Existential Roundup

Happy child 2 - Existential Roundup

Welcome to the Existential Roundup, where we bring you links to some articles currently trending that may be of interest to those in the existential-humanistic psychology community.

This column has spent several weeks focusing on some of the darkness in the world, but as existentialists, we appreciate that life has both darkness and light. So it’s time for a little happiness.

One of my favorite books growing up was a Peanuts book—Happiness Is a Warm Puppy. The book included pages and pages of “Happiness Is” statements. Since I spent so much of my childhood (and adulthood) exploring the dark side, I loved those little reminders that were so far removed from my way of thinking. And that is one of the reasons that this article in The New York Times jumped out at me—“Happiness and its Discontents.” I could have it all! Maybe. Happiness Is Reading About the Philosophy of Happiness? The author, Daniel M. Haybron, starts with the premise that years of happiness research works from the idea that happiness and life satisfaction is a judgment one makes about one’s life. However, he has come to believe that this is wrong. It doesn’t explain, he says, the number of people who are happy but impoverished and living in harsh environments, such as those surveyed in the slums of Calcutta or in revolution-torn Egypt. Haybron speaks about how many of our previous definitions of happiness—as a feeling, as hedonism—only get at parts of happiness possibly because our language is deficient. Perhaps more accurate, he says, are words that get at the sense of true self-fulfillment—such as psychic flourishing—where we are not just feeling good from having eaten a cupcake, but we feel the happiness bubbling in our souls.

Not that I am attacking sugar-based happiness. Happiness Is a Sugar-Based Treat? Even The Atlantic wants us to examine the question of whether we should be casting sugar as the Devil despite the joy it provides (the definition of devilish? Or just Devil’s Food cake?) in an article entitled “Being Happy with Sugar.” While this article focuses primarily on the metabolics of different kinds of sugars rather than on the psychology, what is important here is the meta-narrative. Use agave, that will make you healthier and happier. Don’t use agave, that will make you healthier and happier. Corn syrup is the enemy and it has always been the enemy. Fructose is our friend. Fructose is the enemy and has always been the enemy. Corn syrup is our friend. Anyone feeling ready to party like it’s 1984?

Our relationship to food is important to psychology—just like our relationships to people and to the rest of our world. Being-in-the-World encompasses things as well as people, and as anyone who works with people with eating disorders knows, our relationship to food can be our most dysfunctional relationship of all. So, can we find happiness through forbidden foods? The New York Times reports about “The Lure of Forbidden Foods,” where researchers at Penn State University offered children a cinnamon graham cracker for clicking a computer mouse. And even though the number of times they had to click the mouse kept doubling, from four to eight to 16 to 32 and so on, requiring progressively more effort, some children clicked 2,000 times for the sake of a cinnamon graham cracker. Further experiments showed that children were—predictably—far more interested in foods placed off limits than in foods they were allowed to eat freely, even if they were the same types of foods. Happiness Is the Secret Stash of Haagen-Dazs?

Maybe, as Haybron suggests above, happiness is not just a feeling in the body but in the body-mind. Capitalizing on the desire for happiness in today’s society, appmakers have developed a whole series of meditation and mindfulness apps for iPhone and Android designed to bring users peace and serenity on the go—wherever they are with their phones. As The New York Times reports, these apps promise users reduced stress and improved coping skills, although experts in the field say there is really no way to tell how effective these apps really are. What research there has been, the article reports, has occurred in small, poorly controlled trials. The experts, however, recommend that people learn meditation with an experienced teacher before using the apps. Then, they say, the apps can provide powerful assistance in maintaining a practice. Happiness Is a Serenity-Inducing iPhone App?

If you aren’t happy yet, maybe you just need to go with the flow. Time Magazine tells us that what existential-humanistic thinkers from James to Maslow to the creativity people already know—the flow state is real, and now brain science has caught up. Time reports that neuroscience research in the last 10 years has confirmed this state of “transient hypofrontiality”—what Maslow called “peak peformances and Csikszentmihalyi called “flow”—where activities in the decision-making prefrontal cortex are slowed in favor of amping up more unconscious processes, where the brain produces more alpha and theta waves. Happiness Is a Runner’s High? Even if you don’t run?

For me, sometimes happiness, out of the depth of the doldrums, can only be achieved by one of two things—going upside down (see The Wall Street Journal) or music. Here’s one of the happiest, non-Pharell songs I know. Happiness Is R.E.M.’s “Shiny Happy People,” a song Michael Stipe once said was one of the stupidest songs he ever wrote.

Thanks to Erica Stanton for her research assistance.

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