectedness and interdependence of all people. In the book "A Life Worth Living" (2006), positive psychologists Mihaly and Isabella Selega Csikszentmihaly presented evidence that hardship and suffering do not necessarily cause unhappiness. Happiness depends on personal goals, individual strengths, intrinsic motivation, autonomy, and freedom. You become happy by taking on responsibility, embracing the goals of others, and becoming concerned about the world.

Allow me to sum up the main two points that I have made in this little essay. First, I have claimed that to be truly happy you have to spread your love around both locally and globally. Love your family, your friends, all human beings, and future generations. Second, love always involves both feeling and action. You have to feel the loving feelings AND you have to act on them. In the case of poverty in developing countries and the effect of climate change on future generations, it is not enough to feel bad about it or worry about it. It is not enough merely to inform yourself about it and have an opinion on it. You have to get active, if you want to be happy. Do something about it. If you strive for high standards in your life, anything else is not enough.

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