SOC327 2017 Tut12 – Mon 1330

Who doesn’t want to be happy? The last few decades have seen a great rise in the pursuit of happiness. Not the Aristotelian pursuit of a virtuous, well rounded emotional life, nor the Jeffersonian pursuit of happiness through liberty as an ‘inalienable right’, nor even the Utilitarian pursuit of happiness as the ‘greatest good for the greatest number’. Rather, there has been a surge of interest in measuring and planning for the happiness of nations. The OECD now tracks wellbeing measures across countries, Bhutan has pioneered in interest in Gross National Happiness (GNH) over GDP as a measure of societal progress, and the UK is interested in findings ‘happy places’ by measuring wellbeing and happiness by geographic location. Happiness is clearly now an important measure of social progress.

And yet happiness is still largely individualised as an emotion. Despite studies by world happiness experts like Ruut Veenhoven showing that happiness is clearly linked to social structural conditions in that it varies substantially across rich, poor and unequal nations, the treatments for happiness are still largely individualised. Medication and therapy – including mass therapy, or a societal/national foci on promoting mindfulness, positive psychology and CBT – are put forward as the means for resolving unhappiness, even when changes in economic and work conditions, family, gender, ethnic, and age structures, and urban and social connection may be the primary culprits in causing unhappiness. Can the proliferation of lists on how to be happy in 5, 7, 13, or 25 ‘science-backed’ easy (and obviously non-contradictory …) steps really compensate for broader social change?

And what about other emotions? How much of our unhappiness is about rising anxiety, depression, stress and anger? How much of our happiness depends on peace, contentment and love? And how much does our happiness – in all its related emotional forms – depend on what we are doing, rather than how we might sum up our lives on a 0 to 10 scale of satisfaction? In previous research, my colleague Kimberly Fisher and I found (unexpectedly) that Americans would enjoy their time less if they lived like Australians, because they would spend more time doing unpleasant things like housework, and less time doing fun things like having people over for dinner. We also found that the GFC seemed to have the effect of helping Americans re-evaluate the quality of their time, and enjoy the grind of work less and the pleasantness of social and family time more. Clearly, reflecting on and adjusting the social circumstances and lives that make us happy is an important element on our actual happiness. Mary Holmes calls this emotional reflexivity, or “an embodied, cognitive and relational process in which social actors have feelings about and try to understand and alter their lives in relation to their social and natural environment and to others.”

I say – as I always do with regards to all matters sociological – that structure and agency go hand in hand in the consideration of our happiness. We can change the world – and we can change ourselves – one emotion at a time, with reflection and awareness. I say that we need to be reflexive about what makes us happy (how society affects us), what makes others happy (how we affect society), if there are contradictions and inequalities in happiness, and when it is appropriate to beshow, or change our happiness, unhappiness, or other emotions – rather than assuming we should always try and be simply happy as a default for living. If we can do these things, I think we can start to really understand what it means to be happy in today’s society, and to understand and build truly happy societies.

What do you think?

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23 Comments

  1. It is interesting to see so much time and resources go into increasing the population’s level of happiness when some authors argue that everyone has a set point of happiness. Hedonic adaptation refers to how people have a set point of happiness, and that regardless of what life may give them, they would eventually return to this set point (Lyubomirsky, 2007). If the hedonic adaption occurs whenever a major life event happens, how will we ever be truly happy if we will eventually return to this set point?

    It is often noted by researches that there is no one definition of happiness, which means that happiness is subjective and contextual. How can a happiness scale then address this when happiness to one individual could be content to another? Often, individual’s mistake happiness with content as they are relieved of negative emotions such as anxiety and depression, but happiness is something different altogether.

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  2. I believe that a ‘steps to happiness’ list cannot compensate for the effects of broader social change on happiness as a list or steps alludes to corrective emotional management more than creating a sense of joy or pleasure. I do believe that underlying positive and negative emotions can influence our levels of happiness to a certain extent but these can be manage through existence of social support networks such as socialisation through family, friends and peers.

    Although I can see that emotional reflexivity and an increased awareness of the happiness of others could help a happier society, it would be severely emotionally draining as negative emotions such as anger and sadness need to be expressed in order to give happiness a contextual meaning.

    In argument to the structural approach, I believe there is a level of symbolic internationalism or dramaturgy in the process of happiness and that our emotional management as performance contributes to a sense of happiness and unhappiness. Although siding with Roger, this can be heavy affected by social structures and institutions.

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  3. The steps of happiness list I highly doubt can compensate for a broader social change. It is more than following steps. Holmes “…reflexivity not only refers to a theoretical endeavour but is a phrase used to begin to explore whether individuals are increasingly drawing on emotions in assessing themselves and their lives…”. Agreeing with Roger that we need to be reflexive in what makes us happy. Happiness is structured in the sense “happiness can be achieved if you follow A, B, C and D”. It is an emotion brought forth as one that needs to take place above all others. But without being reflexive and exploring and drawing on our other emotions and evaluating ourselves, our lives, and the society of which we live; can we truly be happy?
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  4. Without ignoring the complexity of emotions and their interaction with each other, happiness doesn’t exactly go hand in hand with feelings such as stress, anxiety and anger. However, it is evident from discussion in the last two weeks that these feelings have a social nature, and so too does happiness.

    I would say that ‘steps to happiness’ may be beneficial for particular groups of people, by helping individuals to reflexively think about their life and their wellbeing. However whatever insights you might gain from such a formula will probably be forgotten the next day. Consequently, I agree with Roger, that to build happy societies we first need to fully understand the nature of happiness itself and recognise that emotional reflexivity is “increasingly necessary to the formation of self and sociality” (Holmes 2010, p. 149).

  5. Happiness can be from within, but in a society so interconnected, social constructs will have an effect on the individual. If these societal pressures contradict or change our happiness, they must be further understood through emotional reflexivity (Holmes 2012). To reflect on these emotions, and to further understand our own internal emotions, I think will ultimately shape us into a happier individuals and communities, and with this, I agree with Roger, as structure and agency go hand in hand. Although this may take time, and emotional work is like a skill, if we further understand the feelings we embody, happiness for the self and sociality can be attained (Holmes 2010).

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    • I also agree with @emboland327, in that because society is so tightly interconnected, and we’re so involved in trying to meet the ideals associated with social norms and acceptance, such as falling in love, getting married, having stable peer relationships and a stable income, it’s difficult to not let these factors dictate our happiness. However, because happiness is so subjective to the individual, trying to find and further pursue ‘happiness’ is difficult, as there is no definitive definition.

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  6. I think an important aspect of this that should be looked into is whether this pursuit of happiness is in fact making us more unhappy than before. Perhaps this feeling of needing to be happy, and in some cases failing to find this happiness, is compounding our unhappiness. By being unable to achieve the happiness we seek, we may begin to experience feelings of failure on top of the pre-existing feelings of unhappiness or dissatisfaction. By constantly seeking feelings of happiness from external sources, rather than from looking within and finding the happiness that may already exist around us, we are placing our emotions and experiences on others. This can be a damaging process as it may allow us to displace the blame and in turn, prevent us from working on ourselves to find our happiness within, thus continuing, rather than solving, the problem.

    We live in a society in which we place a lot of pressure on ourselves to achieve certain benchmarks, whether that be income, success, relationships, or indeed, feelings of happiness. The happiest are those who find contentment in what they already have. If we as a society are able to accept ourselves and our situations as they are, and work toward betterment for ourselves, rather than to meet some kind of imagined quota, then perhaps we will find the happiness we so desperately seek.

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  7. I Holmes’ (2010) idea of emotional reflexivity is quite a powerful one in terms of individuals changing their happiness or turning their unhappiness into something more positive. Like it is always said ‘the grass isn’t always greener on the other side’; this quote relates to Holmes (2010) concept as an individual can evaluate the context through reflection of other situations of happiness, determine the mental state they are in and not only adjust the circumstances that are affecting this happiness, but also adjust their mindset by how the perceive and feel happiness.

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  8. I agree with Roger that happiness is affected by structure and agency. This reveals that steps to happiness can never truly produce long-lasting happiness as it cannot compensate for all the complex factors involved. Meanwhile, reflexivity reveals inequalities in regards to emotion work that falls disproportionately on women to be happy in the public and private spheres of society. Thus, this reflects the significant relationship between social structures that shape an individual’s capacity to express agency in feeling happiness.

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  9. I agree with @emboland327, in that you make a valid point ‘that structure and agency go hand in hand’. Society is increasingly interconnected, and technological developments continue to contribute to this creating even more awareness of what is around us. While treatments for happiness are largely individualised, I do believe they play and important contribution in assisting individuals in being more emotionally reflexive consider unhappiness (though not solely as means of resolving it). Holmes’ (2010) definition of emotional reflexivity recognises cognitive and relational processes, and as explored in W11 we have seen the impact sadness and stigma has on emotions and thought process (often distorted). It is because of this, I believe individualised treatments are necessary to a certain extent in order to equip individuals in better recognising, reflecting on and addressing other contributing factors.

    Even still, ‘happiness’ is incredibly subjective, so will we ever really understand what it means to be ‘happy’ in today’s society?

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  10. Happiness and wellbeing are highly subjective aspects of the human condition and as such, we tend to seek individualised approaches to the attainment and maintenance of each. I think a cohesive, societal approach would be more effective in targeting the negative and complex emotions and experiences that tend to reduce our overall levels of happiness. One of the most effective mechanisms of happiness and life satisfaction is social capital, and the networks and social and emotional ties that we create with other members of society and our community. As Illouz mentions, we have become a society with a ‘therapy culture’, addicted to consumption as a means of happiness and wellbeing. I disagree with the rise in this culture, and I believe that we can effect positive change through our social, cultural, and physical environment.

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  11. There are many factors that contribute to an individuals’ happiness. Mindfulness of current emotions within society is an external factor that may influence individual perspective. I agree with Ella Illouz that we are responsible for our own happiness and must participate in positive activities including exercise and socialising. Additionally, some are driven by consumption which is outlines by the Easterlins paradox where higher income groups are happier due to ‘retail therapy’. However, I also agree that “poverty will make you miserable, but more money will not make you happy.

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  12. The culture of consumption appears to correlate to the city lifestyle far more than that of regional areas, and in this regard I feel that this exchange of social capital for its material equivalent is greatly to blame for our society-wide unhappiness. As has been mentioned by a great many responses here, a refocus upon what makes us as individuals happy as opposed to societal expectations will change this trend. I feel personally that a lifestyle rich in social capital and being able to live without financial burdens such as debts or inadequate wages would conquer the unhappiness of our society to the largest extent possible.

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  13. How are we able to identify factors that contribute to an individuals happiness, when each person has their own experiences and histories which inevitably influence what they deem to make them happy. However in saying this, as Illouz suggests we are in charge of creating our own happiness, as it is only us who truly knows what factors can and will affect our emotions. I agree with Roger in the suggestion that society and agency go hand in hand, and in particular if we truly determine what makes us happy, we can begin to make changes within our lives, such as the adoption of hobbies which will more greatly fulfil our lives

  14. Society is so set on creating internal happiness, we forget to understand that there is a complex interrelation of external factors which have a direct influence on our happiness. How society perceives love, success and family stability are just a few of these causative factors. As Rianna mentioned previously, I think our unhappiness stems from our greed for happiness and chasing what we think will make us happy. I also agree with Roger, that we need to understand how Happiness operates so we can recognise the emotional reflexivity is essential to form self and society.
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  15. I agree that happiness is a largely individualised emotion, despite studies suggesting that happiness is a social and cultural construct, I believe we are responsible for our own emotions, and in turn our happiness. However I do think that different social and personal factors can have an effect on our overall happiness, while our emotions are our own and we control them, if we are in a situation and we do not like what is happening or it’s not what we want, it is going to affect our emotions. I agree with Illouz thoughts on happiness, she suggests that we are responsible for our own happiness and in order to maintain it we need to involve ourselves in positive activities, such as social situations.

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  16. Since happiness is such a complex emotion, it is difficult to measure the happiness of an entire society. However, social and cultural factors do heavily influence an individual’s pursuit for happiness. There is such a large emphasis placed on being happy, yet people seem to be increasingly unhappy, which is hard to understand the reasons behind this. I believe that sometimes in modern society it is too easy to get caught up in work and other commitments to achieve a massive end goal that will supposedly fulfill our happiness e.g. a holiday, that we forgot to stop and find the happy factors of every day life. I think every individual needs to take a step back from external influences and really think about what actually makes them happy.

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  17. I think that today we are blessed with a variety of opportunities and avenues in life and this allows us to be able to choose and change factors, leading to the notion of emotional reflexivity explored by Holmes. We have the opportunity to be reflexive about different facets of our lives. For example, it is often drilled into us in the present day that “if you’re not happy then make a change.” I think previously we weren’t as lucky, and couldn’t as easily change jobs or move to a new house in the pursuit of happiness, but today it is more of an option. Happiness is a multi-faceted emotion and stems from all levels of interaction leading people to draw on their emotions to assess themselves and their lives, as Holmes explores. Happiness is more sought after than ever before and I can understand the interest arising in using happiness as a measure for societal growth. Although happiness arises from within, we often measure our happiness by reflection on society and those around us. It’s because of this that there has been a rise in re-evaluation of the importance of activities and how we can adjust our lives to improve our happiness.

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  18. Society shows us, consistently, how happiness should look and feel. We follow Instagram pics, Facebook posts and fashion blogs to find things and products to make us happy but while we subscribe to all of these groups there is no real sense of belonging. In the past, people were a part of a wider community that helped achieve a sense of happiness. We need to stop expecting happiness to simply appear and make the changes necessary to achieve it.

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  19. It is hard to understand happiness when interpretations of the word are different to different people and in different research. I am of the idea that measuring happiness on a scale of one to ten will never truly be able to identify the reasons people are happy, and it is an entirely situational experience. I think treatments for happiness are still greatly individualised because it is an individual emotion. What makes one person happy, may not make another person happy. Perhaps studies on the contradictions and comparisons of individuals happiness will create happier societies, but I think individual treatment options are still important as happiness, and unhappiness, affect people differently.

  20. I agree with Roger as he states that by one emotion at a time, with reflection and awareness, we can change the world. We live in a society where social media rules our universe. We know how bad it is for us, yet we still crave it. Any spare moment we have we are on our phones checking up on what people are doing, how many likes we have and spending countless hours watching ridiculous videos that have no purpose. Is this really what it has come to? How society affects us and how we affect society contributes to this greatly. So why does social media make us happy enough to be on it so much?

  21. I think that happiness is pretty subjective and that the things that make us happy really depend on the individual. I don’t think there’s a particular way, then, to measure happiness because how can there be a scale for something that is so different for each and every human being. I think that society does a harsh job in depicting happiness because it tries to show us what happiness looks like in a very specific way. I think that at the end of the day, the ways in which we feel and express happiness are up to ourselves – and so it should be!

  22. I agree with Roger, in the we have the ability to not only change our emotions but the world, through reflection and awareness. we need to stop expecting happiness to appear, rather we need to work to achieve it. what needs to be considered is not only personal influences but external influences on our happiness, in the aim to create a happy society.

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