Monday, February 8, 2016

Is Happiness Relative?

(Retrieved from Blogjob, where it was tagged with Deborah Tannen’s You Just Don’t Understandfeeling happy because others are worse offfeeling sad because others are worse offgender difference vs learned behavior pattern,Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eyeme me me me me.)

"Yuck! I hate those" (insert any overcooked or canned vegetable--most children prefer their vegetables raw or barely cooked).
"Look at these starving beggar children in" (insert a current disaster area; older baby boomers remember "Europe"; I remember "India"). "They'd be so glad to eat your cauliflower" (or whatever). "Think how much better off you are than they are. You should give thanks. You should be happy..."
I sometimes wonder how much of the unhappiness in North America stems from this bizarre belief that people "should" be happy. For one thing, why? For another thing, in order for "happy" to mean anything, it must mean "better than baseline," which means "a different way than I feel most of the time," which means that people might be quite contented with their lives and still feel that they were somehow failing to be "happy" enough.
But anyway, so far as I can determine, all Americans of the baby boom generation had the conversation above with at least one adult while we were children. As teenagers, many of us thought about it in greater depth.
Do I feel better...because someone else is even worse off than I am? I certainly do not. Usually I feel worse, because now in addition to thinking that canned cauliflower or some grown-up equivalent thereof is yucky, I also feel sorry for the starving children. In the case of somebody like Osama bin Laden, I might feel glad that he got what he deserved, but that wouldn't make the canned cauliflower taste any fresher.
I can understand a little better the feeling that "If other people can have or do something I want, I should be able to have or do it too." Not necessarily have it handed to me, but at least be able to get it. I read recently that some people feel unhappy because they imagine that people who publicize the details of their private lives on daily blog or social media posts are having more fun than they are. So, last week, I wrote this:

I was really surprised to receive a comment--I think it's even from a baby-boomer!--saying that "I read the poor whoa is me posts. As it helps me realize how lucky I am to have what I do. I reflect, am thankful and prayer for the blog I read."
I'd been thinking about this ever since the last time I logged into the late lamented Persona Paper, where I never posted much. I had an e-friend there who is absolutely not a wimpy, whiny person; she's a cancer survivor. But she had been posting updates and photos of her injured, swollen ankle.
It was an "Aha!" moment. I thought back to last summer, when I suddenly had tons of online time because boring little injuries kept me from walking to and from Grandma Bonnie Peters' house, as planned, and a boring little infection kept her from driving me to and from her house, per Plan B. I was prowling around hack writing sites, looking for things to write about, eighteen hours a day, unable to think of anything to post on a site like Persona Paper.
And it hit me: I could have posted all about our tedious little infirmities. In detail. People would have empathized; Persona Paper was that kind of site. What some might have called a more "feminine/emotional" kind of site, as distinct from the more "masculine/cerebral" kind...but I'm not sure about the gender labels.
About 25 years ago Deborah Tannen became rich and famous by writing scholarly studies of how some women bond by talking out their dissatisfactions with things they either can't change, or don't want to change, for hours. Naturally some women readers disagreed. My observation was and is that Tannen seemed to have studied only yuppie women, and that rich women, very poor women, creative women, successful women entrepreneurs, and women landowners don't have the social behavior pattern Tannen documented. In other words, whining is not a biological function; it's a learned behavior that fits into a sex role in some social groups. And, guess what, those don't happen to be the social groups where I've spent much time...and ain't I a woman.
Margaret Atwood had already become rich and famous by writing, among many other things, a novel about how creative women relate to the women who whine. If you've not read it yet, you should; go ahead, click the picture, and buy it.
Apparently some of the women who aren't really happy with their own lives do feel better about the idea that others may be less happy than they are. How does one feel, I ask "one" because I suspect different people feel differently, about the idea that someone else may be trying to feel better by comparison to one?
It seems sad, to me, if not ghoulish. I do understand that many writers enjoy writing about mild, ambivalent feelings, the "I love my children but oh what a day this has been" type of thing. I also completely sympathize with the bloggers who post the "Please XQse typos & short post from a hospital bed" type of thing; when I have some sort of illness or injury for which time is the best cure, I like distractions that help pass that time, too.
When people are really suffering, I tend to feel that, if I can't help them, at least I don't have to watch them.
I dislike the idea that anybody might be reading anything I write in order to feel better about their lives because they're better off than I am. Mind you, they probably are, financially if in no other way.
(Obligatory fundraising link, although, if you use Paypal, you may simply click on the Paypal button in the sidebar on the left side of the screen here:
Once this project gets funded, I expect to be able to post nice, informative posts, that reflect ordinary levels of emotional ambivalence, in a lighthearted if not funny way, and will be safe for those who live in their emotional feelings to read.)
But I'd like to post a "writing challenge" for everyone out there who feels like +Sandy KS : If you really feel discouraged by your own life, then, instead of giving thanks that you're not penniless like me or blind like this other blogger or wheelchair-bound like that other blogger, please write something about something new you've learned--about something other than yourself and your life.
It doesn't need to be "academic." Write about the history of a sports team or a pop band or a breed of dog. (I'm sure Blogjobbers have noticed that that's what sponsors call "rich content," and what they want to see more of. That dynamic can't hurt anything.)
I promise you (youall): The mere fact that you're not thinking about whatever's wrong in your life, but learning and teaching others about something outside of your life, will help you feel better. And it won't even be at your friends' expense.