Saturday, August 10, 2013

The pursuit of meaningless happiness

Emily Esfahani Smith describes – and interprets – on the Atlantic web site a recent study according to which “people who are happy but have little-to-no sense of meaning in their lives have the same gene expression patterns as people who are enduring chronic adversity” (“Meaning Is Healthier Than Happiness”). The researchers term this kind of physiologically suboptimal, proinflamatory kind of happiness “hedonic,” as it is related mostly to pleasurable self-gratification; and they distinguish it from “eudaimonic well-being,” a more “meaningful” form of happiness derived mostly from being a worthy member of a community and contributing to the well-being of other. All this is nice and kind of inspiring – even if it comes from a designated “conservative” contributor (or content generator) at The Atlantic Monthly. But I am left wondering – is excessive self-indulgence really compatible with the “eudaimonic” happiness posited by positive psychologists?

Based on my reading of Peter Whybrow and, before that, Christopher Lasch, I would tend to doubt it. According to Whybrow, the existential overload which results from excessive abundance and overconsumption can easily overwhelm the human nervous system (which is better adapted to dealing with scarcity of all kinds) – and the result is a broad social “mania” and a sort of mindless meta-addiction; or what Lasch had described as a “culture of narcissism,” uninhibited self-expression, and obsessive self-gratification, all pursued in a vain attempt to fill a growing inner void. But, of course, I am biased on this – maybe because I haven’t experienced either form of “happiness” to a sufficient degree; and perhaps I shouldn’t succumb to the kind of moral panic negative assessments of self-absorbed hedonism can kindle…