I've been told from various sources almost all of my life that people are merely searching for happiness. That is why, when I read a quote from a 72 year old study on happiness in The Atlantic this month, I was taken aback:
Last October, I watched (Valliant) give a lecture to Seligman’s graduate students on the power of positive emotions—awe, love, compassion, gratitude, forgiveness, joy, hope, and trust (or faith). “The happiness books say, ‘Try happiness. You’ll like it a lot more than misery’—which is perfectly true,” he told them. But why, he asked, do people tell psychologists they’d cross the street to avoid someone who had given them a compliment the previous day?
In fact, Vaillant went on, positive emotions make us more vulnerable than negative ones. One reason is that they’re future-oriented. Fear and sadness have immediate payoffs—protecting us from attack or attracting resources at times of distress. Gratitude and joy, over time, will yield better health and deeper connections—but in the short term actually put us at risk. That’s because, while negative emotions tend to be insulating, positive emotions expose us to the common elements of rejection and heartbreak.
Even though conventional wisdom* says the opposite, I felt his research findings to be poignantly true to my own experience. How difficult is it for any of us to take a compliment? Accept love from someone else? Feel like an act of kindness or generosity is warranted? Trust a positive experience to continue on being positive? Accepting any of the above would mean taking a huge risk. A huge risk of disappointment and the loss of innocence.
Someone I know recently partook in a personal study where he bought a bunch of flowers and handed them out to strangers. The findings of his 'study' were that most people would reject the gift outright. I wasn't surprised and explained to him that I would have probably rejected a flower from a stranger myself. There are a few reasons for this reaction. Number one, in North American culture we have experienced that there is no such thing as a pure gift (except from those we know, but even then, there is an iota of reciprocity attached to it). The gift is given with an expectation that we give something in return: our attention, our money or the like. Number two, there is the phenomenon that Valliant describes above: we don't feel as if we deserve a random kind act from a stranger. It is embarrassing to be given a gift. We don't understand how to receive it.
These thoughts are tangled up to result in a personal protectiveness, which may seem negative, but are mainly about lowering our expectations. And lowered expectations, as discussed in the article, are conducive to higher overall happiness (Danes, who have the lowest expectations, top the 'happiness' surveys).
So what does this mean for those of us trying to make the world a better place to live in? Well, maybe we shouldn't be shooting for increasing the baseline on happiness, but instead, shooting to increase the baseline on trust. It turns out that the happiest of those studied had strong relationships with people they trust around them. Turns out we really do require more of those high 'soup metric' relationships.
Personally, the more I study, the more that I return to community and a focus on social capital to find my answers. But human beings are not rational creatures. And because the desire to be self-protective outweighs the desire to achieve an optimal living experience, we deeply embed protectionism and distance into our day to day interactions as well as our societal structure. Alas, there is much work to do. But if there is anything I've learnt to embrace...is my own vulnerability.