The Happiness Paradox

Question: Is western culture too fixated on happiness?

Dacher Keltner: 
It is an obsession, isn’t it?  This obsession of unhappiness and there’s a historian, Darrin MacMahon, who wrote a wonderful book on the history of happiness.  It’s one of my favorite books on happiness and recently he said, you know, only in America can this, an obsession with happiness make you unhappy, and it’s this, you know, you have this feeling that there’s perhaps there’s a little too much reflection on happiness. And I think there’s a very interesting philosophical point alongside that comment which is does this very willful strategic pursuit of happiness bring you happiness?  And we don’t know.  I think that the pursuit of happiness is essential and vital to our culture.  It’s guaranteed in our constitution, the right to the pursuit of happiness and we know from 250 studies in the social and biological sciences that as you cultivate happiness, you become healthier, you become a better neighbor, a better community member.  You’re more productive and creative at work.  You’re stronger in your family, with your friends.  It’s a good thing to go after and we’re lucky that we can, but everything has its excesses and I think there is a risk that it turns into navel-gazing and the one thing that I really felt in writing Born To Be Good is that we risk as our culture defining happiness in terms of sensory pleasures, wow, this is a delicious wine, or in terms of exercise or in terms of personal gratification.  That’s a longstanding tradition in western thought, that happiness is economic gain and what I’m trying to encourage is its more social dimension to happiness where you bring out the good in others.

The pursuit of happiness is essential and vital to our culture, but there is a risk that it turns into navel-gazing.

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