In pursuit of unhappiness

When the Dostoevsky subway station opened in Moscow in 2010, there was concern that the grim scenes from Dostoevsky's novels, artistically depicted on the grey marble walls (Crime and Punishment's Raskolnikov about to murder the old woman with an axe, the troubled protagonist of Demons holding a gun to his head), were so depressing that people, overwhelmed by the bleakness, would start throwing themselves onto the tracks.

Fortunately, the feared rash of suicides has not materialised. This could be because people do not make those kinds of decisions based on subway art. Or it could be because Russians have a different attitude about happiness than most Westerners. One recent study shows they tend to have darker, more negative thoughts. They also worry less about those feelings and thus experience fewer depressive symptoms than Americans. Russians might brood more, but they don't dwell that much on their brooding. Americans, on the other hand, brood about their worrying and end up more depressed than the Russians.

It is, perhaps, a simple fact of life in the West: we expect to be happy. The right to pursue happiness is part of America's Declaration of Independence, after all. The feeling has been heightened by the booming field of "happiness studies", which has produced a flow of news stories and books about what will and will not make us happy, about the happiest places to live, and about how to structure our lives so we can be happy almost all the time.

Some important findings have emerged. Too many choices lead to dissatisfaction. Chronic pain has a more negative impact than a single accident. We habituate quickly to our acquisitions. A good marriage is worth about $100,000 a year in terms of how happy it makes us.

But this headlong rush towards happiness might backfire. Could our constant worrying about why we are not happy be making us more miserable than if we simply accepted some occasional unhappiness as part of life? In viewing unhappiness as a problem to be solved, might we not miss what a little sadness has to offer us? Are we trading long-term satisfaction for feeling good now? Buying our present-day enjoyment at the cost of future meaning?

Children are a case in point. Recently, there has been a spate of news stories stating that having children does not increase one's happiness by any objective measure. Indeed, marital satisfaction declines steeply when kids are born and does not recover until they leave.

Having two young children, I can more or less confirm this is true. Yet despite all the headaches, sleep deprivation, stained furniture and general crabbiness, few parents I know regret their decision. One study even found that mothers between 36 to 44 were less likely to be depressed than their childless peers, even if, at a given point on a given day, they might be less happy. Raising kids is not non-stop fun. But eventually (we hope) we'll be better for it.

This jibes with the conclusions of some earlier research. In the 1980s, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi found that people did not report their most satisfying experiences as relaxing on the beach, or going to parties, or buying that car they had always wanted. The happy moments came when they were working hard at something, moving toward some goal they had, being challenged and absorbed and focused. A more recent investigation from the Journal of Happiness Studies also found that people who were working hard to accomplish something felt more stress in the moment but were happier in the long term.

Suffering is no fun and we usually try to avoid it. But it is also inevitable. Not so long ago, when life was less certain and comfortable, people understood that suffering could be an opportunity to rise to a challenge. They were willing to at least try to extract some meaning from it.

When I lived abroad, I went through what's known as culture shock – a series of mood swings that occur as you learn to function in another culture.

As you find ways to cope, you become a new person – someone stronger, more capable, more aware. As you struggle with culture shock, or any of life's difficulties, something remarkable happens: you grow.

For a while, I did not understand this. I could not fathom why I had developed an odd nostalgia for what I remembered as a hard and unhappy time. But that was precisely the time when I stopped being the person I had been and started becoming the person I am. Now, when I recall those unhappy days, I think of them as the best days of my life.

The Rotarian

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