What Measure Happiness?

Posted: January 20, 2013 in Artistry, Cinema, Culture, Media, Narrative, Television, Writing
Tags: , ,

I don’t watch TV, but I sometimes see DVDs of something made for and initially broadcast on TV. A PBS series called This Emotional Life caught my eye at the library, so I decided to check it out. Based on the title, I expected (and hoped) to learn something about the cognitive basis of emotions. What I saw instead was a heuristic about happiness.

The three-part series is hosted by Daniel Gilbert, who authored the best-selling Stumbling on Happiness and is a Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. (The PBS series is perhaps just a longer version of his TED Talk.) His taxonomy of things that do and don’t make us happy, despite what we may believe and the shallowness of our aspirations, comes as no surprise. It’s been clear to me for some time that our media environment distracts people almost totally from what makes a person truly happy, and very few Westerners know anymore how to live meaningfully. The two main distractions are wealth and fame/esteem, neither of which are especially good indicators of happiness. A third, having children, is surprisingly neutral. Again and again throughout the series, Dr. Gilbert turns to scientists who insist that truth is ascertained through measurement and that various indices of happiness are better guides to understanding than actual experience and/or conventional wisdom. In a certain respect, this is true: we have lost touch with and are estranged from both our bodies and our emotions (those being inextricably linked) and so easily deceive ourselves with pursuit of the wrong goals. But measurement and the scientific method are also subtle deceptions, primarily the domain of experts and beyond the ken of the lay public.

I’ve complained before about psychometrics. No doubt such an approach, using mounds of data, does permit some interesting observations not otherwise available. For instance, Dr. Gilbert reports on findings that came out a gigantic data set from the Framingham Heart Study, namely, that happiness (and presumably other emotions) operates like an infectious disease and makes emotional life into a shared cognitive network extending three to four degrees of separation. Only big data allows us to measure this kind of effect, but my seat-of-the-pants intuition is that no one with any experience in a meatworld social network, such as a nuclear or extended family, needs science to tell us that others’ emotions impact our own. The nursery and classroom function this way, as do cliques, gangs, and other membership organizations. Indeed, poets, artists, and philosophers have long known that no man is an island and that the betweenness of things, their intersubjectivity (to use Husserl’s term), is where the action is. Science may now be demonstrating this intuition numerically, but I’m irritated that eggheads insist their measurements finally allow us to know what’s really truly true as though no poet ever expressed it before or better.

Curiously, this article in The Atlantic argues that the pursuit of happiness is not itself sufficient to provide meaning, the search for meaning in life being one of the great philosophical conundrums long before happiness as an objective emerged to replace it. (We can probably lay some blame on Thomas Jefferson’s famous phrase.) Yet a larger, unacknowledged postmodern project to demythologize the present, and for that matter, the past, renders its human subjects as kinetic and inert, mere objects of study. Similar misguided approaches, using measurement in the pursuit of truth that is already obvious and thus needs no rigorous explanation, include an article in Discover called “The Math Behind Beauty” and the entire field of aesthetics (sometimes called hermeneutics when applied specifically to textual interpretation). Further corollaries include monetization of everything (as when a famous painting is described to schoolchildren not in terms of its beauty or context within an artistic genre but by how much money it’s reputed to be worth) and the reduction to financial and polling terms the entirety of our social and political realms.

In high distinction to the level of a high school report at which PBS often works (in effect, patronizing its public), I also stumbled across (at the same trip to the library) a joint BBC/PBS dramatization of Christopher Reid’s narrative poem The Song of Lunch, starring Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman. I suspect the BBC’s hand in choosing and raising this material above the usual treacle found on PBS was significant. Rickman specializes in playing haughty creeps and criminals, and here his character is another misbehaving heel: a book editor meeting his long-lost love for lunch at a favorite Italian restaurant in London from back in the days of their involvement. Whereas Thompson’s character is given only sparing dialogue and is treated primarily as a suitable and handsomely appealing love object for a fading middle-aged man, Rickman’s character (neither character is given a screen name) is far more fully fleshed out in dialogue and especially inner monologue, the perspective from which Reid’s poem flows. This does not, in my opinion, give rise to an automatic feminist critique that the characters are treated unequally. While unequal characterization is true, if all narratives were forced to be evenhanded out of a misguided sense of gender balance, authors would be restricted to following the sorts of schema that so often make Hollywood films pointlessly formulaic.

No, the perspective is unapologetically that of the Rickman character. Reconciling the mismatch between the character’s failed aspirations as a poet/author and Reid’s clearly elevated poetic language is a bit problematic, since the two share the same voice for the purpose of the narrative. Maybe the discrepancy is that Reid is limited to describing lunch, handled with terrific aplomb, whereas his character admits to almost succeeding in resurrecting his beloved from the netherworld, an ambition of mythic proportion. Nonetheless, Reid’s language is pungent, rich in allusion and alliteration (as is my wont), and filled with wry and elegiac nostalgia, as well as present-day fidgeting, in-the-moment strategics, and unsettling self-knowledge. For example, when the character describes his visit to the men’s room as “that jabbing kidney reek that calls all men brothers,” it is clever yet déclassé, which is to say, paradoxical in the erudition of its expression of a universal, banal subject.

This paradox is part of what makes the character so immensely appealing, to me at least, though not in the sense of his being charming and admirable. After all, he gets drunk and passes out on the roof of the restaurant, leaving his lunch partner adrift at the table and sticking her with the bill in the process. Rather, he’s likeable because he’s knowable, and his failings remind us only too well of our own. Being stuck in repetitive emotional patterns, unable to extricate oneself even with the advantage of considerable insight, is humanizing, quite unlike the parade of superheros and he-men supercops and supervillains we get in cinema and narrative with whom we feel little or no affinity because they’re stock characters, fictional archetypes without real-life counterparts. We experience the luncheon from inside the character’s mind and easily adopt his speech and thoughts as our own, like the ongoing narrative self-talk we all use as the basis of modern consciousness.

What does this second review have to do with happiness? In truth, my juxtaposition is somewhat arbitrary. Neither DVD offers a template for happiness, but whereas the former is abstract and inactionable, the latter has the advantage of being more concrete and relatable despite its fictional source. The Rickman character may be unhappy, but we can readily understand why (boorishness, regret) and empathize with him. Above and beyond that, the heightened language is immensely rewarding to me, though I suspect a lot of it goes by too fast for many viewers and sounds as much like a foreign language, despite its being English, as does Shakespeare. Reid’s depiction is decidedly not abstract, though it sometimes lapses into figuration, so he gets at the issue of happiness (or from the negative side, unhappiness) through characterization. That, finally, is what raised my ire about This Emotional Life: it reduces real emotional life and the situations and characters from whence they arise to airless ciphers. It purports to understand emotion, but I contend it gets little of emotion except taking its measure.

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