On Happiness (again) and Community

My head is going to explode, but I’m going to try and prevent this post from becoming yet another rant. Also, I don’t want to turn this blog into a site of commentary on The Globe and Mail. I have one excuse: this post is connected to the very first one, the one on happiness. More precisely, I want to investigate, starting from a couple of articles in today’s Globe, the status of happiness and community in corporatism, and why the latter is perceived as only possible through religion (a community of faith). I know it sounds like a very ambitious proposition, but I want to suggest that corporatism (by which I mean by and large corporations’ increasing grasp on biopower, i.e., their overtaking of the management of people’s lives) is creating new axioms on happiness and community, as a response to potentially menacing lines of flight (demands of the people?).

It goes like this: in the last period of time (couldn’t really quantify it), the issue of happiness and how to achieve it personally and individually has become a staple of news reporting, empirical research, and day-to-day preoccupations of the media more generally. All of a sudden – and here I’m trying to go beyond the simplistic musings of my previous post on the subject – everyone started to be concerned with how to be (more) happy, who is so, what will make us more so. In the professional advice columns, for example, we are told that it’s not the corner office that will bring us more happiness, but doing our job properly, according to our job description, *but also* going above and beyond it without eliciting praise or expecting compensation. In other words, the more disciplined you are at work, the happier you would be: stay in your cubicle, the embodied reminder of your disciplined self, a continuation, a la Michel Foucault, of the school, army, factory spatial organization, heed your boss, don’t show a tad of rage when she takes your brilliant idea and parades with it to the higher-ups, and you will be supremely happy, which, after all, is the new goal to attain. A new axiom, anyone?
The two articles from the newspaper I mentioned both use as their starting point two separate research experiments into happiness. Firstly, there’s a rather large pink elephant in that room: how does one quantify happiness so that one can afterwards use it in an empirical study. Will you take it for granted that I’m 30% happier now, writing this post, than I was yesterday, sitting in traffic? And also, that I’m 17.8% less happy than my partner who’s heading to work? And yet, these researchers have managed to do it: one of the articles states that people who spend money on somebody else – gifts, treating friends to dinner, or charity – are happier than the ones who selfishly spend their money on themselves. Here’s how we see the new axiom of corporatism at work. It used to be that you had to work more hours (without being paid overtime, naturellement), so that your boss notices you and doesn’t fire you when push comes to shove and the company has to downsize. Then, we were told, if you worked more, you’d eventually make more money so that you could buy more stuff, which in turn generated more demand, which, circuitously, would come back to you and the long-term existence of your own job. Now, you should make more money and give to charity (and prominent examples abound), because, let’s face it, it’s not the State’s job to provide social programs for those unfortunate, underprivileged homeless, or abused women and children, or medical research. NO, NO, NO. It’s the private charities’ job: see the examples of self-made people from the business world, or from the world of glitz and glam: they all do it, and so should you. Simon Corporatism says: you should work more for me, so that you can be happy by helping other people with your money.

Granted, the beauty of it all is that there is nothing wrong with helping other people and building a community. But is this really what this axiom is all about? Is it rather not about the perpetuation of corporatism through the encouragement of individualism of a more involved or responsible kind? Maybe we can turn to the other article I mentioned, which, backed by research from UBC Okanagan, asserts that spirituality makes children happier. Of course, there is no description of methodology, but one of the researchers could forcefully claim that “If you imagine a child’s happiness represented by a big pie, the slice of the pie accounted for by spirituality is about 7 per cent to 17 per cent. Money is less than 1 per cent. If you looked at the parents’ marital status, it’s less than 1 per cent,” says Dr. Mark Holder, one of the study’s authors, and an associate professor of psychology at UBC Okanagan. That *is* impressive. And here, I thought one could not quantify happiness: poor little non-empirically trained me. I’m sure that if I did the properly scholarly thing and read the published article, things would become very clear, and any doubt and skepticism would be forever dissipated. But this is not the point: after all, how many of the Globe readers will do that? And, how many of the people who find our through word-of-mouth that one should raise their children with spirituality*/religion (another digression, even though the author of the article is careful to say that spirituality differs from religion, the rest of the article is centred on Christianity, and the article even starts by invoking Easter) will go and search for the published article, or have access to it if they wanted to? The author of the article, Lorna Dueck cannot be accused of not doing her job: after all, she went and interviewed seven-year-old children to ascertain their grasp and take on spirituality, and she found they had a clear sense of it, and very strong opinions, too: “It sounds sort of like reality and spirit mixed together,” seven-year-old Brodie told me. “Spirituality might mean that you have a good spiritual friendship with God,” said Liam. “I feel happy ’cause I know that someone’s protecting me and watching what I do and letting me know if I’m doing something wrong that I can fix that if I’m making a mistake,” said Paul. For Ashley, the concept meant, “I can turn to God whenever I need it.” Grace was alarmed at the thought that spirituality could be ignored: “I’d feel like a big part of me is missing. I would feel alone in my life. I would feel worried, I would feel really alone.” Brodie concluded that without his faith, he’d feel “just abandoned” (Dueck A11). Who are these children, you ask: ah, merely simple common children from private schools, whose “parents had paid thousands of dollars to ensure that spirituality was a major part of their education” (Dueck A11). However, this realization can in no way lead us to the conclusion that ‘spirituality’ is brainwashing. Stop calling it ‘spirituality’ just to be pc: even if you’ve changed its name, it’s still good old Western-style monotheistic religion. The kind that relies on one old book (plus a lot of interpretations by dead or alive white guys) for all the answers.

My point? It’s best illustrated by one question from Dueck’s article: “Were we happier when we understood that we were part of a community of faith?” (Dueck A11). I don’t think I should harp on on the issue of happiness – I’m starting to bore myself, too. However, the insinuation that community can only be attained through some kind of religious allegiance made me gasp, especially since it’s not the first time I’ve read about it lately. One of the much-touted new books of these past couple of weeks was Patricia Pearson’s A Brief History of Anxiety: Yours and Mine. Obviously, a very welcome addition to the much-needed public discussion of mental health issues that used to be swept under the rug and dismissed. What surprised me in her interview with Chatelaine (April 2008 issue, pp. 99-102, by Geraldine Sherman) was, again the connection between community and religion. Pearson says “In Western cultures we’re not religious, not connected to a unifying myth, whereas the countries that score the lowest in terms of anxiety are those that share some collective world-view, especially when it comes to rearing children [oops, how did we get from A to B here?]. I think our children go off the scale when someone dies. I’ve encouraged my daughter to believe in God because she needs it. I’ve developed a deep respect for ritual and have started going to church again” (Sherman 101-2). So the only way we can create community is through religion?

Is it the influence of a decade of domination of the US by the religious right? Where is this push toward religion as the ultimate panacea and the only glue for community coming from? If part of the axiom says that one needs community in order to be happy, the second part points to a reactionary solution (and it does so by cowardly pointing to children, the ultimate weak spot and guilt-tripper): go back to religion, have fear of God, and live in guilt of never being able to be good enough. Now that it’s been established and you have one constant preoccupation – after all, isn’t God the supreme panopticon? – we’ll show you how your imagined transcendent power can be masterfully imbricated into the plane of immanence.

Conspiracy theory? Hardly. How many people does it take to tell one that they’ve read in respectable sources that scientific studies show that children need to be brought up with religion in order to be happy before one caves in and goes to church for the child’s sake?

* “In the UBC study that analyzed what makes children happy, spirituality was defined as an inner belief system that has four parts: personal meaning in one’s life; relationships and love for others; transcendental belief in a higher power; and a sense of beauty and awe with nature” (Dueck A11)

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3 responses to “On Happiness (again) and Community

  1. you’re right, of course. though i would say that the “happiness study” material is, in fact, more interesting (and more surprising) than the G&M makes it sound. As for whether it’s a sane research question — quantifying happiness — well, that’s a good question! you sound like a non-believer in quantitative empirical methods. (and can you be *truly happy* as long as that’s the case?)

    here are the devil’s advocate questions:
    Isn’t the G&M article on giving money away significantly different from an article that says, “the more you earn the happier you’ll be”? i understand the pernicious implication that you draw out here. but i’m wondering whether you dismiss the diffs too quickly. or, rather, the devil’s advocate on my left shoulder is wondering.

    what are “children” here? the discussion of spirituality, esp, seems problematic. do 7-year-olds use these terms/concepts? alternatively, are 14-year-olds “children”? it is a highly suspicious story — more suspicious, in my opinion, than the money one.

  2. The little devil on your shoulder has a point: the giving-money-away-makes-you-happier research is different, and you’ve made me think about how such a study could actually help in building (a more compassionate) community. Its claims are not as large and universalizing as the ones from the religious/spiritual kids one. That one, btw, actually interviews 7-yr-olds who talk about religion/spirituality in big words and complex concepts (I’m quite envious, you see, ’cause I wasn’t that smart at that age, and probably remained the same). Sarcasm aside, it’s not that I have anything against empirical studies, but I do resent their presentation in the mass media as absolute truth, without any mention of their methodology (e.g., did they only interview kids from private religious schools?), scope of study, etc.

  3. hmmmm: but do you really want all of that in your newspaper?

    we’re splitting hairs now, though. 🙂

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