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The Paradox (Happiness Part 2)
When pressure to be happy makes people unhappy. Also, 7 other things worth knowing today.
A few days ago, when I was putting together the rough draft of the schedule of topics for the newsletter this week, I suppose my subconscious might have taken over.
I’m not 100 percent sure what this says about me, but I came up with three things to share—and started drafting—that all revolved around a similar theme: happiness, or the lack thereof.
Last Friday’s newsletter about identifying things you don’t want in your daily life,
Yesterday’s newsletter about Tony Hsieh and his quixotic quest to find happiness, and—
Today’s newsletter, which as you’ll see shortly is about a related scientific study, and which also sort of proves the point.
Truly, I didn’t even notice this until I realized that my original subject lines were pretty similar! (I’ve edited them a bit.)
Anyway, I’m probably best off diving right in. In short, I came across a study in the journal Scientific Reports, suggesting that the more pressure a society puts on people to be happy, the less likely it can become that individuals will say they’ve actually achieved well-being and happiness.
For example, let's take Denmark, a country that consistently ranks as among the happiest on the planet, and which sparked a worldwide trend a few years ago, as people tried to figure out how to embrace the Danish concept of hygge, which has to do with "coziness," or "comfortable conviviality."
A lead study author Brock Bastian, a professor at the University of Melbourne in Australia, put it:
"If only we could add more coziness to our lives, perhaps we would be as happy as the Danish. But is living in one of the world's happiest nations all it's cracked up to be?
What happens if you struggle to find or maintain happiness in a sea of (supposedly) happy people?"
Sure enough, Bastian and his colleagues say, it’s a pretty significant issue. They studied 7,443 people in 40 countries, and found that across the globe, “when people report feeling pressure to experience happiness and avoid sadness, they tend to experience deficits in mental health.”
Specifically: lower life satisfaction, more negative emotions, less positive emotions, and higher levels of depression, anxiety and stress."
I have a feeling that a lot of us will read this and it will sort of make a paradoxical kind of sense. For example, I wrote a book a while back about Harvard Business School and entrepreneurship.
I came into the project expecting that I was going to learn from HBS professors and alumni how to build businesses and make money. Yet, I was struck by the degree to which some students actually seemed more concerned with using their time to figure out how to engineer long, fulfilling, happy lives.
Then, the emphasis on happiness in that kind of hyper-competitive environment prompted a race among students to see who would be the happiest, and the most fulfilled—and who would be at the very end of the line (in other words, failing at life).
That's basically what Bastian and his colleagues found, too:
The researchers also went a step further, connecting these levels of lower satisfaction and happiness specifically within countries that placed a higher value on happiness.
"In countries such as Denmark," Bastian wrote, "the social pressure some people felt to be happy was especially predictive of poor mental health.”
Now, I don't have the answer to this. You might recall that a few months back, (October, I think it was), we piggy-backed off the work of a British-born, Danish-bred author named Helen Russell, who wrote a book, The Atlas of Happiness, about how people in 29 countries perceive the very concept of happiness.
I won’t rehash the whole thing here, but as Russel put it:
In Canada, happiness is characterized by "joie de vivre;" “[W]e're open to anything, anyone, and any weather—we'll try it all, and we'll make it good."
In Japan: "wabi sabi," meaning, I think, "simplicity" and "the beauty of age and wear.”
In Bhutan: Well, this was a quirky one; in 1972, the king of this small, landlocked country of 750,000 came up with the concept of "Gross National Happiness,” so that "collective happiness and well-being is measured and prioritized ahead of financial gain."
One might think that the last example, where an entire country explicitly makes an effort to increase happiness, would be a prime example of the phenomenon Bastian and his coauthors wrote about.
Sure enough, the most recent time Bhutan was polled as part of the World Happiness Index in 2019, it came in 94th out of 156 countries.
Perhaps that's the good news at the end (again, paradoxically). If you live in a place that places a high value on happiness, you might be less likely yourself to be happy according to this research.
But then, if everyone around you winds up feeling the same way, wouldn't that alleviate some of the pressure to be happy to begin with?
That would mean we’re all in it together. And wouldn’t that, in turn, make you a little happier?
7 other things worth knowing today
Friends of Vladimir Putin’s girlfriend and the supposed mother of four of his children, Alina Kabaeva, are begging her to go to Moscow to persuade him to end the war—as she faces expulsion from Switzerland. (NY Post)
President Biden lands in Brussels tonight, and will travel to Warsaw later this week, seeking to hold NATO allies together and “making a symbolic appearance in a country whose leaders fear it could be a future target of Russian aggression.” (WashPost)
Legendary sports broadcaster Al Michaels, known for Monday Night Football, for his iconic “Do you believe in miracles?!” exclamation when the U.S. men’s hockey team beat the Soviets in the 1980 Olympics, and for basically being one of the best-known personalities on U.S. sports TV, has reportedly agreed to a $75 million deal to become the play-by-play announcer for Amazon’s new Thursday Night Football broadcast. He’ll have a smaller audience on Amazon, but the mega-giant company hopes it will encourage more people to sign up for Amazon Prime. (NBC Sports)
A nurse who accidentally administered the wrong drug to a patient, killing her, lost her nursing license as expected. Unexpected? Tennessee prosecutors charged her with a felony for the error, in a highly watched case that, if she’s convicted, could lead to 12 years in state prison. (NPR)
Russian dissident Alexey Navalny was sentenced to nine years in a maximum security Russian prison. Afterward, in comments posted on Twitter, he referenced American movies and TV shows: “9 years. Well, as the characters of my favorite TV series ‘The Wire’ used to say: “You only do two days. That's the day you go in and the day you come out.” (The Week, Twitter)
A California man wanted by the FBI for “violent entry and assaulting police officers” in connection with the Jan. 6, 2020 U.S. Capitol attack has been granted asylum in Belarus. “I feel safe in Belarus,” said Evan Neumann, 48, who fled California. “It’s calm, I like it in this country. Today I am experiencing mixed feelings. I’m glad that Belarus has taken care of me. I’m upset that I wound up in this situation, that in my native country there were such problems.” (Daily Beast)
Often depicted as lone predators, great white sharks may actually befriend each other and work together in the hope of getting larger meals, according to a new study from Florida International University. (People)